DECATUR — When given the option, Millikin-Decatur Symphony Orchestra conductor Michael Luxner almost always chooses to go with something new in his programming. That’s just his way, whether it’s rarely performed Mahler symphonies or creative guest accompaniment. The conductor prefers to have his players experiencing all-new challenges on a regular basis.
At the same time, however, it is impossible to ignore the classics. For every few excursions into uncharted waters, one must pull back and hone key skills by performing pieces with a great degree of recognition and accompanying high standards. Sometimes, you just have to go old-school, as the orchestra will Saturday evening with “Three B’s,” a program of German romantic music from Beethoven, Brahms and Bruch.
“This program is absolute core repertoire,” said Luxner. “It’s the kind of meat and potatoes music that the orchestra as we know it grew out of. You simply have to have a certain amount of this repertoire as a running thread in your orchestra.”
The three selections are all well known, described by Luxner as “extraordinarily tuneful” and part of the collective consciousness among fans of classical music. They include Beethoven’s Coriolan overture, Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1 and Brahms’ Symphony No. 1, which Luxner said all display “formal patterns and symmetries quintessential to Western art music.”
“In a way they are similar, in how they tell their stories,” he continued. “The link is the way they discuss their themes and the use of the orchestral sound. You might say they’re similar in the way mid-century American novels are similar, because they’re made of the same stuff.”
The violin concerto is perhaps the stand-out piece of the night, as the orchestra will play host to up-and-coming guest violinist Hye-Jin Kim. The musician will also be holding master classes with Georgia Hornbacker’s violin students at Millikin. She came to Luxner’s attention after hearing recordings of her Bruch violin concerto performance, a piece he had been considering for quite a while.
“It’s some of the most gorgeous solo violin music you will find anywhere,” he said. “It puts the instrument absolutely front and center. Bruch is not known for a lot of different pieces, so you know this one is special, to have transcended the general historical verdict on him. I think it’s one of those true evergreens.”
Luxner likely feels that way about this entire program, which would have been common in the past but has become more of a rarity in modern orchestras. Even the format of overture/concerto/symphony is now unusual after being practically standard for decades.
“It’s such a cliché that I don’t remember when we last did it with German romantic works,” he said. “But there’s a reason why these things are warhorses. It’s almost retro-chic at this point. It’s so old it’s fresh.”