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Review: Wichita Symphony Orchestra, pianist take on range of operatic moods

  • Eagle correspondent
  • Published Sunday, March 16, 2014, at 6:44 p.m.
  • Updated Tuesday, April 15, 2014, at 1:45 p.m.

The Wichita Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Daniel Hege welcomed soloist William Wolfram on Saturday evening. After a surprise rendition of “Hail Wichita,” the Wichita State University fight song, the symphony tackled three 19-century masterpieces by Richard Wagner, Franz Liszt and Anton Bruckner.

Wagner composed only a small amount of concert music, concentrating most of his energies on opera. However, his “Ride of the Valkyries,” from the opera “Die Walkure,” is one of several extracts from his stage works that have taken on a life of their own as popular concert pieces. The Wichita symphony’s rendition of “Ride” (in an arrangement by Jonathan Sheffer) featured sharp executions of sudden contrasts in dynamic and a good balance between sections of the orchestra. The tempo was brisk and energetic and was supported by crisp and precise rhythms from the brass, especially the trombones (led by principal Tyler Vahldick). It was a bright start to the evening, allowing the audience and orchestra to settle in for the heavier works on the program.

Pianist Wolfram joined the orchestra for Liszt’s Concerto No. 1 in E-flat Major, a work bristling with the youthful energy of the virtuoso-composer, who wrote it to perform at his own concerts. Formally adventurous and full of diverse themes, the concerto is notable for its theatrical quality (Wolfram called it an “unsung opera” in a pre-concert talk) and the connection of four movements into a nearly continuous flow of music; a pause was taken only between the first and second movements.

Wolfram presented a cool exterior as he began, playing in a relaxed and understated manner, as if getting to know the orchestra or perhaps carefully introducing all the piece’s ideas, one by one, before playing freely with them. Wolfram also gave attention to the many nuances of character present in passages reminiscent of Chopin, Weber and even Mendelssohn, as well as the fiery virtuosity more typically associated with Liszt.

Nor were the changes of character limited to the soloist: Hege guided the orchestra through a similar range of operatic moods and gestures, and Wolfram’s piano was often partnered with orchestral soloists (such as principal clarinet Sarunas Jankauskas, sounding pleasantly reedy) in dialogue or countermelody. Concertmaster John Harrison also contributed warm-toned, elegant solos to the texture.

All these elements came together by the end: In the fourth movement, the solo part includes cascades of notes and tintinnabulation effects similar to Liszt’s great etude “La Campanella,” foreshadowed by a prominent triangle solo in the third movement. Wolfram made such technical extravagance sound easy and was ably supported by the full brass section in an explosive finale.

Although Bruckner was a composer of church and symphonic music rather than opera, he idolized Wagner and incorporated many of the opera giant’s innovations into his musical style. If the Liszt concerto is “unsung opera,” then Bruckner’s Symphony No. 4 in E-Flat Major might be compared to an unsung song cycle, anticipating the eclectic works of Gustav Mahler as it incorporates Beethoven-like development, Wagnerian flourishes for the brass, rustic dance episodes and textures drawn from Bruckner’s experience as a church organist into an expanded classical form. Hege compared the hourlong work to a cathedral in which intricate carved details cover the surface of an immense structure: It is both episodic and even intimate on one level but planned out and balanced on a large scale.

As with the contrasts in the Liszt concerto, this poses challenges to interpreters, but Hege and the symphony played with commitment, gusto and an awareness of where they were headed. In my experience, brass players in particular love Bruckner’s music, because he gives them so much to do, and this symphony, subtitled “Romantic,” is no different. Especially notable is the role of the solo horn, played masterfully by principal Nicholas Smith, which both opens the piece with its central motive (seemingly simple, but there is nothing simple about the horn, and the solo is both high and exposed) and returns throughout the four movements to comment or add a new wrinkle, sometimes alone and sometimes joined by the rest of the horn section. The rest of the brass are given ample opportunities to play as well, all building to a climactic unison statement of the motive, transformed.

Not only the brass were featured, of course: The viola section, led by Catherine Consiglio, carried an extended passage in the second movement, and each of the principal woodwinds took the lead with solos at various points. Both soloists and sections shaded their performances to match the character of the moment: alternately tender, mysterious, majestic and joyous. Bruckner’s symphony is a prime example of the romantic artist’s desire to encompass an entire world of experience in a work of art; unlike “Ride of the Valkyries,” there is no pictorial or descriptive intent, but Hege and the Wichita symphony performed it with the absolute conviction that the abstract can still have meaning.

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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