February 16, 2014

Wichita Symphony, American Brass Quintet paint musical portrait of America

The Wichita Symphony Orchestra performed Saturday with guest performers Native American drummers and the American Brass Quintet.

Saturday night’s performance by the Wichita Symphony Orchestra under the direction of maestro Daniel Hege gave the audience a vivid musical portrait of America, including the music of Native Americans, from several different perspectives. Guest performers included Native drummers and the American Brass Quintet.

Following a drum circle performed by the Thunderhead Singers, the symphony played the “Concert Suite from Dances With Wolves” by John Barry.

Rather than extracting individual scenes from Barry’s Oscar-winning film score, the suite is a “free compilation” of themes. As such, it featured the horns prominently as well as showing off the symphony’s rich, transparent strings and a lovely, lilting flute solo toward the end.

Barry’s composition recalls the open spaces that figure prominently in musical Americana, but with martial touches, as well as a lush “love theme” and surprising chord changes that invite comparisons to the James Bond soundtracks (some of Barry’s best-known work) and the “New World Symphony” by Dvorak that closed the program.

The American Brass Quintet joined the orchestra onstage to perform Eric Ewazen’s “Shadowcatcher,” a four-movement concerto composed specifically for them. Inspired by iconic photographs of Native American life and culture taken by Edward Curtis at the beginning of the 20th century, the music was paired with projections of some of Curtis’ photos.

Like John Barry, Ewazen is essentially a romantic, composing sweeping melodies and colorful textures to evoke the grandeur of the American landscape and the nobility of the Native Americans Curtis photographed. Ewazen’s decision to eschew the dissonances of modernism sometimes leads him too far in the other direction, however, toward a triadic sweetness that becomes cloying without something to create tension and drive.

The most interesting parts of “Shadowcatcher“ were often the beginnings of movements, in which the quintet members (Kevin Cobb and Louis Hanzlik, trumpets; David Wakefield, horn; Michael Powell and John D. Rojak, trombones) were featured individually in freely unfolding melodies modeled after Native American music. Only in the third movement, “The Vanishing Race,” did the music move beyond the pictorial to convey the monumental sense of loss implied by the title; there was dissonance, yes, but more importantly the brass soloists were given melodies with a sense of momentum that went beyond filling out chords.

Those concerns aside, the symphony and quintet were more than up to the task of performing this carefully-crafted work. Ewazen, a well-known contemporary composer, is intimately familiar with the capabilities of the brass instruments and creates dramatic and lively soundscapes for the quintet as individuals and as a group balanced with the orchestral accompaniment.

The fourth movement, “Dancing to Restore an Eclipsed Moon,” was the most virtuosic, with an extended group cadenza for the quintet, leading up to a musically depicted “sneeze” (as explained in the notes, this was part of the ritual by which a nocturnal beast would be forced to disgorge the moon that it had swallowed, causing the eclipse of the title).

Just as importantly, the five members display a sense of tight ensemble born of years of playing together as a group. In several places they formed a sonorous whole, balanced against the full orchestra; for a group made up only of brass instruments, they conveyed a wide range of tone colors and dynamics.

The second half of the concert was devoted to Antonin Dvorak’s “Symphony No. 9 in E Minor, Op. 95,” nicknamed “From the New World.” Dvorak, born in Bohemia (now the Czech Republic), lived in New York during 1892-1895 and became enthralled by the music of the United States, especially that of Native Americans and African-Americans (both of which were largely ignored by classically-trained musicians at that time).

Seeking to provide a model by which American composers might find their own musical roots, Dvorak incorporated American rhythms, scales, and melodic motives (but not whole tunes) into a European classical symphony. The result has been by far his most popular work and a staple of the concert repertoire for over a hundred years.

From the first downbow the symphony dug into the music, resulting in an impassioned and sometimes inspired performance, despite some persistent intonation problems that dogged the high woodwinds in places.

The brass were prominently featured, especially the horns under the leadership of principal Nicholas Smith. English horn soloist Emily Tsai’s rendition of the famous “Largo” melody was both tender and steady, but she wasn’t the only soloist featured in the transparent textures of the second movement. Principal oboist Andrea Banke had moments to shine, and there was a brief but exquisite duet between concertmaster John Harrison and principal cellist Jakub Omsky. Throughout the wide variety of melodies, rhythms and textures in this ambitious and influential symphony, it was clear that the Wichita Symphony and Hege were not only going to play the notes, but were determined to communicate their passion for this music.

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