While Chicago's suburban orchestras continue their eternal quest for newer and younger audiences to replace a graying demographic, the fact remains that those orchestras are enjoying an artistic boom.
The talent pool of freelance players on which these orchestras draw is among the largest of any metropolitan area in the country. This deep bench has enabled music directors to program important repertory (such as the Hans Rott Symphony in E whose area premiere the Northbrook Symphony gave last week under Lawrence Rapchak) and prepare that repertory to a quality level comparable with the music-making to be heard in downtown Chicago.
The Lake Forest ensemble has identified five candidates to succeed its longtime music director, Alan Heatherington, and auditioned the first of them, the highly regarded Vladimir Kulenovic, 2012 winner of the Solti Foundation's 2012 Career Assistance Award, at its season-opening concerts last month.
And the dynamic young Austrian conductor David Danzmayr has settled in nicely at the helm of the Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra and will launch his second season as music director Oct. 19 in south suburban Frankfort.
At present, however, all ears are on the Elgin Symphony, which will begin its season this weekend with the first concerts under its new music director, the rising young American conductor Andrew Grams.
The appointment of the 36-year-old Baltimore native, announced in June, capped off a two-year international search during which 13 finalists led one or more concert weeks with the orchestra. His three-year contract took effect on July 1. Grams is the fourth music director in the orchestra's 63-year history, succeeding Robert Hanson, who served 28 years in the post until he resigned in 2011 over artistic differences with the board and staff.
It augurs well for Grams' and the orchestra's joint future that he was the unanimous choice of the musicians, whom he led for the first time in 2009. The ESO will be the first major post for the upwardly mobile maestro since 2007, when he stepped down as assistant conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra.
In a phone interview from his home in Solon, a suburb of Cleveland, Grams sounded thrilled to be working with the Elgin musicians, staff, board and audience.
"When I returned to lead the orchestra in May, everything just fell into place," Grams said. "The Elgin Symphony was the first place I have ever come across in my wanderings where everything clicked and I felt I could step right in, do good work and connect with all constituencies.
"Everybody I have met so far – from the musicians, to the board and staff and the community itself – has been so supportive of the orchestra" – firmly committed to "nurturing the desire for music in Elgin."
For Grams, actively engaging with audience members is a central part of the nurturing process. It's something the articulate maestro did on a regular basis during his time as resident conductor of the Florida Orchestra, and he promises to be just as hands-on in Elgin.
"One thing I would like to do, but very gradually, is to show people how you can go from Beethoven to Brahms to Mahler, and from Mahler to Schoenberg and Berg," said Grams, who will conduct Mahler's First Symphony on the ESO's weekend concerts at the Hemmens Cultural Center.
"Along with taking musical execution to ever greater levels, one of my goals is a multi-year exploration of musical connections, done in a safe, comfortable environment.
"The toughest thing," he added, "is fitting it all into just a handful of programs each season."
Grams was bitten by the conducting bug as early as 17, but it wasn't until after he received a bachelor's degree in music from New York's Juilliard School, where he studied violin, and a degree in conducting from the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, that he was able to put his talents and passion for the baton into actual practice out in the music world.
Among the orchestras he has directed here and abroad are the Philadelphia Orchestra, Washington National Symphony, the BBC and Santa Cecilia orchestras, and France's Orchestre National de Lyon. This season will bring debuts with the Oregon Symphony, Hong Kong Philharmonic and the Oviedo Filarmonia in Spain, along with return engagements with the Baltimore Symphony and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra.
Fondly recalling the years in which he studied conducting with master pedagogue Otto-Werner Mueller during the day at Curtis before hopping a commuter train from Philadelphia to New York to play violin with the New York City Ballet Orchestra at night, Grams said he still keeps his hand in the fiddle, "mostly for my personal enjoyment" and mainly "to keep me grounded in what I'm asking my orchestra musicians to do.
"Having that tactile reference point is very important to me. My conducting teacher always liked to say the role of a conductor is both that of a football coach on the sidelines and the quarterback on the field. You have to be able to start the play but you also have to be able to see the overview of what everybody else is doing, so you can help them make the plays successful."
So let the symphonic games begin.
Andrew Grams will direct works by Gershwin and Mahler as the season-opening Classic Series concerts with the Elgin Symphony Orchestra, 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday at Hemmens Cultural Center, 45 Symphony Way, Elgin. Terrence Wilson will be the piano soloist. Tickets start at $25; 847-888-4000, elginsymphony.org.
Met 'Live in HD' broadcasts begin
The Metropolitan Opera's season of live transmissions to movie theaters throughout the nation begins this weekend with a new production of Tchaikovsky's "Eugene Onegin." Anna Netrebko, Mariusz Kwiecien and Piotr Beczala will sing the leading roles, with Valery Gergiev conducting. The broadcast will begin at 11:55 a.m. (Central Time) on Saturday. An encore presentation will play in select theaters at 6:30 p.m. Oct. 9. For series information, visit fathomevents.com or metoperafamily.org/hdlive.
U-M to publish Gershwin edition
The University of Michigan has reached a landmark agreement with the estates of George and Ira Gershwin to publish a first-ever critical edition of the brothers' complete works. The project will mark the first time so extensive a scholarly effort has been made to yield performance material true to the composer's and lyricist's intentions.
The edition is expected to consist of anywhere from 35 to 45 volumes, to be made available in book and digital formats. The agreement will give the university open access to all the Gershwin archives on file at the Library of Congress. The Gershwin Initiative, as it's called, will be based at the U-M School of Music, Theatre & Dance, one of the most prominent American music research programs in the nation. The project could take up to 40 years to complete, according to Christopher Kendall, the school's dean.