It’s a Wonderful Time for the ESO

Musical prodigy Andrew Grams has led orchestras across the world before and during his first three seasons as Musical Director of the Elgin Symphony Orchestra—the ESO—beginning in 2013.


story by Lisa stamos | Photo by paolo cascio

As part of the life of a Maestro who is in demand by international metropolitan and regional orchestras, his off-season itinerary takes him to Australia, Europe, Canada, and coast to coast across the United States to perform with the top orchestras in the world. He’s played with the finest and oldest symphonies in history whose average existence is 117 years.

One of the oldest musical institutions in the world, the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in Italy, invited Grams to perform. Having been founded in 1585, this musical marvel is more than 430 years old.

So why did Andrew Grams sign with the ESO—now in its youthful 65th season by comparison—and why has he decided to stay for five more consecutive seasons when the world calls?

Step inside the exciting world of ESO’s performances, rehearsals, and community service. Meet Maestro Andrew Grams and the award-winning ESO family who attracted this stunning musical talent and won his musical heart.

The Birth of a Symphony

The Elgin Symphony Orchestra was formed during a culturally passionate time in Elgin’s civic and educational history. Possibly one of the few orchestras in the country grown from within a community college, the ESO was called the “Elgin Civic Symphony Orchestra” from its founding in 1949 within what would become Elgin Community College—well before the laws in Illinois even existed for junior colleges to be recognized.

Elgin Community College (ECC) had its start with Elgin School District U-46’s Board of Education, which gave the framework to begin under its authority. In 1950, a plan to organize the Elgin Civic Symphony Orchestra to bring cultural opportunities to the school system and community was formed. By July 1965, the Illinois General Assembly passed the Junior College Act, and later that fall, ECC was formed as a Class II Junior College, and divested of its management from the school district. A college, and an orchestra, were born.

ECC’s founding music director, Douglas Steensland, followed a deeply ingrained mission to engage a broad audience with powerful performances, while creating inviting educational programs for the community. Today’s ESO can trace it roots to this local school system with its clear community-driven mission, and the spirit of Steensland’s vision is evident in today’s ESO with its dedicated outreach and community service.

The young orchestra’s second Music Director, Margaret Hills, began her role in 1971 and brought the talent of her Grammy Award-winning musical artistry to the program and musicians. The ESO took another step forward under the direction of Robert Hanson, its third director, as he helped move the orchestra from a freelance model typical of community orchestras, to become fully professional, bringing stability to the musicians and the program. The ESO’s momentum was moving in a positive direction under the guidance of Robert Hanson. Following its move to professional, the ESO was named the Orchestra of the Year by the Illinois Council of Orchestras in 1988, 1999, and 2005, a signal of its artistic growth.

Upon Hanson’s retirement at the conclusion of the 2010-11 season, the ESO had more to handle than just finding his replacement.

Trying Times

The search for the fourth Music Director also kept ESO leaders searching for the right board members to re-think and lead the ESO during difficult financial times. Like many other traditional subscription-based profit models of the cultural nonprofit world, the ESO experienced the challenges that came with fewer patrons buying tickets, and ticket sales that were more often short-term. Seats became harder to fill.

As ticket buyers’ demographics and attitudes were changing, another force pushed the ESO to its leanest operation. A crushed financial market in 2008 delivered a recession in 2009 that would cause the ESO and similar entities to lose most of their city, state, and Federal funding, as well as ticket sales, which represented about 40 percent of total revenue. Somehow, those funds would have to be made up.

When David Bearden and Cheryl Wendt were hired to run the ESO organization, their first strategy was to keep things lean. As Bearden says, “We distinguished between was we wanted, versus what we needed.” Bearden’s experience as a top Panasonic executive, along with the help of the ESO corporate sponsor Tom Roeser of Otto Engineering, cleared the way for strict cost-saving measures such as outsourcing, and rethinking how to connect with the market. Wendt brought community knowledge as a board president of the Elgin Area Chamber of Commerce. “We wrote our own corporate checks,” says Bearden of the hands-on efforts to stay afloat.

From Hanson’s departure time in 2011 to securing his replacement, the updated board assembled a team of ESO musicians to help secure a new musical leader. An exhaustive search brought in guest conductors to span the 2011-12 to 2012-13 seasons, while ESO personnel scrutinized the musical talents from a variety of international orchestras including Wichita, Victoria, B.C., St. Petersburg, Russia, an ESO candidate, and a young man who was then an associate conductor in Cleveland.

Musical Chops

Andrew Grams was the last candidate to perform for the ESO and their watchful selection team. When it was time to take the vote, it was unanimous for the man from Cleveland. Grams accepted the position to launch his career with ESO for the 2012-13 season.

As a child, Grams saw other elementary students getting to leave class to go to a strings classroom at school. As the classic tale goes, a wise and insightful teacher (this one, Debbie Diddlemeyer) saw value in putting a musical instrument in a child’s hands. Grams secured his first violin in second grade. By third grade, he got his wish and began with the Suzuki training method. He knew by middle school that he wanted to be a musician.

Grams grew up in Maryland and attended the Baltimore School for the Arts. His education is second to none, with a degree in music from Juilliard, followed by a conducting degree from the Curtis Institute of Music, where he studied with Otto-Werner Mueller. Guest conducting for the up and coming maestro began at age 17, when he attended the World Youth Symphony Orchestra at Interlochen Arts Camp in Michigan. He was later called to Aspen for music study at the American Academy of Conducting. He returned there again in 2004.

Grams was certain his career path would be that of an orchestra musician. An accomplished violinist, Grams was a member of the New York City Ballet Orchestra at Lincoln Center from 1998 to 2004, serving as the acting associate principal second violin. But watching other conductors caught his attention. “I was young and super-idealist—a musical purist—and was having reactions to what I saw in how other conductors were handling the music,” Grams said. He felt he could do better and pursued the training.

The ESO selected Grams and he said yes in June 2013. By 2015, he was named Conductor of the Year by the Illinois Council of Orchestras. And now, he has signed a contract to remain at ESO for five more years.

So what’s the job really about? For Grams, it’s all about leadership, and communicating. “You see where you and your team are, and figure out where you want to go,” Grams said. While Grams could have gone to a larger market, he decided to stay with the ESO. “The larger institutions have charters designed to keep them the way they are—to maintain. With the ESO, I can build, experiment, be flexible, and connect,” he said. “There’s room to grow.”

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The ESO: A Musician’s Perspective

Like many other professional musicians, ESO Principal Trumpet player Ross Beacraft has more than one commitment in his career mix. “It’s been the tradition of musicians for hundreds of years,” he says of the musician’s lifestyle to forge a living with a variety of jobs. In addition to his contract with the ESO, Beacraft is director of admissions for the DePaul University School of Music, and he chairs the financial aid committee for the school, as well. Before his current position with DePaul, he was a trumpet professor there for 20 years.

For Beacraft, the purpose of his ongoing commitment to play with the ESO is to stay at the highest level possible as a musician. “This allows me to stay in top shape, especially with the practice that is required,” he says. Music Director Andrew Grams knows the season’s schedule in advance, and provides the musicians with the material that is often practiced for weeks in advance of a concert.

“The ESO is one of the finest regional orchestras in the United States,” Beacraft says. “The ESO musicians are very capable players who care about the music, each other, and have a fondness for the audience, as well as a sense of community.”

Beacraft looks forward to his concerts with the ESO, which run from September to May each year. “You can’t compare it to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, though, because their season is 52 weeks a year.” The ESO holds about 70 services per year with a mix of classical music, children’s programs, holiday music, and educational events, as well as community service.

Beacraft was on the selection committee in 2013 when the ESO management went to market with an exhaustive search after the conductor position opened up. His was one of the unanimous votes to bring Andrew Grams aboard as the new music director. “He’s a classy musician, and he brings the knowledge of what it means to be a musician to the conductor’s job,” Beacraft says. “He hasn’t forgotten that experience and while he brings his own firm idea of how a certain piece should work, Andrew is able to work as a part of the whole.”

Beacraft notes that Grams is always prepared, and is a superb collaborator. “Andrew is a wonderful fit for the ESO, because he is able and willing to have interaction with the orchestra—give and take—and this allows for the best creative work from us. He understands the times when he should lead, and when he should allow us to lead. We’re always interacting,” Beacraft says.

Music Director Grams has stepped up the ESO’s stature as an orchestra, even brought an international presence, says the Principal Trumpet player. “We are playing the best music ever, and it’s the right time for Andrew Grams and the ESO to be together,” Beacraft says.

Beacraft, who has played with the ESO for 30 years, sees that the musicians have gone further artistically than he’s ever experienced, and that it’s a wonderful time to be at the ESO, thanks to Grams’ give and take, and ability to know when to let go. The family-like orchestra has their confident and capable leader until the 2020-21 season. No one can be certain what happens after that, but Beacraft knows one thing for sure.

“Andrew Grams has the potential to be one of the big names of our time,” he said.

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Lyric Opera of Chicago Brings ESO to Barrington

On Friday, March 11, the Barrington Chapter Lyric Opera of Chicago brought the music of the ESO to its members at The Garlands of Barrington. The Barrington Chapter is one of 14 with a goal of generating financial, volunteer, and audience support for the exciting musical drama of Lyric Opera of Chicago. This chapter’s members live in Barrington and surrounding towns. In keeping with its community outreach and education, ESO Music Director Andrew Grams played violin and performed a symphony with renowned German pianist Alexander Schimpf. The audience enjoyed dialogue with Grams about the performance, as well as stories about his travels and his unique violin made primarily of carbon fiber.

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Connecting with the ESO Experience

Andrew Grams and the ESO musicians reach out into the Elgin community and beyond to bring music to inspire, even transform those with whom they connect. “What makes the ESO so special to me and to so many others is the strong sense of family in our ESO community,” Grams said. “I feel that music and the arts are about experiencing meaningful connections to life and to one another. And that is what the ESO does so well. It is why I extended my contract through the 2020-21 season and why I experience such a deep feeling of home here with the ESO,” he said.

The ESO makes significant contributions to the cultural health and well-being of the communities they serve. Here are some of the many experiences the ESO offers.