Music director Andrew Sewell led the Wichita Symphony Orchestra Saturday night in a satisfying program drawn from the traditional orchestral repertoire.
Weber's Overture to Euryanthe opened the program. The score calls for "much fire" in the beginning, but the orchestra failed to create a blaze with the music. The majority of the ensemble playing was characterized by care rather than passion.
The most satisfying piece of the evening was Chopin's Piano Concerto No. 1. Chopin wrote two concerti to display his own ability at the piano, and soloist Janina Fialkowska was more than equal to the challenges presented by the score. At turns fiery and delicate, Fialkowska's consummate talents allowed her to communicate the score with apparent abandon. The tone she conjured from the piano seemed to be from something beyond earthly creation. Chopin has been routinely criticized for his lack of skill in orchestration. His comprehension of the instruments of the orchestra didn't match his understanding of the piano, so perhaps the orchestra couldn't help but provide a pale backdrop to the shimmering piano. Nonetheless, Nicholas Smith projected the important horn passages into the foreground with a beautiful sense of line and Scott Oakes gracefully intertwined the bassoon moments with the piano. Overall, the orchestral accompaniment did not match the intensity of Fialkowska's playing.
The concert concluded with Dvorak's 9th Symphony, "From the New World." Dvorak spent three years living in the United States, principally in New York, but also summering in a Czech colony in Iowa. While here he studied Native American melodies and spirituals with fascination. The New World Symphony sprang from this exposure; its melodies are not literal quotations of American songs, rather Dvorak melds the character of American folk music with that of his homeland. Such inspiration makes for a passionate and powerful score.
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Saturday's evening performance was enjoyable, but for the most part it was more mannered than compelling. Within the constraints of this interpretation Katherine Mitchell rendered the English horn solo in the largo movement beautifully, and each of her colleagues in the winds turned in comely performances.
In the third movement the triangle had a jarring quality, sounding something like a summons to dinner, and the timpani was at times overpowering. While the brass had difficulty settling their pitch and the strings didn't play as cleanly or powerfully as they can, this was, on balance, a pleasant performance. Musicians, like Olympians, are driven by a passion to constantly improve their skills, and we must cheer them on as we enjoy, and are inspired by, their efforts.