Arts & Culture

Wichita Symphony preview

When the Wichita Symphony launches into Rossini's overture to "The Barber of Seville" on Saturday, it will mark the 10th time Andrew Sewell has opened a classical concert season with the ensemble.

It will likely be a bittersweet occasion — this season will be Sewell's last as music director. Daniel Hege will become the orchestra's new director next fall; he'll conduct a preview with the orchestra Nov. 14-15, leading Tchaikovsky's powerful Symphony No. 4.

Otherwise, Sewell will conduct the orchestra's seven other classical programs, ending his decade of artistic leadership April 10-11 with Brahms' mighty "A German Requiem."

"It's been a pretty full-on schedule for the last 10 years, and I absolutely loved it," Sewell said. "I'm happy to be departing on good terms, and am leaving the orchestra in good hands."

A broad repertoire

Sewell's tenure was marked by a significant expansion of the repertoire the orchestra played. He helped plan Sound Waves, a set of experimental performances that loosened the traditional concert format, and added actors and theatrical lighting to the stage.

He enthusiastically embraced Blue Jeans and Popular Classics programming, adding pop and rock elements to classical programs. He led works for both symphony and chorus.

He was also on board in 2005 when the classical season was reduced from 10 weekends to eight, a result of tough economic times and changing ticket-buying patterns.

"His openness to accept and look at new ideas is exceptional," said Mitchell Berman, the orchestra's executive director. "Many music directors are used to operating in kind of a vacuum when considering artistic decisions. Andrew has always been open minded to what the potential of an idea is."

Sewell's most notable music contribution to Wichita's classical music scene has been programming works a bit off the beaten path — not only works by little known composers, but also lesser-played pieces by famous composers.

In nine seasons he's branched out to feature "Eternal Songs" by Polish composer Karlowicz and Hindemith's muscular "Mathis der Maler." He led "Danse Negre" by Englishman Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and "An Orkney Wedding, With Sunrise" by contemporary Englishman Peter Maxwell Davies. He's featured Barber's Violin and Cello Concertos and Bernstein's "Chichester Psalms."

"I do think that was a strength and I appreciated it," said violinist John Harrison, the orchestra's concertmaster. "It's not a secret that if you start programming lesser-known repertoire you take the risk of fewer people coming (to concerts), because they don't want to hear works they don't know.

"And I really appreciate that he took a stance that this was important for the orchestra's development as well as for the audience and the culture of Wichita."

Classics and quality

Popular pieces have not been neglected on his watch, however. He gave stirring performances of Beethoven's well-known symphonies, including the Fifth and the Ninth; worked his way through Schumann's four symphonies; gave a good overview of tone poems by Richard Strauss; and made good accountings of Brahms, Mozart and Haydn.

This season will continue the balance of the seldom-heard and the tried-and-true. Mendelssohn's "Scottish" Symphony next week will conclude Sewell's cycle of the five Mendelssohn symphonies. Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 will follow Oct. 17-18, with Dvorak's "New World" Symphony to be played in February.

New works scheduled in the coming season include two recently composed pieces by electric violinist Tracy Silverman in January and an all-American program in March featuring "Rockwell Reflections" by Stella Sung, accompanied by projected images of Norman Rockwell's classic illustrations.

"We've done a sampling of the entire classical and romantic periods," Sewell said. "I feel there's been a good balance of staple repertoire and also we've stretched the boundaries a little bit."

Sewell is also proud of his work with the Wichita Symphony Orchestra Chorus and Friends University Singing Quakers — often including the combined choir on two concerts a year. He instituted auditions for the chorus singers, a process that's "not been without resistance," he admitted.

"But it does keep up standards, and that's my job as artistic director — to maintain good quality. And it's enabled us to tackle some important pieces and do them well," including Haydn's "Lord Nelson" Mass, Poulenc's Gloria and Mozart's Requiem.

This season the choir will be on stage for Debussy's Nocturnes in November and featured on Brahms' "A German Requiem" to conclude Sewell's tenure.

Future plans

No matter what music is played, Sewell kept the quality of the orchestra's playing high, always in a respectful and even-handed manner.

"He made really good use of the (conductor's) stick," Harrison explained. "In concerts he has the ability to improvise a little bit his interpretation and show it to us through the baton.

"It's so easy for it to be the conductor versus the orchestra. He was much more interested in a collaborative environment with us and became personal friends with some of us."

Sewell came to the Wichita Symphony in 2000, when he was 37 years old. He's now 46. He has three children — two teenagers and one away at college. He and his wife, Mary, celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary this year. He continues to reside in Madison, Wis., where he'll conduct the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra at least until 2013. He wants to expand his guest-conducting and hopes to become music director with another orchestra some day.

But for now he's focused on a final season of concerts in his musical home away from home.

"We've done a lot," Sewell said. "I have been able to cover a lot of repertoire. A 10-year tenure is a very respectable amount of time."