ESO Bids Farewell to Andrew Grams

Amidst a most unusual year, ESO’s musical director and conductor plans to step down this summer and pursue new opportunities. We caught up with him for a final look at how he’s grown over the years and where he hopes to grow from here.

Andrew Grams, Elgin Symphony Orchestra’s musical director and conductor, plans to depart this summer for new opportunities.
(ESO photo)

After leading the Elgin Symphony Orchestra (ESO) for nearly eight seasons, Musical Director and Conductor Andrew Grams is stepping down this coming summer.

The Maryland native joined the ESO in 2013 after a two-year search that included more than 200 national and international candidates.

During his time with the ESO, Grams has led the orchestra through a wide range of performances, from traditional masterpieces to holiday concerts and everything in between.

When he wasn’t gracing the ESO stage, Grams also kept busy with other engagements. He’s been guest conducting with orchestras around the world, including the Orchestre National de France, Orchester der Beethovenhalle Bonn and the Philadelphia, Houston and Chicago Symphony orchestras, among others.

His intensity, energy and passion, which made him beloved in the Chicago area, leave much for his replacement to live up to.

Before he joins the ESO’s final appearances this spring, Grams sat down to discuss how he’s grown over the years and what lies ahead in his musical journey.

You’ve had a tremendous run over the past eight years. What led you to step down as musical director of the ESO?

This is my eighth season with the ESO, and that’s a significant amount of time to spend with a group of people. It also feels like the right time to step aside and let someone new take over. I’ve had enough time to put my own personal stamp on the orchestra, and you don’t want to overstay your welcome as the musical leader. It just felt like it was time to step aside and let someone else with different musical ideas come along and put their stamp on the orchestra. So, it just felt like the right time.

Obviously, the future is hard to predict right now, but are you and the orchestra planning anything special for your farewell?

Because of COVID-19, we haven’t been able to perform, just like everyone else. We were fortunate enough to get a small chamber orchestra together for a couple of short concerts back in September. We’re planning on getting back together in May, July and August for three shortened programs – God willing. We’re in the process of planning that right now.

Everyone’s plans have been scrapped because of COVID-19, and new plans have been put into place just to keep things going. The idea is we’ll be able to perform outdoors so everyone can feel safe and we can keep a distance between people. Those plans are still in the works.

How have you continued to grow during your time at ESO?

Ideally speaking, one is always growing regardless of one’s situation. But, being a music director for multiple years with the same group of people allows you to grow your relationships in a deeper fashion. When you spend time with the same group of people, whether it’s in an office, a sports team, a band or an orchestra, your relationships deepen and you get to know people in a way that you wouldn’t know them if you’d only met them once or twice.

Being musicians, getting together and working on different pieces of music that express the gamut of human feeling, you get a deeper connection to all the musicians that you’re working with on these particular pieces of music. It gives you the opportunity to understand who those people are and who those musicians are as individuals in a very, very deep way. That also helps your ability to connect with the music and all of its expressions of the human condition in a deeper way because you yourself, as a human being, have gotten deeper into yourself and what it means to be human.

What have ESO and Elgin taught you about yourself?

They’ve taught me that anyone can have family anywhere, if they’re to willing to invest in the people who make up that community. I’m leaving the role of music director, but I don’t plan on leaving the Elgin community. All of the people I’ve developed these relations with, I still feel close to them, even though I won’t be in that official position. I’ll still feel attached to them all. I don’t see those relationships just disappearing because I stopped being their music director.

What was the highlight of your time in Elgin?

That’s very difficult to answer because I don’t think I can choose just one. My first concert with ESO was very meaningful. When we had economic difficulties some years ago, those were meaningful times. Being able to get some of us together this past September, in the midst of COVID-19, felt extremely meaningful because we were able to get together and play. That was extremely meaningful for everyone who participated. There are just too many great highlights, and it’s very difficult to choose between one and the other.

So, what’s next for you?

That’s an excellent question because in this industry, there are still many questions about what’s going to be possible. I think everyone is waiting to see how the next months go with the vaccine. People are waiting to see what the public will want to attend, how long an event people will want to attend, and whether or not things will go back to where they were pre-COVID-19. Right now, everyone is waiting because if you’re a musician, you can’t get together with anyone or play for anyone. So, we’re absolutely in a holding pattern. What happens next is a mystery.

No one can definitively say what everything is going to look like post-COVID-19. A holding pattern is a great way of describing where everyone is right now. It’s a holding pattern from a financial point of view. Everyone who’s a performing artist is like an airplane in a holding pattern and running out of fuel. A lot of preforming artists are running out of money, because they can’t perform and they can’t work.

How have the ESO and the community helped prepare you for whatever the next chapter is in your career?

I would say they’ve allowed me to not only grow as a musician, but as a human being. I was in my mid-30s when I started working here and now, I’m heading into my mid-40s. A lot has changed for me just as a person, and I feel very honored to have gone though this period of development with such fine human beings as well as such fine musicians. I feel very lucky to be able to call of these people my friends.