The Wichita Symphony Orchestra put on a lively and colorful program of music by Ginastera, Saint-Saens, and Franck Saturday night, under the direction of guest conductor Maximiano Valdes and featuring cellist Julian Schwarz.
From the beginning of Alberto Ginastera’s “Pampaneas No. 3, Op. 24,” Valdes (currently principal conductor of the Puerto Rico Symphony) set the tone for the evening with a calm, no-nonsense clarity of direction, inviting the orchestra to play with a focused but unhurried attention. The players responded with a warm and finely tuned ensemble on what easily could have been a chilly and forbidding exercise in modernism.
Ginastera’s composition, a three-movement portrait of the vast grassy plains of his native Argentina, was composed in 1954 and features many of the dissonant harmonies and thrusting rhythms common to the time period, but also dips into the more naturalistic well of folk melody and native dance.
The orchestra this season has shown affinity for the challenging music of Stravinsky and Bartok (the latter cited as an influence on Ginastera), and brought the same precision and musicality to this work. The two outer movements, slow and thoughtful, featured lovely and haunting solos by principal oboist Andrea Banke, as well as understated work from the trumpets and horns.
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The boisterous middle movement, a whirlwind of percussive dance music, featured principal percussionist Gerald Scholl on a wicked timpani solo and left room for colorful asides by the brass and piano.
In all, “Pampaneas” would fit nicely with the kind of exotica that Americans projected their imaginations onto in the 1950s, while perhaps subtly drawing connections between the plains of South America and those of the North.
Like Aaron Copland, Ginastera paints a picture on the biggest canvas possible. As Valdes commented in a pre-concert talk, “Pampaneas” captures “the darkness of the night, but it is a beautiful night, not the darkness of the soul.”
Cellist Julian Schwarz, in his first appearance with the Wichita Symphony, is a performer who gives the appearance of complete abandon onstage, but nonetheless remains in control. His performance of Camille Saint-Saens’ “Cello Concerto No. 1 in A Minor, Op. 33,” was a study in contrasts: Saint-Saens’ concerto begins with the soloist bursting out of the gate, and Schwarz obliged with an almost too fast attack on the concerto’s constantly ascending and descending passagework. Much of the drama in the first movement derives from the bravura solo set against the sturdy, evenly-flowing accompaniment, a character brought out by Valdes’ unflappable demeanor.
Schwarz and Valdes have long known each other and worked together before, and it shows in their complementary onstage manner; this was their first performance of the Saint-Saens concerto together, however.
Just when it seemed that Schwarz is committed only to Paganini-like intensity, however, he dropped seamlessly into the polite minuet of the concerto’s second main section (all the sections flow together without movement divisions), joining in the dance and blending evenly measured trills into the texture. The fiery, tempestuous themes returned for the third section, building to a rousing conclusion.
In case any doubt of Schwarz’s control were left, he favored the audience with an encore, the prelude from J.S. Bach’s unaccompanied “Cello Suite No. 1,” exhibiting great control and variation of touch throughout, from feather-light subtlety to digging in with impetuous vigor.
Schwarz, though young (and performing on his birthday, we were told), has already begun an impressive career. He had his orchestral debut at age 11, playing the same Saint-Saens concerto, and has numerous solo appearances under his belt.
Belgian-born (but Parisian-settled) composer Cesar Franck’s “Symphony in D Minor” filled the second half of the concert. This longtime favorite, the only symphony by Franck, provided an engaging showcase for all the sections of the orchestra.
Valdes, in shaping the three-movement work, chose to exaggerate little in terms of tempo, instead giving the many soloists room to make their melodic lines their own. Likewise, while the structure of the symphony includes many contrasting sections with minimal transition between them, Valdes’ direction emphasized the connections throughout rather than the divisions.
This work is especially famous for its prominent use of the English horn as a solo instrument, here beautifully played by Emily Tsai (who also had moments to shine in the Ginastera piece); but almost all the principal winds are brought to the fore at different times.
Other memorable passages include the delicate pizzicato opening of the second movement, accented by the penetrating harp work of Jane Hyde; the emphatic, accented brass in the first and third movements; and the rollicking, syncopated theme of the finale, starting in the cellos and passed throughout the orchestra until, again, the brass get (almost) the last word.
Surely Franck’s experience as an organist shaped his sense of development through modulation and color change. The same melodies are heard in numerous keys and instrumental colors, even shared between movements. Fortunately, they are attractive and memorable tunes, central to this work’s enduring popularity. The third movement, especially, juggles a variety of musical topics as lightly as balls in the air; the freedom of movement Franck enjoyed in his 1889 work seems to anticipate the Paris of the following century.