Arts & Culture

Wichita Symphony pitches in for ‘Big Read’

Orion Weiss, who turns 35 next month, has been called “clearly a pianist to watch” by the Los Angeles Times.
Orion Weiss, who turns 35 next month, has been called “clearly a pianist to watch” by the Los Angeles Times. Courtesy photo

When Daniel Hege was asked by organizers of Wichita Public Library’s “Big Read” series devoted to “Fahrenheit 451” how the Wichita Symphony Orchestra could contribute, he immediately checked the timeline.

Ray Bradbury’s iconic novel about censorship and its aftermath was published in 1953, the same year that Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin died — and also when Dmitri Shostakovich debuted his “Symphony No. 10.”

“It was something very profound in the classical musical world,” said Hege, the Wichita Symphony conductor and musical director, who is leading two performances of the work next weekend.

“It created a little bit of freedom, a little breathing room for Shostakovich to write a symphony,” Hege continued. “Stalin was oppressive — and that’s an understatement — not only on Shostakovich and other composers, but on authors and painters and any of the artists. They pretty much feared the Stalin regime.”

Hege said there was “a bit of a thaw” after Stalin’s death, but that the composer still didn’t feel complete freedom.

“Shostakovich never felt quite out of the woods. But there was some breathing room,” Hege said. “So this piece attempts to be something where he’s expressing himself in a completely different way.”

That’s evident, Hege said, by the first of its four movements, which he calls “colossal in size.”

“It is on a massive, massive scale — huge, granite-like blocks of sound and movement,” Hege said of the work, which he has conducted several times. “Tyrannical in a way in force.”

The second movement, in contrast, is very short and “maniacally fast.”

“There’s kind of a titanic force in the first and second movement,” Hege added.

In the third movement, Hege said, Shostakovich creates a musical monogram for himself, something he never attempted in his previous works.

By the final movement, there is a serious beginning, he said, but breaks into a “carefree, almost comical theme.”

“Somehow the way he writes it, it doesn’t seem like everything’s going to be OK,” Hege said. “It sounds jolly, but there’s something ironic about the way he puts the music in context. It feels like something’s not quite right.”

Shostakovich’s 10th, Hege said, creates more emotion than the composer’s previous works. For example, a lone clarinet conveys the essence of loneliness that the composer is trying to relate.

“He can create this sense of empathy in a listener,” Hege said. “But it’s a nice feeling, because you know it’s art.”

As a whole, Hege said, Shostakovich’s 10th is among the greatest masterpieces of the 20th century.

“It’s an electrifying work. There are parts of it that are so visceral for the listener to experience. Yet there are some introspective as well,” he added. “Shostakovich is so skilled as an orchestrator that there’s such a coherence to it that pulls everything together.”

The music ties the book’s themes of censorship with what was happening in the music world, Hege said.

“We make a lot of Shostakovich being under this oppressive regime of Stalin and the state. His music is so great and speaks to us as humans that you don’t have to know all of that to appreciate his music,” he said. “You just have to be a human being who is sitting there with interested, open ears as an active listener. You’ll hear what loneliness feels like or oppression feels like or what freedom feels like when you hear his music.”

Opening the Wichita Symphony concerts next weekend at Century II Concert Hall is Mozart’s “Piano Concerto No. 24,” with guest artist Orion Weiss.

Weiss, who turns 35 next month, is among the rising stars in the classical music world, Hege said. The Iowa native and Juilliard School graduate was the 1999 winner of the prestigious Gilmore Young Artist Award.

He has been called “clearly a pianist to watch” by the Los Angeles Times, and “high powered and often ferocious” by the Washington Post.

Weiss also comes highly recommended by Hege’s conductor colleagues.

“I’ve heard him play many times on recordings, and I said this guy’s the real deal,” Hege said. “Our audiences will love hearing him.”

Wichita Symphony Orchestra

Featuring: Pianist Orion Weiss

When: 8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 29, and 3 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 30

Where: Century II Concert Hall, 225 W. Douglas Ave., Wichita

Admission: $20 to $65

Tickets: Available at, 316-267-7658 or in person at the symphony box office, 2nd floor Century II. Box office hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays