Wichita Symphony Orchestra: “The Gershwin Experience”

Wichita Symphony Orchestra
Daniel Hege, Music Director and Conductor
Lisa Vroman, soprano
Rick Faugno, dancer/vocalist
Jeffrey Biegel, piano

I reviewed “The Gershwin Experience,” a concert with multimedia elements (including still photos and archival footage projected onto a screen) celebrating the music of George Gershwin, presented by the Wichita Symphony Orchestra with the guest artists listed above. Many of Gershwin’s classic songs were performed, as well as the complete Rhapsody in Blue and excerpts from some of Gershwin’s other instrumental works. You can read my review for the Eagle here.

Wichita Symphony Orchestra: Handel/Mozart, Messiah

I had the opportunity to review the recent performance of Messiah by the Wichita Symphony Orchestra and Chorus this weekend. The version they performed was the 1789 revision of George Frideric Handel’s work by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. My review for The Wichita Eagle can be found here.

Messiah
George Frideric Handel, orchestrated by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Wichita Symphony Orchestra
Daniel Hege, Music Director and Conductor

Janet E. Brown, Soprano
Barbara Rearick, Mezzo-soprano
Dinyar Vania, Tenor
Timothy LeFebvre, Baritone

Wichita Symphony Orchestra Chorus
Michael Hanawalt, Chorus Director

Wichita Symphony Orchestra with Sarah Chang, Violin

Wichita Symphony Orchestra
Daniel Hege, Music Director and Conductor
Sarah Chang, Violin

Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks, Richard Strauss
West Side Story Suite for Violin and Orchestra, Leonard Bernstein (arr. David Newman)
Tzigane, Maurice Ravel
La Valse, Maurice Ravel

I reviewed the opening concert of the Wichita Symphony Orchestra’s Classics Concerts series for The Wichita Eagle; the article can be read here.

Wichita Symphony Orchestra: Disney Magic

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Saturday’s Wichita Symphony Orchestra Pops Concert, “Disney in Concert,” was subtitled “Magical Music from the Movies.” As such, it was as much stage show and multimedia event as orchestral concert. Playing to an enthusiastic audience that included both costumed children and regular Symphony attendees, Guest Conductor Robert Bernhardt took the podium in Century II Concert Hall and shared the stage with four singers: Juliana Hansen, Stephanie Burkett Gerson, Kyle Eberlein, and Nathan Andrew Riley. All four are veterans of Disney stage productions, with experience putting their own spin on characters already familiar to the audience through the classic film versions. Throughout the performance, clips and still images from Disney movies accompanied the music on a large video screen; expressive stage lighting also contributed to the spectacle.

Unsurprisingly, the program leaned heavily on movies spanning the last twenty-five years, from the Menken-Ashman scores from The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, and Beauty and the Beast, to the ubiquitous hit “Let It Go” from 2013’s Frozen. There was time for history as well, however: the orchestra got things rolling with an instrumental medley (arranged by Bruce Healey) that combined favorites “Zip-a-dee-doo-dah” and several songs from Mary Poppins and Cinderella with non-film classics “Mickey Mouse March” and “It’s A Small World.” Later selections paid tribute to The Jungle Book and (again) Mary Poppins.

The four vocalists, at first introduced one by one, took turns playing emcee, soloist, and backup singer: Hansen lit up the stage as Ariel from The Little Mermaid, before turning the lead over to Gerson for a gorgeous rendition of “Colors of the Wind” from Pocahontas. A suite of songs from Beauty and the Beast was an opportunity to unleash some inventive staging, with the four soloists reenacting the opening ensemble “Bonjour!” with Hansen as Belle. Later in the same number, Eberlein showed off his comic chops as Lumiere for “Be Our Guest,” again joined by the other three for a rambunctious performance that climaxed with an energetic kick-line. (Eberlein in particular has a knack for bringing characters to life without simply imitating Louis Prima or Robin Williams: to say he stole the show would be unfair to the other singers, but he displayed the most individual personality.)

The orchestra played strongly under Bernhardt’s unfussy baton, especially in a few purely instrumental selections (fittingly, as Bernhardt pointed out, they performed a suite from Klaus Badelt’s score from Pirates of the Caribbean on “Talk Like A Pirate Day”): Alan Menken’s score for The Hunchback of Notre Dame had plenty of big moments that showed off the brass (always important in film scoring!) and percussion. (The arrangements often incorporated elements from the score in interesting ways: the Beauty and the Beast suite, for example, began with the celebratory music of the Beast’s final transformation, a good example of composer John Oswald’s adage that when repurposed, “endings make good beginnings.”) Principal oboist Andrea Banke’s fluent playing also provided the requisite Middle Eastern flavor between vocal selections from Aladdin.

A few numbers pushed at the limits of what could be recreated live, and two numbers suffered from the combination of a resonant hall and live mics: in Riley’s “Under the Sea” from The Little Mermaid and Eberlein’s “I Wanna Be Like You” from The Jungle Book, the sound was muddy and the drum-heavy rhythms didn’t show off the orchestra at its best. In both cases, however, the soloists poured on the energy, bringing the audience to its feet. The bottom line is that when the singers are so evidently having this much fun, it’s hard not to join in. (A few numbers were sing-alongs, with lyrics displayed on the screen; my five-year-old son, at his first orchestra concert, was having just as much fun mimicking the instrumentalists, enthusiastically beating on invisible drums or sawing away at a phantom double bass.)

Two highlights capped the evening: Gerson took the lead on Frozen‘s “Let It Go” in an arrangement that followed the film version closely, but with added harmonies from the other three singers. The effect was dazzling in its precision, and gave the audience a chance to hear a very familiar piece of music in a new setting. Finally, the orchestra and singers left it all on stage with selections from The Lion King (a collaboration of Elton John, Tim Rice, and Hans Zimmer), including “The Circle of Life,” “I Just Can’t Wait To Be King” (which had much cleaner sound than the other rhythmic numbers), and “Can You Feel the Love Tonight.” It was a strong note to end on; with the beginning of the Classics series next month, the Wichita Symphony has the makings of a strong season ahead of it.

Wichita Symphony Orchestra with Samuel Ramey: Duke Bluebeard’s Castle

Bluebeard.Chihuly

Béla Bartók: Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, Op. 11

Samuel Ramey as Bluebeard
Nancy Maultsby as Judith

Wichita Symphony Orchestra
Daniel Hege, Music Director and Conductor
Marie Allyn King, Stage Director

This past weekend I had the opportunity to hear the Wichita Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Bartók’s 1911 opera with Samuel Ramey in the title role, enhanced by Dale Chihuly’s glass sculptures (seen above). A deeply penetrating psychological study, the opera is based on the fairy tale about a young bride who uncovers her new husband’s bloody secrets, but the text (by Béla Balázs) replaces a literal retelling of the story with one almost completely interior. Productions typically include staging that brings out the symbolism in the text (such as Michael Powell’s 1963 production for West German television that places a nuptial bed at the center of the action), and Chihuly’s sculptures were no exception. The sculptures, in the shape of spears, bulbs, flowers, and more, represented images as diverse as an armory, a hoard of gold and jewels, and a lake of tears.

Bluebeard.Powell2

A particular challenge to the stage director is the ambiguity of the ending; Powell’s direction can be read as an interrogation of coercion and consent, with the clear implication that Judith dies to learn the truth. For the WSO’s performance, Marie Allyn King chose to keep the ending mysterious, allowing the audience to reach their own conclusions. In any case, Judith’s character arc is a tricky path for any actress, and one which Nancy Maultsby successfully threaded, both pushing Bluebeard to uncover his secrets (at one point she turned the tables on Bluebeard with a gesture as simple and economical as a hand raised in denial of him) but fearing what she may uncover. (In this regard, Bluebeard’s Castle has much in common with the sumptuous gothic horror of Roger Corman’s Poe films, making the truth something to be both yearned for and dreaded.) King’s staging and Maultsby’s performance suggested, at least to this viewer, that Judith ultimately fell victim to the powerlessness of being put on a pedestal: the prison of royalty. As Ramey said in a Q&A after the performance, “She was warned!”

Bluebeard.Powell1

Here’s what I wrote for the Wichita Eagle.

Wichita Symphony with Stephen Hough, piano

Sergei Prokofiev: Symphony No. 1 in D Major, Op. 25, “Classical”
Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat Major, Op. 19 and Piano Concerto No. 1 in C Major, Op. 15
Stephen Hough, piano

British pianist (and composer, author, etc.) Stephen Hough joined the Wichita Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Maestro Daniel Hege for a performance of two Beethoven piano concertos and Prokofiev’s “Classical” Symphony. You can read my brief write-up of the concert for The Wichita Eagle here.

Wichita Symphony Orchestra with Time for Three

Manuel De Falla: Ritual Fire Dance from El Amor Brujo
Jennifer Higdon: Concerto 4-3
Igor Stravinsky: Suite The Firebird (1919 revised version)
Leonard Cohen: Hallelujah
Arturo Márquez: Danzón No. 2
Mumford and Sons: Little Lion Man

On January 31, I attended the Wichita Symphony Orchestra’s Blue Jeans concert, a casual-dress program featuring eclectic string trio Time for Three.
Here’s what I wrote for The Wichita Eagle.

Wichita Symphony Orchestra with Karen Gomyo, Violin

Wichita Symphony Orchestra concert: Saturday, October 25, 2014

Daniel Hege, Music Director and Conductor
Karen Gomyo, Violin

Aaron Jay Kernis: New Era Dance
Astor Piazzolla: Las cuatro estaciones porteñas (The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires)
Aaron Copland: Appalachian Spring Suite
Arturo Márquez: Dánzón No. 2

Here’s what I wrote in my review for The Wichita Eagle.

Film Review: Following the Ninth

It’s easy to be desensitized as a defense against hype; all around us we are being sold, told that something is the biggest, the best, the newest. Folding our arms and saying, “Oh, yeah? Prove it!” isn’t just reflexive cynicism, it’s practically a self-defense mechanism, the only way to protect ourselves against the barrage of pitches clamoring for our attention.  Arts advocacy, sadly, isn’t immune to hyperbole, and even well-meaning statements like Mr. Holland’s Opus and The Mozart Effect can overstate their cases, ringing hollow.  I’m as guilty as anyone else: music can be a powerful experience, and difficult to put into words. If we sometimes go overboard when speaking on its behalf, it’s because we have been transported, and words are rarely big enough to explain it.

Kerry Candaele (the director of Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price and other documentaries) described himself in his 20s as full of “angst, existential dread, and spiritual maladies,” before his discovery of the music of Ludwig van Beethoven, specifically a cassette recording of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.  The music touched him so deeply that he became a convert, digging into Beethoven’s music and wanting to pound on people’s doors, asking them, “Do you have Beethoven in your life?”  Fortunately, instead of doing that, Candaele wrote and directed Following the Ninth, which takes a different tack (I caught the film at the Wichita Orpheum Theatre Wednesday night, co-presented by the Tallgrass Film Association and Wichita Symphony Orchestra).

Following

Before Wednesday night’s screening of Following the Ninth, Candaele spoke briefly to those brought to the screening “not under their own free will,” seeking to allay their fears by stating up front that his film is not a biopic, and not an academic analysis of the music.  Indeed, as the film proceeded there were relatively few pronouncements from musical experts and almost no references to Beethoven’s biography, other than the fact that by the time he composed the Ninth (his last completed symphony) in 1824, he was completely deaf.  The film focuses squarely on individuals from China, Japan, Chile, and Germany, speaking in their own words (and with the support of copious historical and newly-filmed footage) about what the Ninth Symphony has meant to them.  Candaele makes his case for the power of art by example.

Following the Ninth celebrates the communal nature of Beethoven’s masterpiece, concentrating on times and places in which the complete work (especially the famous “Ode to Joy” of the last movement) gave solace or energy to people desperate for freedom, equality, brother- and sisterhood.  In 1989, mere months apart, demonstrators in Tiananmen Square and crowds celebrating the dismantling of the Berlin Wall adopted the Ninth as anthems under very different circumstances: the Chinese student demonstrators, represented by student leader Feng Congde, hijacked public PA systems and blared the Ninth Symphony to drown out official announcements and threats; in East Berlin, Lene Ford grew up being forced to sing Beethoven’s work in school, taught only that he was a “social revolutionary.”  After the collapse of the Wall (only two months after Lene’s brother had been shot trying to escape to the West!), the Ode to Joy symbolized a moment of sudden openness: for a young woman who had been spied upon by the Stasi simply because she had pen pals in other countries, “who were like fiction to me, because I knew I would never see them,” the experience of freedom was overpowering.

While the Chinese student demonstrations would be crushed by government force, and East Germany would be reunited with the West as the Soviet system crumbled, both Feng and Ford speak to the transformation they underwent during those events: the sense that they could do anything, that both they and the world had changed.  Ford comments that the feelings she experienced, and the welcome she received from West Germans the first day the border was opened, have stayed with her, forming a reserve of strength she has drawn on throughout her life since then.  At a concert after the Wall fell, conductor Leonard Bernstein famously changed a single word in the Ode from freude (joy) to freiheit (freedom)–a change not without some controversy; while both words were appropriate for the moment, it is the sense of utter joy that comes through as Ford recounts her story.  As for Feng, when he describes the plaster statue of a woman holding a torch aloft that the students erected in Tiananmen Square–an iconic image that was interpreted as a Chinese Statue of Liberty in the U. S.–he refers to her as Joy personified.

Feng’s recollections of his role in the protests dwell on the liberation of the students’ artistic impulses during the protests, and emphasize that the restriction of the Communist system was not only physical, but a sort of prison of the mind: while the protesters faced physical violence, they were protesting against a more pervasive “violence of culture,” in which art, music, and dance were all “bourgeois,” forbidden.  A sad irony of totalitarianism is that the same creative outlets were forbidden under the fascist government of Chile under General Augusto Pinochet: in the words of one activist, “there was no culture, because all culture was Left culture.” It was forbidden to sing Chilean folk songs or the “Himno de la Alegria,” as the Ode to Joy is known in Spanish, because of their association with popular socialist movements, or simply because the majority of musicians were known to have leftist sympathies. It is a reminder that, as Czech author Josef Škvorecký pointed out (in “Red Music”),

when the lives of individuals and communities are controlled by powers that themselves remain uncontrolled–slavers, czars, führers, first secretaries, marshals, generals and generalissimos, ideologists of dictatorships at either end of the spectrum–then creative energy becomes a protest. . . .  Totalitarian ideologists don’t like real life (other people’s) because it cannot be totally controlled; they loathe art, the product of a yearning for life, because that too evades control.

Some of the most harrowing passages in the film describe the paranoia and secrecy that marked Pinochet’s Chile, as suspected dissidents were “disappeared,” rounded up by the government for torture and (sometimes) execution.  Indeed, many of the public protests against Pinochet were led by women: so many of the men had been taken that the women left behind became the public voices of dissent, keeping the names and faces of the “disappeared” in the public eye and leading non-violent demonstrations (including singing the forbidden “Himno”).  Although Pinochet is gone, the recollections of the Chilean activists are bittersweet, with a sense of grievous loss that can only be processed through wry humor or simply by moving on.

Unlike the examples of the Ode taking on heightened significance at moments of political crisis, the annual performance of Beethoven’s Ninth has been an established tradition in Japan since World War I: professional orchestras, schools, and Daiku (“great nine”) associations stage hundreds of performances of the symphony every year in December, where it is associated with the New Year, similar to choral societies in the West that perform Handel’s Messiah and other works annually.  Candaele sits in on rehearsals with some of these groups, made up of amateurs who sing for both musical fulfillment and camaraderie; as in the West, Daiku choruses are civic and social as well as artistic in function, with a great emphasis placed on the value of cooperative endeavors.  Following the Ninth was six years in the making; at the outset of filming, Candaele could not have expected the horrific earthquake and tsunami that devastated parts of Japan in March 2011; but in the aftermath, Beethoven’s Daiku was an obvious symbol for the Japanese people to express their resilience and solidarity.

Following the Ninth is not a straight concert film, but it does roughly follow the order of Beethoven’s symphony, with the Ode to Joy as a recurring touchstone, introduced at the very beginning and referred to throughout the film (whereas in the symphony it is heard only in the final movement).  The four countries’ stories are intertwined, cutting back and forth, leaning on the similarities more than the differences (after all, the theme of the Ode is universal brotherhood).  Beethoven’s music is frequently heard in the background under dialogue or in tandem with footage of crucial events, but longer passages are also played over montages of images cut to match the rhythm of the music.  It’s in these sections that Following the Ninth comes closest to being outright manipulative: scenes of children playing, people marching, and breathtaking natural vistas are like cinematic candy–tasty but not very nutritious–and Beethoven’s music doesn’t need the extra juice.  Likewise, the scenes of goose-stepping German soldiers, Chinese tanks rolling over student encampments, and massive walls of water bearing down on the Japanese coast are chilling enough without Beethoven’s timpani or ominous harmonies making the point.

Still, even those scenes contribute to the film’s theme: the unity of mankind in all its diversity, as optimistically celebrated by poet Friedrich Schiller in the Ode that Beethoven would set to music in his monumental symphony; and the ways in which Beethoven’s music has been adopted and given meaning in settings quite different from that which he experienced.  Candaele opens the film with punk/folk singer Billy Bragg telling the story of the time he was invited to rewrite the words to Schiller’s Ode; like Bernstein’s change of a crucial word, that is sacrilege to some people, but it is similar to the way in which each person interviewed in the film has made Beethoven their own, and the way Candaele has used the symphony as a vehicle for telling their stories.  I think that’s the reason so little of Beethoven’s specific history is included in Following the Ninth: it’s already well-known, sure, but more importantly it’s beside the point.  For the Chilean and Chinese protesters, for the suddenly liberated East Germans, and for the Japanese coming together in the face of disaster, Beethoven’s music wasn’t history, or even a convenient symbol: it was alive and it was speaking to them in that moment.  I suspect that’s what we really mean when we say a work of art is “timeless,” and it’s the reason it’s so difficult to put into words after the moment is over.

Wichita Symphony Orchestra with American Brass Quintet

Wichita Symphony Orchestra with Maestro Daniel Hege:

Thunderhead Singers (Drum circle)

John Barry: Concert Suite from Dances With Wolves

Eric Ewazen: Shadowcatcher (concerto featuring American Brass Quintet; accompanied by projected images of Edward Curtis’ photographs of Native Americans)

Antonín Dvořák: Symphony No. 9 in E Minor, “From the New World”

Here’s what I wrote for The Wichita Eagle.