Experience Mozart’s Music with the ESO

As it celebrates its 70th season, the ESO turns to the classics of Mozart in its upcoming performance. True to ESO’s mantra, this concert is sure to grab your attention, even if you’ve never been to a classical music concert, you’ll be able to recognize Mozart’s work.

The Elgin Symphony Orchestra performs some of Mozart’s masterpieces on Jan. 10 at Prairie Center for the Arts, in Schaumburg, and Jan. 11-12 at Hemmens Cultural Center, in Elgin. (Elgin Symphony photo)

As it celebrates its 70th anniversary season, the Elgin Symphony Orchestra (ESO) is marking the occasion with a weekend of concerts dedicated to the genius of Mozart.

Classical music enthusiasts likely need little persuasion to attend one of three performances that include Mozart’s Symphony 40 – known for its recognizable opening melodies – as well as an intimate piece written by Mozart for close friends.

But Ashley Schoen, senior director of marketing for the ESO, says she’s also excited to welcome those who haven’t been to a classical performance before, and she wants them to think of this performance as “symphony reimagined.”

“We’re not reimagining the music – it’s still the top classics of the past – but we’re wanting people to realize this music, back in Mozart’s time, wasn’t classical music; it was contemporary music,” she says. “He was going against the grain; he was making new music. And a lot of today’s music is inspired by it.”

If you’ve never attended a classical music concert or even listened to the genre, when you hear a bit of Mozart playing, you’ll still recognize the tune, Schoen says. That’s the extent to which Mozart has infiltrated popular music through the ages.

With that in mind, anyone can enjoy a Mozart performance, and people shouldn’t let any stigmas keep them from attending, Schoen continues.

“We want to break down the barriers that normally exist between an orchestra and the general public,” she says. “You don’t have to wear a suit and tie or a fancy ball gown. Classical music is an international language because there are no words. No matter what language you speak, what your demographics are, whatever age you are, everyone can enjoy this.

“We don’t want you to worry about, ‘When should I clap?’” she adds. “If you liked a certain movement, clap. Our musicians love it. We want people to experience this music, and we want them to experience it their own way.”

Adds Andrew Grams, music director of the ESO since 2013: “My mother likes to say this experience in Elgin is, ‘You come as you are, and you leave forever changed. The important thing is everybody feels comfortable to come.”

Johannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart – who often went by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – is one of classical music’s elite composers. Born in 1756 in Salzburg, Austria, he lived just 35 years but produced more than 600 works.

“He’s one of the top guys,” Schoen says. “He’s also great for someone who has never experienced classical music, because Mozart is so well known.”

The performance, which will run less than two hours, opens with Piano Concerto No. 23, a piece Mozart saved for himself and a small circle of listeners.

The concert ends with Symphony No. 40, which has one of the most recognizable sounds in all of music.

“The concerto is very sunny, lovely and charming – life seems to be pretty happy,” says Grams. “The symphony is dark and stormy, and there’s a lot of tension and grit in it. So, the music is something everyone can relate to.

“Mozart has music of great depth and beauty,” continues Grams. “He was able to express a lot of what it means to be human in good times and bad, and he did so in a way that was so good we still play his music hundreds of years later.”

In between Mozart’s two pieces, the ESO will perform “The Ancient Airs and Dances, Suite No. 1,” by Ottorino Respighi.

The music is not necessarily Respighi, says Grams. The Italian composer was a musical anthologist who had an affinity for medieval music. He compiled local aria dances and songs and arranged it for modern symphony orchestra.

“Here, we have the universality of music, especially folk music, being expressed through the medium of symphony orchestra,” says Grams.

If you attend the Saturday evening performance, feel free to stick around afterward and attend a casual Mingle with the Musicians event. Located inside the Hemmens lobby or a local restaurant, it’s a great way to speak with the musicians and other ESO supporters and enjoy a few free appetizers as well.

If you’re inclined to learn more about Mozart, consider attending a free Listeners Club lecture/discussion before the concert. Led by music lecturer, composer and radio personality Jim Kendros, Listeners Club sessions last anywhere from one to two hours and usually include a surprise visit from someone related to the upcoming performance.

Andrew Grams is a young, well-known conductor who has led countless national and international orchestras, including the Montreal Symphony, the Vancouver Symphony, the BBC Symphony Orchestra London and more, plus two of the world’s best: the Cleveland Orchestra and Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

But the ESO is his home orchestra.

His style fits well with the message the ESO tries to project: anyone and everyone is welcome.

“He’s very laid back,” says Schoen. “He doesn’t wear fancy suits. He’s very theatrical, not stiff; he’s very active. That goes to show how our orchestra is. We’re all about enjoying the music and feeling the music.”

The 42-year-old Maryland native started conducting at the age of 17, received a bachelor’s degree in violin performance at The Juilliard School and earned a conducting degree from the Curtis Institute of Music.

Unique to this “Magnificent Mozart” performance, Grams, an accomplished violinist, will sit with the orchestra in the first chair and conduct from there.

“It stems from the fact that I, as a conductor, do not actually make sound,” says Grams. “I wave my arms and the musicians, with their instruments, make the sound. What I, as a conductor, miss is feeling the vibration of an instrument on my body. I miss the actual vibrations of the air that are created by an instrument producing sound.”

Additionally, pianist William Wolfram will join ESO as they perform Mozart’s work.

“Those are two dynamic soloists,” Schoen says. “Andrew Grams is an amazing conductor, but to have the opportunity to see him play violin is something you won’t be able to see at any other concert this season.”

And Grams is an award-winner, too, having been named Conductor of the Year by the Illinois Council of Orchestras in 2015.

“We are a local symphony with international and national talent,” Schoen says. “We are a professional symphony. We are the Elgin Symphony Orchestra, but we are not what some people consider ‘community symphony.’ All of our musicians have other jobs – teaching, or maybe performing for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, in Cleveland, for the Lyric Opera of Chicago. Our musicians are on those levels. You’ll be experiencing a professional orchestra at a fraction of the cost. You don’t have to pay for parking or take a full day. That’s one of the wonderful things about having this orchestra in Elgin. You can get the big-city entertainment level – we’re orchestra of the year – right here.”

Performances take place at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, Jan. 10 at Prairie Center for the Arts, 201 Schaumburg Ct., in Schaumburg, and at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 11 and 2:30 p.m. on Sunday, Jan. 12 at Hemmens Cultural Center, 45 Symphony Way, in Elgin.

Tickets cost $35 to $85. Discounts are available for those who become an ESO subscriber and purchase three or more concert tickets in the current season (which runs through May). Group discounts for 10 or more patrons also are available. Learn more at elginsymphony.org.

Upcoming Performances

Abbey Road: The Beatles
Jan. 25, 7:30 p.m.
The ESO – alongside rock vocalist group Jeans ‘n Classics – performs the entire best-selling Beatles album.

The Power of Fate: Verdi, Strauss and Wagner
Feb. 8-9, Sat. 7:30 p.m., Sun. 2:30 p.m.
This intense performance reflects themes of love, revenge and war.

March 7, 7:30 p.m.
The symphony’s history-making first mariachi concert will be in collaboration with Mariachi Acero from Las Vegas.

Debussy and Brahms
April 4-5, Sat. 7:30 p.m., Sun. 2:30 p.m.
This romantic and sexy concert will “light the fires of love.”

Season Finale: The Planets
May 2-3, Sat. 7:30 p.m., Sun. 2:30 p.m.
The symphony will be joined by Music Director Andrew Grams and the Elgin Master Chorale for a celestial finale.