The 2015-16 Wichita Symphony Orchestra Classics Concerts series began with a dazzling display of varied and energetic showpieces on Saturday under the baton of maestro Daniel Hege, joined by violinist Sarah Chang for two sensational solo works.
Chang first performed a suite from Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story,” arranged for her by composer David Newman. The freely rhapsodic arrangement spun virtuosic solo lines around “Cool,” “There’s A Place For Us,” “Maria” and “Mambo.” Chang played with a silvery, delicate tone throughout, sometimes in danger of being swamped by the full orchestra.
Intimate moments were better balanced, such as a duet between Chang and concertmaster John Harrison that gradually grew to include the entire string section. The most thrilling passages were in “Mambo,” in which arranger Newman had made the most daring transformations of the original material into concerto-like passage work, a challenge Chang tore into with gusto, matched by the energy and enthusiasm of the orchestra.
A contrasting but no less challenging work, Maurice Ravel’s “Tzigane,” was inspired by both Gypsy melodies and nineteenth-century virtuosity, and provided Chang an opportunity to play alone in the work’s opening cadenza.
Chang proved a passionate and skilled navigator through Ravel’s intricate and subtly-shaded melodies, and was equally committed to the wildly demanding special effects (such as left-hand pizzicato, double and triple stops, and lightning-fast scale passages) that made up the second half.
When the orchestra, reduced in size, joined in, the balance between soloist and ensemble was excellent. The string section in soft passages was by turns ethereal and transparent, and then fiery and strongly rhythmic, backing up Chang’s flights of dexterity for a finale that brought the audience to its feet.
Opening and closing the program were two popular works: Till Eulenspiegel’s “Merry Pranks,” by Richard Strauss, is a programmatic work based on a medieval German practical joker and folk hero. Among the many soloistic passages for members of the orchestra, very exposed solos for horn (played by Nicholas Smith), E-flat clarinet (David Cook) and violin (John Harrison) were expertly played.
This orchestra is frequently at its best when simply going for it, whether “it” includes Eulenspiegel’s bumptious pratfalls, lush romantic passages, brazen sneers or the exaggerated rhythms of the program’s closing work, “La Valse” (by Ravel).
Both a tribute to the popular Viennese waltzes of Johann Strauss and an elegy for the world they had come from, Ravel’s work is alternately lush and ominous. The bassoon section (including Merrilee Tuinstra’s contrabassoon) and bass clarinet (Michael Unruh) made the most of the rare moments in which they carried the texture, but the entire orchestra deserves credit for a fine, spirited performance that brought to mind ghosts whirling endlessly about a once-crowded ballroom.
Guy Vollen is a conductor, horn player and award-winning composer and holds a doctorate in musical composition. He blogs about music at Medleyana.com.
IF YOU GO
What: The Wichita Symphony Orchestra will perform Strauss, Bernstein and Ravel in a concert featuring violinist Sarah Chang.
When: 3 p.m. Oct. 4
Where: Century II, 225 W. Douglas
Tickets: $25-$67, www.wichitasymphony.org, 316-267-7658