The Century II Concert Hall was filled with a notably diverse audience on Saturday evening for the Wichita Symphony's all-Tchaikovsky program. A large crowd seemed excited to hear Music Director Daniel Hege lead the orchestra, joined by piano soloist Jon Kimura Parker.
Audience members clearly enjoyed the program, as well they should have, but this was not the Wichita Symphony at its very best. Tchaikovsky wrote demanding music; his scores are lush and large and not always straightforward rhythmically. The orchestra brought much of that rich musical beauty to life, but its playing was sometimes off-kilter, with no section of the ensemble escaping occasional tuning and balance issues. Perhaps the orchestra was overwhelmed digesting so much Tchaikovsky in a week.
The concert began with the Polonaise from the opera "Eugene Onegin." Hege led a pleasant reading of this stately yet spirited music, and the short piece provided a fine prelude to the fiery Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor.
The greatest challenges of the concert occurred during the performance of the concerto. In their tuning before the piece, the orchestra members didn't sound at ease, never really settling comfortably into pitch. Parker demonstrated a powerful command of the piano and of this challenging piece, and he communicated the passion of the score, which thrilled the audience. But he overpowered the orchestra in moments when the melodies emanate from it and the piano should recede.
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The second half of the concert found the orchestra on firmer footing, beginning with the invigorating and picturesque Capriccio Italien. Solo passages in this piece are staples in the audition repertoire for orchestral musicians, and with their technique and flair these players demonstrated why they beat the competition.
There are few pieces in the orchestral repertoire more well known or rousing than the "1812 Overture." From the solemn hymn tune that begins the piece to the explosive ending, replete with the sound of church bells and cannons, this is a tour de force, so popular it borders on cliche. Passion and power were abundant through most of this performance, although balance was an issue, with the brass in the ending too reserved, and the pitch of the final chord disappointing.
In three weeks, Hege and the symphony will present a program by four composers whose lives, counted together, span well more than 200 years. Preparing this concert should be like a good cross-training workout for the orchestra, and we should all benefit in hearing this well-conditioned artistic machine bring the pieces to life.