Lakeview Orchestra shines in colorful “French Connections” 

Mon Oct 16, 2023 at 11:24 am

By Katherine Buzard

Gregory Hughes conducted the Lakeview Orchestra in music of Ravel, Copland and Stravinsky Sunday at the Athenaeum Center. File photo: Elliot Mandel

The Lakeview Orchestra once again distinguished itself as Chicago’s premiere non-professional orchestra in its season opener Sunday afternoon at the Athenaeum Center. The program, titled “French Connections,” featured the rarely performed chamber version of Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring, alongside Stravinsky’s Petrushka and Ravel’s ever-popular Boléro

Though audiences will be more familiar with the version for full orchestra, Copland’s Appalachian Spring ballet debuted in 1944 with an ensemble of just thirteen instruments (nine strings, flute, clarinet, bassoon, and piano). This pared-down scoring better reflects the quiet domesticity of the newlywed farmers at the center of the ballet.

Under the leadership of artistic director Gregory Hughes, the Lakeview Orchestra gave a sensitive rendition of Copland’s populist work. Hughes’s precise conducting saw the ensemble through the work’s trickier rhythms and meter changes. However, this devotion to a clear beat left relatively little room for expression and expansiveness. While Copland’s music often conjures images of vast American landscapes, the somewhat staid interpretation coupled with the diminished forces of the chamber version left one missing the massed unison strings, especially in the climax of the “Simple Gifts”section.

This Appalachian Spring did highlight the excellent playing of clarinetist Richad Zili and flutist Allie Deaver-Petchenik, who acquitted themselves admirably throughout in their numerous solos. Zili’s opening statement of the Shaker hymn “Simple Gifts” was especially touching, and Deaver-Petchenik’s clarion tone soared over the texture. 

After a slightly untidy start, the string section eventually gelled. Though the limited numbers could not achieve the richness of sound one is used to hearing in this music, their muted playing in the slow sixth movement was highly affecting and a standout moment of the entire program.

After the intimacy of the Copland, it was thrilling to hear the full forces of the Lakeview Orchestra in Stravinsky’s Petrushka, a work of multitudinous colors and textures. Hughes holds the group to a very high standard, and their hard work was justly rewarded in this intricate piece. Like in Appalachian Spring, Hughes’s clear-cut direction kept the orchestra together through the parade of tempo changes, contrasting vignettes, and overlapping keys and meters Stravinsky throws the players’ way. 

The woodwind section stood out from the beginning for their tight ensemble and expertly performed solos, vividly capturing the energy of the bustling marketplace in the opening section. Pianist Ethan Valentin, a guest brought in for this concert, also impressed with virtuosic playing throughout, especially in the boisterous Russian Dance and the following delicate duet with the flute.

After the maximalism of Stravinsky’s ballet came the hypnotic repetitiveness of Ravel’s Boléro. Luke Smith’s thorough program notes suggested that the repetition that characterizes Boléro may have been the result of a neurological condition afflicting Ravel (likely a form of dementia). As such, the uniform melody and the constant rhythm of the snare drum might have been a kind of musical catharsis for the aging composer.

Though Bolero’s repetitions can verge on boring, Hughes kept the tempo on the front foot so no one could get lulled into complacency. However, this forward movement sometimes constricted the soloists’ space for expression. Overall, the dynamic buildup was well paced, and by further ratcheting up the tempo when the first violins finally took over the melody, Hughes propelled the piece to its raucous conclusion. 

The Lakeview Orchestra performs works by Coleridge-Taylor, Glazunov, and Tchaikovsky with guest conductor Ezra Calvino December 3.

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