Maestro Daniel Hege led the Wichita Symphony Orchestra through a varied and technically challenging program during Sunday’s concert in Century II Concert Hall, capped with a performance of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s monumental Third Piano Concerto with soloist Joyce Yang.
The concert began with Hungarian Dances Nos. 1 and 5 by Johannes Brahms. Based on “Gypsy” melodies (actually composed by Hungarian popular songwriters) that Brahms had encountered as a performer and then arranged, the Hungarian dances have long been popular concert staples, especially the well-known No. 5. The orchestra showed off a rich, textured string sound and played together with fine ensemble, even through the sudden changes of tempo that are hallmarks of the Hungarian “czardas,” a traditional dance.
The dances were followed by another Hungarian-themed work, the concert suite from the pantomime ballet “The Miraculous Mandarin” by Hungarian-born composer Bela Bartok. Finished in 1919, this astonishing piece includes many of the compositional devices, including striking dissonance and uneven rhythms, that Bartok had absorbed from his contemporary Igor Stravinsky and other modernists, combined with the exotic-sounding scales of Hungary and Eastern Europe.
Despite its bracing tonal challenges, Hege took pains to introduce it first and foremost as a work of drama, demonstrating some of the important themes and sections of the piece and explaining their connection to the story. Once scandalous, the scenario of “The Miraculous Mandarin” centers on a gang of thugs in a busy urban center who hit on an ingenious plan to make money: They coerce a beautiful girl into dancing in the window of their hideout to lure in unsuspecting marks, whom the thugs plan to beat and rob. The dancing girl is personified by an extended and difficult clarinet solo, effortlessly played with a fluid and sinuous tone by principal clarinetist Sarunas Jankauskas (ably supported by second clarinetist Rachelle Goter and bass clarinetist Michael Unruh).
Bartok’s approach to symbolizing characters in the drama with instrumental color is consistent throughout, and hardly any section of the orchestra is not featured at some point. Principal trombonist Tyler Vahldick was called upon to portray two characters: an old, penniless man whose comical advances are represented by quick, muted glissandi, and, along with the entire trombone and tuba section, the Mandarin of the title, who turns out to be more than the gang can handle. The strings, which contribute to the horror-movie atmosphere throughout, get to cut loose in a final frenetic chase scene, beginning with the cellos and culminating in an off-kilter hoedown for the entire section.
Like Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” from the previous Classics Concert, a work to which Hege compared it, “The Miraculous Mandarin” is forbidding on the surface but has its rewards for those willing to get to know it. There are moments of shuddering terror, busy urban confusion and comic pratfalls, but there also remains an undercurrent of longing for genuine contact. Hege said that members of the orchestra had told him they couldn’t wait to play this work when it was announced on the schedule, and it shows: At Sunday’s performance, they attacked it with an infectious enthusiasm.
Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto, which took up the second half of the concert, is truly symphonic in length (indeed, it is longer than the pieces that made up the first half combined) and emotional range. Noting its many changes of mood, guest soloist Yang compared it in a preconcert talk to “reading a 2,000-page Russian novel in 40 minutes.”
The concerto is one of the most difficult for the piano, with nearly continuous playing, trading phrases back and forth with the orchestra like a couple who are so in sync that they habitually finish each other’s sentences. Yang was fully in command throughout the three movements, sometimes bent closely over the keyboard, narrowing her focus to her task, at other times communicating with Hege with a head nod or gesture. Rachmaninoff was a master at the romantic technique of thematic transformation, turning a tune, simple enough in its initial statement to be played with one finger, into an array of virtuosic figures; Yang never let the melody disappear in the welter of churning arpeggiation, keeping the music continuously in motion.
For its part, the orchestra supported and complemented the piano with a rich, full sound, rarely overpowering the keyboard. Just as the orchestra and piano traded phrases, so members of the group echoed one another, with melodies passed among flute, oboe, and horn, among others. Rachmaninoff’s musical language was a late flowering of the romantic ideal, and both soloist and orchestra contributed to a gorgeous, passionate rendition of this incredible work.
Sunday’s audience was treated to an encore, a solo performance by Yang of George Gershwin’s “The Man I Love” in a florid arrangement that illuminated the connections between two virtuoso-composers, one Russian and one American.