Elgin Symphony Returns to the Stage

Things may look a little different this fall, as Elgin Symphony Orchestra returns to public venues, but it’s also a season filled with promise and opportunity. Here’s a peek at what awaits.

Responding to ever-changing expectations for live music, Andrew Grams and the Elgin Symphony Orchestra are experimenting with new ideas this fall. (James Harvey photo)

The auditorium at Elgin’s Hemmens Cultural Center has been unusually quiet these past few months, but the musicians of Elgin Symphony Orchestra (ESO) have been unusually active, even as audiences remain at a distance.

This spring, the talented players of ESO produced their own living room concerts and shared their stories of what happens behind the scenes.

Come summer, music director Andrew Grams and other orchestra members hosted Listeners Club events online, as they dived into classical music and life in an orchestra.

Now, at long last, it’s time to return to the stage, and while things will look a little different this fall, the new season promises the same combination of high-quality music and cultural enlightenment that have been a hallmark in ESO’s 70 years.

The new season debuts Sept. 11-12 with a slight departure from the original plan, which included a full celebration of Beethoven’s 250th birthday and a playing of his Ninth Symphony.

Instead, ESO heads to Goebbert’s Pumpkin Patch and Apple Orchard, in Pingree Grove, where a limited orchestra will play to a limited audience inside the orchard’s new, 10,000-square-foot wedding tent.

“We’re going to have no more than 100 people in the audience and an orchestra of no more than 30,” says Erik Malmquist, executive director of ESO. “It’s going to be a very gala-like feeling there, and it’s going to be a program that’s not longer than 60 minutes.”

The evening will bring a new lineup of music, with special attention to George Walker’s “Lyric for Strings” and Haydn’s “Symphony No. 60.” Virtuoso violinist Philippe Quint, from Chicago, will also make an appearance.

“It’s going to be the first time in my memory that we’ll be playing west of Elgin,” says Malmquist.

The following night, Sept. 12, ESO takes the same repertoire to downtown Elgin and The Haight, a new wedding venue with a rooftop lounge designed for live music and social gatherings. Located just a block from the Hemmens, The Haight affords sweeping views of downtown Elgin and the Fox River.

Masks and social distancing will be required, and hand sanitizer will be available through the night. Still, not everyone is ready to visit the symphony in person, so ESO is providing digital tickets at a reduced rate. While the event won’t be live-streamed, a link to the video will be available shortly after the event, Malmquist says.

Special events for October and November are still in the works, says Malmquist, and they, too, will look a little different from a typical performance.

In November, for example, Elgin poet laureate Chasity Gunn is has agreed to join principal cellist Matt Agnew for a unique collaboration of music and spoken word poetry. Gunn will close the night with original poetry performed between each movement of Dvorak’s “American Quartet.”

“We’re in a rare position this year to take on a social advocacy mission,” says Malmquist. “Normally, planning two years in advance, we’re not able to respond to cultural events in a meaningful way.”

For now, at least, the plan is to return to the Hemmens on Jan. 9, with a performance of Brahms and Sibelius. Also on tap is a reprisal of last year’s Mariachi concert on Jan. 16-17 and additional looks at Beethoven in March and April.

Canadian rockers Jeans ‘n Classics return to Elgin with their unique blend of rock and symphonic music, as they share authentically re-created hits by Elton John and Billy Joel on Jan. 22-23. A program of Broadway classics sets the mood for Valentine’s Day, Feb. 13-14.

“There is a possibility some of the concerts we had scheduled for the fall will make an appearance in the spring or next season,” adds marketing director Ashley Schoen.

“We’re still working on our plans.”

Amidst all of the unpredictability this season, ESO is also preparing for the departure of Grams, who’s served with the orchestra for seven years. He plans to leave next summer to pursue new adventures in conducting and music education.

“It hurts us to see him leave, but at the same time, we’re super proud, because we love Andrew,” says Schoen. “We hate to lose him, but we understand that he’s grown so much in the eight seasons he will have been with us. He’s become very popular, and different orchestras around the world now want him to come and guest conduct.”

Grams’ final performances with ESO, scheduled for May 1-2, explore Richard Strauss’ virtuosic “Don Juan” and “Don Quixote.” Both pieces bring out the deep technical skills of the orchestra.

The past few months have been especially challenging for arts organizations across our region because they survive on a combination of ticket revenue, private donations and sponsorships. ESO is counting on the generosity of others to help pay the bills and continue funding events during an unpredictable time.

“A lot of people don’t realize a lot of money is spent before a concert even happens,” says Schoen. “Before the first note is played, a lot of money has been spent to make that happen.”

The pinch is especially painful after ESO canceled its final two concerts this spring and rearranged its schedule this fall.

Schoen encourages fans of classical music to subscribe for the season, purchase tickets for upcoming events or make donations to help keep the orchestra afloat. Visit ElginSymphony.org to buy tickets and make a donation.
In an age when music and entertainment are so easily streamed into our lives, there’s something special about connecting with the arts in person, rather than on a screen – especially classical music, which involves a careful choreography among dozens of performers.

“Everything is kind of sterilized by the screen,” says Malmquist. “We’re so lucky to have technology that’s come as far as it has so we can engage with the arts during this time, but there’s something so magical about watching 75 people moving in perfect unison.”

It’s not just watching the players, but immersing yourself in the experience. Ultimately, there’s a deeper connection to the music – a connection that has transcended generations.

“Everyone can have their own, individual reactions to it,” says Schoen. “But when you’re in a concert hall and the music consumes you, it’s much different than sitting in your living room while a child is chasing you around. There’s this sense of community, and the experience is much more elevated than when you’re sitting in your pajamas.”

The future may appear uncertain in the wake of COVID-19, but ESO remains committed to building connections with symphonic music, no matter what form it takes. To make a donation or purchase a subscription, visit ElginSymphony.org.

“Classical music is an international language,” says Schoen. “I think this time has shown us how much music brings people together. Look at all these musicians doing concerts in their living rooms, and people everywhere in the world are watching them. Music is a very powerful tool in building community, and classical music is an important part.”