Andrew Sewell conducted the Wichita Symphony Orchestra as its music director for the first time in October 2000. The program was New Zealand composer Douglas Lilburn's "Aotearoa Overture," Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 25 and Dvorak's Symphony No. 9 "From the New World."
Ten seasons and 200 concerts later, Sewell will conduct his final concert as the orchestra's music director Saturday and on April 11 in Century II Concert Hall.
The program will be Haydn's Symphony No. 100, "Military," followed by Brahms' "A German Requiem" for orchestra, chorus and vocal soloists Michelle Areyzaga and Thomas Hall.
As classical music critic at The Eagle from 1998 until 2007, I covered a good portion of Sewell's tenure. I liked many of his concerts, deplored a few, but on the whole thought Sewell brought depth and thoughtful persuasion to the orchestra's music-making. He embraced a popular approach to classical music without pandering.
I particularly admired his programming, steering into the flourishing side-eddies of classical music without neglecting the monumental composers that mark its mainstream.
I caught Sewell by phone last week at his home in Madison, Wis. —where he will continue as music director of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra through at least 2012-2013 — for our final conversation about his time with the Wichita Symphony.
What were some of your musical highlights with the Wichita Symphony?
In my second season, a French program with Ravel's "Daphnis and Chloe" and "La Valse" — that was a moment. And I remember "Ein Heldenleben" (by Richard Strauss) in 2003 was a memorable occasion, just surmounting the music. Those pieces engage and excite the orchestra, and they come switched on and ready to work. Those pieces are crowd-pleasers, but they're also orchestra-pleasers.
Other programming you are proud of?
There were very few pieces we repeated over the last 10 years. I feel like we've covered a lot. I've done seven pieces of Ravel; I've done six of the Rossini overtures; we've done all the Brahms concertos and symphonies (though two of the latter were with guest conductors).
I was surprised, actually, about some of the diverse repertoire we've done and some of the first-time repertoire we've done. On the last concert (in March) we did Ives' Second Symphony. The orchestra had never done that piece, period.
What pieces were repeated during your tenure?
The Bruch Violin Concerto; Dvorak's "New World" Symphony; Rossini's "Barber of Seville" Overture; and Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3.
Are there many pieces you wanted to perform but didn't?
I have a running list of repertoire and I've sort of knocked them off as I've gone along. And some of them have not been for want of trying. I've been trying to do the Berlioz "Symphonie Fantastique" for a number of years and I see that (new conductor) Daniel Hege is going to be doing that this coming season. I'm glad they are going to do it.
Did your relationship with the orchestra change over your 10 years?
I think the relationship develops and continues. There is a certain professionalism that one has to maintain; you are the boss, ultimately. But on stage and in rehearsal I have tried to maintain a decorum of engagement. We are making music together; it isn't a dictatorship.
How has being music director of both the Wichita Symphony and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra helped you grow as a conductor?
First of all, getting both positions was a dream come true. I got the chamber orchestra first, just a month before Wichita. It was a very pleasant and happy household when I got one orchestra — and then I got the other one, which was beyond my expectations. It's been 10 great years. And I have covered so much repertoire, both symphonic and chamber orchestra literature, that I am a very happy, contented musician.
Is it a problem when music directors such as yourself and Hege don't actually reside in Wichita?
When I took on this job it was never a problem of residency. It was more about, can you maintain a presence so that everyone feels that you are our music director, of our orchestra? And as an artistic leader in a community where you are not a resident, you have to work even harder to do that. I've worked very hard to be as present and visible in both communities as I can.
Why conclude your tenure with Brahms' "A German Requiem" and Haydn's Symphony No. 100?
As a string player in an orchestra, a steady diet of Brahms and Haydn is essential to being a good musician. It solidifies the orchestra and to play it well requires a careful attention to detail. I've made no secret that I am a firm believer in maintaining a good, strong symphony chorus and I've always done my best to keep that part of the organization engaged with good repertoire. I think it's a great way to finish the season.
Is it true that your first gig immediately after leaving Wichita is with Hege's Syracuse Symphony? That's quite a coincidence.
I have a lot of respect for Dan, and I had the good fortune to conduct "The Messiah" up there (in Syracuse) in 2006. And they asked me to do four concerts (April 14-18) on a tour around the state. I'm doing the "Death and Transfiguration" of Strauss, two "Nocturnes" by Debussy and the Prokofiev Third Piano Concerto.
Besides Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, what will occupy your time musically as you move forward?
During the last 10 years my schedule has been very full. I've had not a lot of time to guest conduct elsewhere — and I haven't really wanted to because I've had my hands full with the two jobs and my responsibilities at home with the family. We found the longest I could be away without too much distraction would be 10 days. I could never be an opera conductor away for five weeks with a young family.
But I have had offers to do things and I'm looking forward to having a much-freer schedule to be able to take those assignments now.
Would you like to become the music director of another symphony orchestra?
I do like the idea of building on an orchestra, and having the autonomy of going through the repertoire like I've done with Wichita, building the orchestra through specific repertoire and widening the palette of the audience. One of my goals was to move beyond some of the standard Romantic literature and try some new things.
What will you miss most about Wichita?
One thing that really shines about the Wichita community is how hands-on and involved people are. They care about the arts. It has been a real pleasure to be associated with all of the artistic organizations in Wichita. I will miss that very much.
If you go
wichita symphony orchestra
What: Classics concert featuring Haydn's Symphony No. 100 and Brahms' "A German Requiem," Andrew Sewell, conductor
Where: Century II Concert Hall, 225 W. Douglas
When: 8 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. April 11
How much: Tickets are $20 - $42, discounts available. For more information, visit www.wso.org or call 316-267-7658.