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.

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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.

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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.