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Strings shine in Wichita Symphony’s classics concert

  • Eagle correspondent
  • Published Sunday, Nov. 17, 2013, at 7:51 p.m.
  • Updated Sunday, Nov. 17, 2013, at 9:25 p.m.

After two programs of works for large orchestra and guest soloists, the Wichita Symphony’s third classics concert put the focus squarely on its string section and concertmaster John Harrison for a program of Mendelssohn, Beethoven and American composer Thomas Canning under the direction of maestro Daniel Hege.

Based on an 18th-century hymn, Canning’s “Fantasy on a Hymn by Justin Morgan” is quite tonal, reminiscent of Ralph Vaughan Williams or Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings.” Like the latter work, it is a lament: Justin Morgan wrote the tune “Amanda” after the death of his wife during childbirth, and Canning sustained Morgan’s somber mood while expanding the melody into a free set of variations. It is scored only for the strings, including two solo string quartets; the medium-tempo opening statement showed off the strings’ rich, resonant sound. When the texture was reduced to the solo strings, however, the give and take between parts sounded rushed and was not always as clear.

The rest of the performance alternated broad strokes for the larger sections, trading bowed and pizzicato statements back and forth, with more intricate passages for the soloists. Two solo cadenzas stand out, expressively played by violinist Annie Boyle (guest concertmaster for this program) and principal cellist Jakub Omsky. Both passages brought out the folklike qualities of the composition, with bent notes and sustained drones recalling Appalachian fiddle music.

Harrison stepped in front of the orchestra to play Felix Mendelssohn’s Concerto in E Minor for Violin. Harrison has played with the symphony for the past 15 years; this was his third appearance as soloist with the group. Mendelssohn’s concerto is popular with violinists and audiences alike; it is brimming with hummable melodies and, although challenging, is written with intimate knowledge of the instrument, making it rewarding to play.

In Sunday’s performance, Harrison’s tone was surprisingly delicate, and he executed Mendelssohn’s rapid figuration lightly and gracefully. The orchestra strained to play under his somewhat subdued dynamic, opening up the sound during the tutti passages. In the second movement, his tone was more full-bodied and penetrating, and he approached the phrases in a thoughtful, searching manner. It was clear he intended to take his time with the melody and would not be rushed. By contrast, in the brisk third movement, he sometimes outran the orchestra, zipping out of the gate and daring the rest to follow.

During Harrison’s pre-concert talk, he spoke of his interest in jazz performance and the importance of being in the moment. New interpretations, he insisted, are not a matter of whimsy but build on every previous performance and go hand in hand with the development of technique. It’s an approach that can be challenging but results in performances that live and breathe, and if the seams sometimes show, it’s preferable to a rendition that is merely lukewarm. Harrison followed the concerto with the slow movement from J.S. Bach’s unaccompanied C Major Sonata, an atypical encore but one of a piece with a soloist unsatisfied with following a common formula.

The first two symphonies of Ludwig van Beethoven are generally considered part of his “Viennese” period, paying his debts to the established classical style of Mozart and Haydn. Still, the headstrong personality and formal innovation that would come to define his “revolutionary” middle period are already evident. The second symphony, in D Major, is full of strong rhythms, surprising dynamic jolts and instrumental color; the orchestra played this ebullient music with spirit. After a dramatic slow introduction, strong accents marked the playful first movement; a recurring figure, a stylized horn call, scored in several different ways, showed off the wind sections and gave the horns and trumpets a chance to play out. In the second movement, horn player Mirella Gable played the exposed arpeggios in the first part with aplomb.

Beethoven called the third movement of this symphony a “scherzo,” Italian for “joke,” replacing the traditional minuet. Earlier symphonies had included “minuets” too fast to dance to, but Beethoven went beyond simply accelerating the tempo and included surprising changes of dynamic and accents on unexpected beats, living up to the humorous implications of the title. The orchestra played this movement with gusto, bringing out the rustic character that anticipates the country dance of Beethoven’s later “Pastoral” symphony. Finally, Hege noted that the opening gesture of the fourth movement may have been inspired by a “hiccup,” and it kicks off the movement with an energetic syncopation. The entire movement is a perpetual motion machine, a whirlwind of rapid passages and antic melodies, a fitting finale to one of Beethoven’s most joyful compositions.

Guy Vollen is a conductor, horn player and award-winning composer and holds a doctoral degree in musical composition. He blogs about music at Medleyana.com.

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