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Review: Haydn’s influence felt in Wichita Symphony’s inspired performance

Although nothing by Franz Joseph Haydn was performed at Saturday night’s Wichita Symphony Orchestra concert, the composer’s influence loomed large: Sergei Prokofiev’s “Classical” Symphony, which began the program, is a witty 20th-century homage to Haydn, composed for a small orchestra and borrowing the forms and gestures of the Classical era, tweaking them with modern dissonances and surprises. The result is a charming and perennially popular confection with some surprising technical challenges, and the symphony, under the direction of Maestro Daniel Hege, performed it with style, attacking its rapid-fire passages and changes of color with gusto while maintaining the piece’s relaxed and serene surface.

Prokofiev was just a warm-up, however, as pianist Stephen Hough joined the symphony to play two youthful concertos of Ludwig van Beethoven’s. Beethoven’s Concerto No. 2 (actually composed first, but published second) shows the strong influence of both Haydn and Mozart in its supple melodies and music-box accompaniment. Hough, however, emphasized the muscular, propulsive qualities that were already present in the composer’s early style, as well as drawing attention to the sudden changes of mood and abrupt breaks in texture that were part of Beethoven’s later style.

In making this work his own, Hough frequently held the tempo back, as if examining the piece from a distance and commenting on it; this was especially noticeable in the third movement, a rondo in which Hough observed Beethoven’s jaunty, off-kilter rhythms but refused to be locked into a metronomic tempo. Hough also included a cadenza of his own composition during the first movement; cadenzas were typically improvised by the soloist, and Beethoven didn’t publish one for this concerto until much later in his career, after his style had undergone significant changes. Hough replaced it with an adventurous but more stylistically consistent passage that maintained the concerto’s dramatic arc and served the cadenza’s original purpose: to display the soloists’ virtuosity and inventiveness.

After the intermission, Hough performed Beethoven’s Concerto No. 1, a work much closer to the composer’s early symphonies and with less room for historical deconstruction. Hough’s performance was commanding and thorough and balanced with the orchestra’s warm sound. Especially noteworthy was an extended second-movement duet between Hough and principal clarinet Sarunas Jankauskas, the most overtly romantic movement of the program and one that unfolded beautifully in performance. The evening ended on a high note as Hough and the orchestra blazed through the concerto’s rambunctious third movement.

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