On Saturday evening in the Century II Concert Hall, music director Daniel Hege lead the Wichita Symphony Orchestra in a celebration of music by two great 20th century American composers, George Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein.
The program began with “Porgy and Bess: A Symphonic Picture.” The WSO’s performance of this aural montage of themes from Gershwin’s opera “Porgy and Bess,” orchestrated by noted Broadway arranger Robert Russell Bennett, demonstrated the depth of ability and musicianship in the orchestra. The ensemble played beautifully and each solo entrance was a demonstration of finesse and grace. The saxophones, not frequently on the orchestral stage, contributed a beautifully warm and blended sound.
The next two works on the program, also by Gershwin, featured pianist Andrew Russo. Russo played with refreshing stylistic freedom, capturing the spirit of Gershwin’s Tin Pan Alley roots. “Rhapsody in Blue,” orchestrated by Ferde Grofe, is as iconically American as the Empire State Building. Enlivened by Russo’s interpretation, this was a fine performance. The clarinet solo was skillfully played by Gabrielle Baffoni and the ensemble playing was responsive and strong.
Following intermission, Russo and the orchestra performed variations on “I Got Rhythm.” This crisp, sparkling piece is a demonstration of the skill in orchestration that Gershwin developed during his short life. Russo’s approach to the piano created a sound that was at once incisive and warm. From top to bottom, there was more great playing from all parties.
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The last work on the program was Leonard Bernstein’s “Symphonic Dances from West Side Story.” This orchestra tour de force presents every section of the orchestra with challenges and symphony handled the majority of these with fire and grace. The score compresses the drama of Bernstein’s retelling of the Romeo and Juliet story into about twenty minutes. Tuning proved challenging during some of the most serene and transcendent moments, but on balance this was a strong and enjoyable performance.
The concert concluded with John Williams’ “Raiders of the Lost Ark” theme as an encore. Votes for the encore were solicited online during the week, and the audience was encouraged by Hege to add their votes, as polling concluded at the end of intermission. This rousing work by another significant contributor to American culture was well played and well received.