Saturday’s Wichita Symphony Orchestra concert provided a sample of the diverse rhythms of North and South American music, along with a wide variety of string techniques and effects.
Most notably, music director Daniel Hege and the WSO strings were joined by violinist Karen Gomyo for a performance of Argentinean composer Astor Piazzolla’s tango-infused “Four Seasons of Buenos Aires.” Gomyo made for a dynamic and charismatic soloist, ably balancing a sense of urgency in the composition’s rhythmic and virtuosic passages with a controlled and expressive lyricism in its more introspective moments. Although she was sometimes difficult to hear in the first movement, the balance improved in the following three movements, as she both stood out from the ensemble and took control of it.
As for the piece itself, performed for the first time by the WSO this past weekend, it delivers both the Old World charm and New World energy associated with the tango, fused in Piazzolla’s music with dramatic structure and bravura technique. (It also contains several witty references to Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons,” a touch added by Leonid Desyatnikov, who arranged four separate tangos into this showpiece for solo violin and strings.)
Numerous bowing effects are used, making the string instruments stand in for guiro, tambura and other Latin percussion instruments, as well as more standard glissando and pizzicato effects that are a frequent element of Piazzolla’s work.
Fitting for an update of a baroque concerto, there are solo lines within the ensemble, including several extended passages warmly played by principal cellist Jakub Omsky. “Four Seasons of Buenos Aires” was a tour de force, with Gomyo displaying both prodigious technique and a flair for the dramatic in the work’s many changes of mood and tempo.
Before Gomyo’s appearance, American composer Aaron Jay Kernis’ “New Era Dance” blew the lid off with a raucous blend of styles. Composed in 1992 in the midst of the Los Angeles riots and explicitly looking toward the new millennium, “New Era Dance” is less about the future than about rhetoric of the future, combining extra-musical sounds like gunshots and sirens in the manner of the Futurists of the 1920s; the muscular, modernist jazz of Leonard Bernstein and Stan Kenton; and optimistic marches contrasted with catastrophic pile-ups of dissonant sound, ending on a question mark.
The WSO played with gusto, making the most of the work’s abrupt turns from raw, jagged rhythms to icy, controlled minimalist pulses. All the instrumental sections were featured, but an enlarged percussion section, led by timpanist Gerald Scholl, was the star.
The program was balanced with the suite from Aaron Copland’s ballet “Appalachian Spring,” a work that is likely more familiar to audiences but which is nonetheless welcome and always a pleasure to hear live. Saturday’s edge-of-the-seat performance was intense without being brittle, and of the many soloists featured, principal clarinetist Elizandro Garcia-Montoya must be singled out for his spritely introduction to the variations on “The Gift to Be Simple.”
There were a few moments in the hoedown-like middle dance episodes that sounded slightly labored, as if the cut-glass precision of Copland’s music had slightly slipped, but they were brief and didn’t detract from a lush, committed performance. By the soft, subdued conclusion of the entire suite, hardly even a breath could be heard in Century II Concert Hall.
Finally, the program concluded with “Danzon No. 2” by Mexican composer Arturo Marquez. Like Piazzolla’s work, this was a modern interpretation of a traditional dance, intended as a portrait of a place and culture, and the WSO’s joyous performance (again featuring many of the orchestra’s principals as soloists) ended the evening on an energetic note.
Guy Vollen is a conductor, horn player and award-winning composer and holds a doctoral degree in musical composition. He blogs about music at Medleyana.com.