It would be hard to begin bigger.
To open its 2010-11 Classics Concert season — and the tenure of its new music director, Daniel Hege — the Wichita Symphony Orchestra will present the Symphony No. 2, "Resurrection," by Gustav Mahler next weekend.
The symphony's promotional tag "featuring over 300 performers" only begins to describe it.
"It's an incredibly celebratory piece of music," Hege said. "It's an extremely dramatic piece of music. It's almost like theater."
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Across its 90-minute, five-movement length, an army of musical forces — expanded orchestra, off-stage brass, full chorus, and two vocal soloists — take listeners on a journey from isolation and insecurity to redemption.
There's not a story presented, per se — though as the music plays it is easy to imagine the craggy mountains and flower-filled glades of Mahler's native Austria, and the chorus and soloists do sing words of promise and of hope. Rather, it is the pacing from darkness into light that gives the piece its proportion, and its subtitle "Resurrection."
"The music speaks for itself so well," Hege said. "There's a sense of tragedy at the beginning, a visceral quality that grabs you right from the outset. Then it goes through all these different moods — of being ambivalent; of being very pensive; of being very remorseful, sometimes nostalgic. And then it enters a complete, transcendent triumphant glory in the end."
Mahler's Symphony No. 2 is a symbolic way for Hege to begin his tenure as the Wichita Symphony's seventh music director. His appointment was made in 2009; he brings with him close ties to Kansas. He graduated from Bethel College in North Newton in 1987 and conducted the Newton Mid-Kansas Symphony Orchestra from 1993 until 2003.
Hege, 45, is also music director (since 1999) of the Syracuse Symphony in New York. He'll continue in that full-time position as he adds the Wichita Symphony to his calendar. He will continue to reside near Syracuse with his wife, Katarina Oladottir Hege, a violinist, and daughters ages 13, 9 and 5.
Hege will conduct seven of the eight Classics Series concerts in this season, which include other symphonic show-stoppers such as Berlioz's "Symphonie Fantastique" (Oct. 30-31); Sibelius' Symphony No. 5 (Nov. 13-14); Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture" (Feb. 19-20); Brahms' Symphony No. 4 (March 12-13); and Rachmaninoff's Second Piano Concerto (April 9-10).
"It is just an incredibly exciting time," Hege said. "I've been there (Wichita) a couple times now since the announcement was made. I feel like I'm familiar with the players and know a little bit what to expect. I'm ready to go in and start working."
Mahler's Symphony No. 2 offers plenty of opportunities to test the mettle of an orchestra and its conductor. There's the sheer size of the forces to contend with — the Wichita Symphony Orchestra Chorus will be joined by the Friends University Singing Quakers and the Bethel College Concert Choir to create a vocal ensemble of 200 singers.
There's the sprawling construction of the symphony — five long movements of different character yet interconnected themes. And then there's the nuance that Mahler demands, sounds and shadings Hege and the musicians must craft, assemble and polish.
"He's so incredibly detailed about dynamics," Hege said. "People sitting right next to each other are playing fortissimo (loudly), and someone else is playing piano (softly). And then as one diminuendos (plays gradually softer), another one crescendos (plays gradually louder).
"You can see exactly what he's going for — he wants this one color to emerge from this other color. The effect is incredible, but it takes a lot of discipline for everybody in the orchestra to do exactly what he's asking."
More than technical exercises — or a test of Hege's control — the fine details become a path to unraveling the sublime beauty and substantive power of Mahler's music.
"I think Mahler had a lot to say about existence in this world and possibilities beyond," Hege said. "I think it is going to be a really good fit. I'm just really looking forward to it."