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Elgin Symphony releases its first recording
By Bill Gowen | Classical music critic
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Published: 5/23/2008 12:13 AM

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Already the fastest-growing regional orchestra in the United States, the Elgin Symphony Orchestra will make a quantum leap Tuesday with the release of its first commercially recorded compact disc.

And it's for none other than Naxos, which, since its founding in 1987, has become the world's best-selling classical music label. The ESO's disc, part of Naxos' critically acclaimed "American Classics" series, contains music by Aaron Copland (1900-90).

The music on the disc was heard at the ESO's "Aaron Copland: American Icon" festival concerts in May 2007, and it includes the seldom-performed Piano Concerto with soloist Benjamin Pasternack, the two sets of five "Old American Songs," performed by the St. Charles Singers, and Copland's own concert suite from his opera "The Tender Land." Grammy award-winning engineer and producer Tim Handley was in the control booth.

Elgin Symphony music director Robert Hanson is understandably excited that the orchestra will now reach a national and worldwide audience.

"I look at this experience in a couple different ways," Hanson said. "First of all, we're getting the Elgin Symphony Orchestra name and our brand out there to a wider audience, really, an international audience.

"But the most important thing for us is how it makes the orchestra better. The comments from (pianist) Ben Pasternack as he came to the first rehearsal about how incredibly well prepared the orchestra was, were really gratifying. But more than that, in order to be prepared they really had to know that piece inside and out. They knew not only their own parts, but the other players' parts as well. The Copland Piano Concerto is fiendishly difficult, and I think this was another of those milestones where the quality of playing of the orchestra in general went up a couple more notches because of this experience."

I have listened over the past several weeks to an advance copy of the recording, and can say without hesitation that it is one of those discs that lovers of classical music (and Copland in particular) will return to time and again. To have professional music organizations of the high artistic level of the ESO and St. Charles Singers in our area is especially gratifying.

It was Naxos' preference to record the choral versions of the "Old American Songs," several of which have been made famous in their original solo versions by such legendary artists as mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne.

"Naxos already had recordings of the solo versions, but they didn't have a recording of the choral versions," Hanson said. "Even though they are arrangements by others who knew his style very well, they were sanctioned by Copland. When we looked through them, we decided all 10 songs were worth doing. And the St. Charles Singers are really amazing in this performance."

The CD was recorded during special sessions May 8-9, 2007, at the Harry and Phyllis Blizzard Theater at Elgin Community College. The recording was made possible by a grant from longtime ESO supporters Ed and Joyce McFarland Dlugopolski.

Naxos prefers making its recordings from scheduled sessions rather than from live concerts, a tradition dating back to the earliest days of commercial classical recordings.

The ESO will celebrate the recording on Tuesday (the official release day) with a special reception and dinner for donors of the Robert Hanson Society and invited guests at The Hickory Stick at The Highlands of Elgin.