The Wichita Symphony turned in a performance Saturday night under the direction of new conductor Daniel Hege that was nothing short of stunning. Since Hege took over the baton, the orchestra has performed with an exciting alacrity, and the difference in sound and musical bearing has been dramatic.
The program began with Richard Wagner's "Prelude to Die Meistersinger." Wagner is quoted as saying that the piece sprang to his mind at the sight of a splendid sunset over the Rhine River. Hege and the orchestra produced a sonic experience that was no less sensational.
This work is rich with bombastic temptation for individual performers, especially in the brass section, but the symphony's rendering was tastefully balanced. Each section played with great unity and therein was the power of the performance.
The Mozart Piano Concerto in C major is a staple in the repertoire and loved by audiences and performers alike for its winsome melodies and shimmering technical passages. Soloist Yoel Eum Son demonstrated excellent command of the instrument.
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In the first movement her playing was a little more extroverted than the orchestra's. Neither party was wrong, yet their approach wasn't solidly unified. The second movement was full of ethereal moments for both the soloist and the orchestra. Balance issues improved although the orchestra was a little too loud for the piano at the end of the movement. By the third movement the orchestra and pianist had settled into a pleasing accord.
Throughout the piece each section of the orchestra contributed to the finely woven tapestry of sound. The timpani sound was melded perfectly to the appropriately warm and compact trumpet tone. The strings' approach exemplified Mozartean sensibility and the winds too played with the effervescence and polish required to communicate the essence of the score.
In contrast to the ebullient Mozart, the second half of the concert was devoted to Sibelius' Fifth Symphony, an ecstatic yet intense work. Sibelius was greatly revered by his Finnish countrymen and the government commissioned him to write this piece to celebrate his 50th birthday. It has been speculated that Sibelius rushed to complete this symphony in time for its immovable deadline.
Whatever the reason, Sibelius revised the piece extensively over the next four years, making major changes in form and content. One must also consider that this piece was written amidst the horrors of World War I and surely its character is tinged by events of the time.
This can be an amorphous work, but Hege's interpretation had a wonderful pacing that held the audience rapt until its triumphant conclusion. The textures that Sibelius commands the orchestra to create are far more complex than Mozart's. Here, Hege's sense of balance gave the piece a greater transparency than I have ever heard in a live performance and the orchestra's responsiveness to his desires was unwavering all the way to the striking final chords of the piece.
Under Hege's leadership, the Wichita Symphony is poised to rise beyond its respectable tradition. With broad community support, symphony orchestras in cities like Wichita have grown to gain national and international notice. Why not in Wichita?