The first Classics concert of the Wichita Symphony Orchestra’s 70th season delivered an evening of excellent music Saturday night.
Maestro Daniel Hege led the symphony through two works that had their premieres 100 years ago: Maurice Ravel’s “Daphnis and Chloe Suite No. 2,” and Igor Stravinsky’s landmark “The Rite of Spring.”
The concert showcased several members of the orchestras woodwind section and also included a piano duo in a concerto by Francis Poulenc. Principal flutist Jessica Petrasek beautifully evoked the pipes of Pan in an extended solo in “Daphnis,” and principal bassoonist Scott Oakes soared in the perilously high, exposed solo that begins “The Rite of Spring.”
Strong sectional playing was heard throughout the concert. The orchestra as a whole played with a relaxed, spritely rhythmic snap and a well-balanced sonority, rich without being heavy. From the transparent textures of the opening of “Daphnis and Chloe” – depicting the dawn and sunrise – to the final joyous dance, the orchestra played with precision and lightness.
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The last time the Wichita Symphony performed “The Rite of Spring,” it was paired with George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” highlighting the rhythmic energy shared by both works.
Saturday’s performance emphasized the French connection. Although Stravinsky was Russian, his earliest successes, including “The Rite,” took place in Paris. Both the “The Rite” and “Daphnis and Chloe” were ballet scores that gained new life as concert works. Ravel’s opened to disappointing reviews in 1912, and was excerpted in the two orchestral suites that premiered the following year; Stravinsky’s depiction of a human sacrifice in pagan Russia was so radical that it caused a famous disturbance on the night of its premiere, but within a year it had become an influential and frequently performed concert piece.
If, as Hege put it, Stravinsky’s fingerprints are on every notable work following “The Rite of Spring,” then Francis Poulenc’s “Concerto in D Minor for Two Pianos” anticipates a century of patchwork film music, splicing together Parisian cafe tunes, Mozart piano sonatas and even Balinese gamelan into a lively three movement pattern.
Such a combination could come off as muddled or disjointed, but the concerto was brought to life by guest musicians Christina and Michelle Naughton, twin sisters who have made a specialty of duo piano works.
Together, the Naughton sisters found an emotional through-line beneath the crowded surface of the work. In the first movement, the tart dissonances and punchy rhythms of the French modernist style (the concerto was premiered in 1932) dominated, and the pared-down orchestra provided a lean, jazzy accompaniment. Romantic gestures came off as ironic and grotesque in context, yet by the end revealed an aching vulnerability, the pianos stating a theme of almost childlike simplicity, accompanied by a plaintive cello solo.
The second movement indulged deeply in the style of Mozart, tweaked with dissonance but sincere nonetheless, and less boxed in by the sudden swerves of the first movement. The third movement was unabashedly playful as well as lyrical, and provided the Naughtons with opportunities for virtuosic display that did not disappoint. To top it off, they delighted the audience with an encore, Darius Milhaud’s jaunty and virtuosic “Scaramouche.”
The Naughton sisters demonstrated fantastic technique in thoughtful musical choices. In a pre-concert talk, Christina Naughton listed the requirements of partners playing duos, one of which was that they must be able to make decisions in the midst of a performance based on what their partner is doing. Whether there is a mystical connection between twins or simply the unconscious awareness that comes from spending years practicing together, the Naughton sisters are in constant musical communication.
Discussing the challenge of adjusting to different pianos when traveling, and especially of finding two that sound good as a duo, Michelle Naughton said: “They don’t have to be identical, they just have to fit together” in a “musical conversation.” That isn’t a problem for the Naughton sisters.
After the intense energy of the first half, it was slightly disappointing to hear the introduction to “The Rite of Spring” played so tentatively. It was accurate, but it felt like the members of the greatly enlarged orchestra were suddenly playing it safe, and even the famous thudding “Augurs of Spring” section sounded more plodding than primal.
The nearly 100 players onstage continued to build in energy, however, so by the end of Part I there was real fire to their playing. The “Dance of the Earth” was convincingly primitive, with driving rhythms and raucous horn blasts. The concluding “Sacrificial Dance” of Part II capped the evening, showing that modern music, even a hundred years later, can be both bracing and passionate.