The Wichita Symphony Orchestra wanted to open its 70th Classical season with something grand. So along with the iconic “Rite of Spring,” they are placing two grand pianos on stage, back to back, with identical twins at the keys.
“It’s quite spectacular,” said Daniel Hege, the company’s artistic director and conductor. “Visually it is very interesting; musically it is thrilling.”
Christina Naughton and Michelle Naughton, who are 24, have earned an international reputation for stellar duet performances.
“Music transcends all verbal communication,” Michelle Naughton said. “There are times when I’m playing that I feel an emotion I may have not expressed or experienced before.”
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The twins will perform Francis Poulenc’s Concerto for Two Pianos. Parisian-born Poulenc (1899-1963), blends neo-classical music with his country’s native tunes.
“This piece has a sophisticated sense of humor and wit,” Michelle Naughton said. “It’s such a joy to play.”
The interplay between the two pianists during this tuneful, jazzy piece has mesmerized audiences. Although they were born in New Jersey, the sisters grew up in Wisconsin. By age 5, they were begging their mother for piano lessons. With only a brief stint on the violin and cello during high school years, the two stuck with their first love, the piano.
“It’s one of the only instruments where you could play four voices by yourself; with us, it’s eight voices,” Christina said.
The twins graduated from the esteemed Curtis Institute of Music and then went on to get master’s degrees from The Juilliard School. They consider their ability to perform together a gift and want to share it with audiences worldwide.
Bookending the piano concerto is Maurice Ravel’s “Daphnis et Chloe: Suite No. 2” and Igor Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring,” which premiered in 1913. Like Poulenc, Ravel hails from France, and the “Rite of Spring,” while from a Russian composer, was first performed in Paris. Ravel’s piece is a sensual ballet number; while Stravinsky’s is a monumental work that at first left audiences perplexed. But within one year of the work’s debut, audiences grew to respect and love this vibrant piece. To celebrate the symphony’s 70th anniversary, Hege thought the marking of two great works’ 100th anniversaries was in order.
“The music of Ravel is indelibly sumptuous and lush,” Hege said. “It’s lyrical and simply gorgeous.”
In contrast, Stravinsky’s landmark work heralds a new era.
“Stravinsky is much more driven and spiky,” Hege said. “He kept stepping it up in terms of rhythm and orchestration. The ‘Rite of Spring’ is the blinding light that changed the course of music after it.”
With the help of Russian folk tunes and rhythms, in 13 short movements Stravinsky created a picturesque scene that Hege calls a kaleidoscope of mood and storytelling.
Although composed a century ago, this work continues to surprise 21st century listeners.
“It’s so exciting,” Hege said. “It has mesmerizing, beautiful, evocative moments.”
Opening with a bassoon, and calling in lots of extra woodwinds for the concert, this piece shifts between primal dreams and the picturesque and sometimes harsh countryside of the composer’s homeland.
“It’s a formidable piece to perform,” Hege said. “But it’s exciting; it’s so unusual.”
Seven other concerts make up the remainder of the symphony’s season. From Rachmaninoff to Mendelssohn to Dvorak to Beethoven and Brahms, the symphony will bring out the heavy hitters. But orchestra members also will dip their strings in new ventures like performing the “Dances with Wolves Suite” and accompanying internationally renowned aerialists with show tunes and classic pieces.
Hege said the second concert of the classics series – Sergei Rachmaninoff’s piano concerto – is one of the most technically challenging.
“The pianist needs strength, endurance and reach,” Hege said. “It’s a huge tour de force.”
Rachmaninoff’s piece will be played Oct. 26 and 27 by virtuoso Joyce Yang and will be accompanied by Johannes Brahms’ Hungarian Dances and Bela Bartok’s “The Miraculous Mandarin Suite.”
On Nov. 16-17, the Wichita Symphony Orchestra will accompany its concertmaster, John Harrison, as he performs Felix Mendelssohn’s Violin concerto. That concert will finish with Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2.
On Jan. 18-19, the orchestra will go back to France with works by Cesar Franck and Camille Saint-Saens. Chilean-born Maximiano Valdes will be the guest conductor.
In late January and early February, the renowned Cirque de la Symphonie artists will perform acrobatic and contortionist movements to the music of the symphony in both the classics and blue jeans concerts.
“It is a visual feast,” Hege said. “It will be great fun for the audience.”
On Feb. 15-16, Eric Ewazen’s contemporary Native American piece “Shadowcatcher” will be performed by the American Brass Quintet. Hege called them the premier brass quintet in the U.S.
The Romantic Concert, March 15-16, features the music of three contemporaries: Richard Wagner, Franz Liszt and Anton Bruckner.
To finish out the season in April, the symphony will be joined by the Wichita Symphony Orchestra Chorus and four soloists for Beethoven’s colossal Symphony 9 in D Minor.