Orchestra Hall!

Heartland Festival Orchestra

Orchestra Hall, Chicago

On Monday the 16th of May the HFO and I had the pleasure and honor of making our Chicago debut in Orchestra Hall, home of the Chicago Symphony and a space rich in musical history and tradition.  I was in the hall and on the stage in advance of the musicians, preoccupied with stage management questions (Who would sit where for which works on the program?) when the musicians appeared.  The buses were early, and suddenly I could see them standing at the rear stage wall, waiting for the OK to come on stage – they were ready now!

The excellent Orchestra Hall stagehands, in addition to having consummate professional command of their space, are also blessedly flexible and helpful in attitude … and said, yes, the players could come on.  It was a pleasure to see my HFO family take the stage, and watch them begin to get acquainted with it.

The space gives to the players warmly.  Each musician has a good, real sense of his or her own sound, while able to hear everyone else.  It makes a huge difference in an orchestra, this important balance between hearing oneself and hearing the ensemble.  Beyond hitting this balance, Orchestra Hall adds a lovely nimbus to the collective sound.  It gave us our own warmth of sound right back, beautifully.

And so we began our Beethoven First Symphony rehearsal, making friends with the space while we re-focused our Beethoven.  Just a few words from me in advance of each movement, in some cases changing details from our last performance, and we ran it. The musicians were, typically, totally prepared.  In a few cases individuals asked questions about specific spots, helping to clarify my intentions to everyone.  It was what I treasure in my relationship to the musicians of the HFO – a collaboration in pursuit of excellence.  This is orchestral chamber music — chamber orchestra!

Later in the afternoon I had a new experience – hearing the HFO from the hall, not from the podium.  Simon Carrington (founder of The King’s Singers and an eminent conductor and musician) rehearsed them in the Faure Requiem – and I was struck by the beauty of their sound and clarity of execution.  The violas shone in their rare ‘top voice’ role in this work, the cello section was crystal, horns, trumpets, bassoons, basses, and timpani dead on.  Sarah Gentry’s violin solo was angelically pure in intonation, and Julia Jamieson’s harp perfect and beautiful.

A scant two hours later we were in performance.  The intensity of the musicians’ looks made clear – they were determined, excited, and a bit nervous.  My role, both for them and for me, was to remain in the Beethoven, in the instant – not conducting in order to avoid mishap, but re-imagining and re-creating this music as it developed, just as Beethoven conceived.  Energy, character, imagination, spontaneity, and invention — all are needed in a fine performance, and that is what the musicians and I gave each other and shared with the audience.  Audience members and musicians alike have been writing in to express glowing reviews of the performance. One musician noted, “we were so focused together on our performance that it wasn’t until near the end of the Beethoven that I realized Maestro Commanday was conducting without a score.  On purpose, of course.”

The Heartland Festival Orchestra musicians played at their absolute best; it was beautiful, and it was alive.  What a pleasure, and what a privilege, to be at the helm of such an ensemble.  Simon Carrington and the other musicians in the hall were lavish in their praise.  The producers said to the musicians while onstage, “Peoria is lucky to have such an orchestra.  When are you going to play in New York?”

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