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by Daniel Hathaway
Akron Symphony music director Christopher Wilkins enjoys putting together themed programs that go well beyond what other orchestras put out to the public. On Saturday evening in E.J. Thomas Hall, with the help of Francis Scott Key, Dudley Buck, Ludwig van Beethoven, Charles Ives (via William Schuman), Michael Gandolfi, the Akron Symphony Chorus, One City Choir and Miller South Choir, Wilkins and the orchestra brought the spirit of 1814 vividly back to life through a canny choice of repertory.
by Daniel Hathaway
Two hundred years to the day from the eventful night in Chesapeake Bay when the Baltimore lawyer Francis Scott Key watched the British Royal Navy’s bombardment of Fort McHenry during the War of 1812 and penned the poem that begins, “O say can you see by the dawn’s early light,” the Akron Symphony will mark the birth of the United State’s eventual National Anthem with a program of music by Dudley Buck, Beethoven, Charles Ives and Michael Gandolfi on Saturday, September 13 at 8:00 in E.J. Thomas Hall at the University of Akron.
Though Quire Cleveland pointed up some of the history of The Star-Spangled Banner in its “American Choral Gems” programs last April (treating the audiences to all four verses of Key’s expressive poetry), hardly anyone gives the anthem a second thought after standing for its ritual performance at the beginning of sporting events. As Akron Symphony music director Christopher Wilkins admitted in a telephone conversation, “it had never occurred to me to get all that excited about The Star-Spangled Banner other than just having regretted some of its militaristic words and the fact that the tune was written by an Englishman, anyway.”
That all changed when Wilkins talked with composer Michael Gandolfi, who was involved in writing his Chesapeake, Summer of 1814. Read the rest of this entry »
By Mike Telin
On Saturday, April 12 the Akron Symphony, under the direction of Christopher Wilkins, will present its final Classic Series Concert of the season with performances of Walton’s Crown Imperial March and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5. The concert, which begins at 8:00 in E.J. Thomas Hall also features The Akron Symphony Chorus, Maria Sensi Sellner, chorus director, in Rossini’s Stabat Mater.
“I’ve worked with Christopher Wilkins and the Akron Symphony in the past,” mezzo-soprano and opera sensation Elizabeth DeShong told us during a recent conversation from New York where she was performing the role of Hermina in The Metropolitan Opera’s pastiche, The Enchanted Island. “And knowing that I am occasionally in Akron, since my base is there, they asked if I would come back for the Stabat Mater and I was really happy to do so. I have sung many Rossini opera roles but this will be my first experience of singing Stabat Mater. It’s a piece that I’ve been wanting to sing and it’s wonderful to be able to do it in Akron.” Read the rest of this entry »
by Daniel Hathaway
Pity any foolish composer who sets out today to write incidental music for Shakespeare’s wonderful comedy, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Mendelssohn’s already been there and done that with such imagination and sensitivity that no one else need apply (though Benjamin Britten turned the play into a successful opera). The very large audience at E.J. Thomas Hall in Akron on Saturday evening had the rare treat of hearing every note of Mendelssohn’s score interleaved with about two-thirds of Shakespeare’s words, when Christopher Wilkins led the Akron Symphony, the Akron Symphony Shakespeare Players, the Summit Choral Society Children’s Choir and Ballet Excel Ohio in an enchanted production of the Bard’s masterpiece staged by Craig Joseph.
In Shakespeare’s words, the stage of E.J. Thomas Hall was “translated” for the occasion. The orchestra was divided into three triangular groupings on upstage risers with paths between them leading to a colonnaded playing area at the top. Downstage, a pair of balconies with ladders framed the proscenium. A scrim emblazoned with the title of the show was in place when the audience arrived; lights came up behind it to provide a gauzy ambiance for Mendelssohn’s magical overture. Read the rest of this entry »
by Mike Telin
“It’s a big production with a lot of artistic components. And it’s unique in that the play is extremely famous and so is the orchestral score,” said Akron Symphony Music Director Christopher Wilkins. “Almost everybody in the world would recognize the Wedding March. They may not know where it comes from but it is universally recognized.”
On Saturday, March 8 beginning at 8:00 pm in EJ Thomas Hall,Christopher Wilkins will lead the Akron Symphony, Summit Children’s Choir, Cuyahoga Valley Youth Ballet and Akron Symphony Shakespeare Players in a fully-staged production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream with music by Felix Mendelssohn.
In a recent telephone conversation Wilkins said he finds Mendelssohn’s music to be awe-inspiring. He also pointed out that Mendelssohn knew every word of the play (in German). While he was growing up it was common for the Mendelssohn family to stage many plays at their home. “They would invite guests to what they called Tableaux Vivants during which they would reproduce a historical theme or painting and people would come dressed as characters. Members of the family would write poetry. They had a little orchestra and Felix would write music. So when he wrote the overture at the age of 17 in the family garden, it’s pretty clear he already knew the play inside and out. Read the rest of this entry »
by Daniel Hathaway
Symphony orchestras sometimes showcase internal talent rather than laying on touring soloists. On February 22, the Akron Symphony turned the spotlight on several of its own “virtuosos”: its estimable horn section, its principal cellist and its assistant conductor all got their moment to shine before the ASO widened the beam to illuminate the whole ensemble in a brilliant concerto for orchestra.
Music director Christopher Wilkins began the evening with a brief prolegomena, then introduced his assistant, Levi Hammer, who led a stirring performance of Zoltán Kodály’s Dances of Galanta from memory. Based on gypsy melodies collected in the Hungarian village of Galanta, the piece gave a few virtuosi in the orchestra their own cameo appearances: clarinetist Kristina Belisle Jones was splendid in two spiraling cadenzas and flute, piccolo and oboe contributed handsome lyrical passages. The ASO musicians gave Hammer a fraternal solo bow when he was called back to stage. Read the rest of this entry »
by Daniel Hathaway
Scaled down for a Mozart symphony and concerto and Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, the Akron Symphony was lean and anything but mean on Saturday evening. The thirty-one players on the stage of E.J. Thomas Hall formed a tight, vibrant ensemble that responded like a high-performance sports car under the baton of Christopher Wilkins and the bow of Olivier Brault, and held bassoon soloist Todd Jelen in a warm embrace.
The highlight was a sensational performance of Vivaldi’s vividly pictorial quartet of violin concertos, for which, in a very smart and gracious move, Wilkins handed the conducting duties over to Brault. The Montréal violinist has dazzled Northeast Ohio audiences as concertmaster of Apollo’s Fire, but has rarely found himself in the position of having complete control over a performance.
Positioned in the middle of the string ensemble, Olivier Brault — always dashing and stylish — turned into a blur of kinetic energy, playing like a rock guitarist to his violin colleagues one moment, now swiveling around to communicate with the cellos and basses, then drawing himself in for intimate conversations with solo cellist Miles Richardson and harpsichordist Robert Mollard. Read the rest of this entry »
by Daniel Hathaway & Mike Telin
A concerto is a normal and popular feature of symphony orchestra programs. On Saturday, January 11, Akron Symphony music director Christopher Wilkins will be offering two of them to the E.J. Thomas Hall audience. Wilkins and the ensemble will begin the evening with Mozart’s ingratiating Symphony No. 29 in A, then bring the ASO’s principal bassoonist, Todd Jelen, to the footlights for Mozart’s sole surviving bassoon concerto. The concert will conclude with Antonio Vivaldi’s popular quartet of violin concertos, The Four Seasons, with guest soloist Olivier Brault.
Brault is well-known to area audiences as the concertmaster for Cleveland’s baroque orchestra, Apollo’s Fire, a position the Montréal-based violinist has held for the last four seasons while continuing to appear with such Canadian ensembles as Les Boréades de Montréal, Ensemble Caprice and La Bande Montréal as well as his own group, Sonate 1704.
He was appointed to Apollo’s Fire when artistic director Jeannette Sorrell felt the need to bring more continuity to the leadership of the orchestra’s strings after a period when the concertmaster’s duties had been shared around among several players. Read the rest of this entry »
by Mike Telin
“Yes, there is chamber music, but it’s not a chamber music concert in the traditional sense,” bassoonist Renee Anthony Dee told us by telephone. “It is cabaret.” On Friday, November 8, beginning at 8:00 pm in the Akron Civic Theatre, the Akron-based mixed ensemble Sound Gallery presents their debut concert as part of the Civics Cabaret series. (The audience is seated on the stage and is invited to treat the evening like a club concert.)
Dee says the ensemble developed out of the members’ shared experience of feeling a closer connection to the public during their Knight Foundation-sponsored Random Acts of Culture performances. “We hope to expand the traditional concert format by combining many styles of music and to include the audience in the making of art.” Friday’s program is billed as an intimate evening of Homecomings and includes music that celebrates family and friends.
In addition to some old favorites like Dvorak’s “Going Home” from his New World Symphony and a sampler of Stephen Foster’s songs, audience members will also have the opportunity to become part of the performance through poetry, an idea that coalesced out of National Public Radio’s StoryCorps. “We’ll invite the audience to write something about what homecoming — or at this time of year, coming home for Thanksgiving — means to them. During intermission we’ll turn whatever we get into a narration that will be read during Jean-Michel Damase’s Seventeen Variations.” Read the rest of this entry »
by Daniel Hathaway
Though the Finns and the Russians have often had a complicated relationship in recent times, their musical icons — Sibelius and Tchaikovsky — made agreeable partners on Saturday evening’s Akron Symphony program in E.J. Thomas Hall when Christopher Wilkins led Sibelius’s Finlandia, The Swan of Tuonela and Symphony No. 7 and Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1. Two extraordinary soloists, the ASO’s English hornist Cynthia Warren and Croatian pianist Martina Filjak (left), were out in front for the occasion.
The first half of the program belonged to Jan Sibelius, beginning with a robust performance of his patriotic tone poem, Finlandia, composed for an 1899 tableau, Suomi, that advocated the overthrow of Russian rule. As in the previous ASO concert, winds and brass were elevated on risers, which gave those sections more prominence. But with a smaller orchestra this time, sections didn’t blend with each other quite as well. Percussion and brass stood out, sometimes engulfing the strings.
Sibelius set to music four legends of Lemminkainen from the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala. In the composer’s words, “Tuonela, the land of death, the hell of Finnish mythology, is surrounded by a broad river with black waters and rapid currents, on which the Swan of Tuonela floats majestically, singing.” There’s more to the legend, but The Swan of Tuonela contents itself with painting the scene of the river and the swan in a gorgeously mournful melody for English horn and orchestra. Read the rest of this entry »
by Daniel Hathaway
The Akron Symphony opened its new season on Sunday evening at E.J. Thomas Hall under the expressive baton of music director Christopher Wilkins with assured performances of a Ron Nelson overture, a Mozart piano concerto with assistant conductor Levi Hammer at the “Three Graces” Steinway, and a Brahms Symphony. The High Holy Days bumped the performance a day later than the ASO’s normal Saturday evening slot and probably accounted for an opening night crowd a bit smaller than usual but no less effusive in its support for their local ensemble.
Brahms was famously nervous about producing his first symphony. The project languished for years as the composer’s original ideas were repurposed into a piano concerto and parts of his Requiem. What finally emerged in 1876 has become one of the standards of the repertoire, and the ASO did the piece proud. A rich, full, blended tone filled the hall in the tuttis and solo winds (notably oboist Terry Orcutt and clarinetist Kristina Belisle Jones) were splendidly lyrical. Read the rest of this entry »
by Mike Telin
“I love this concerto,” Levi Hammer says of Mozart’s 25th piano concerto. “I never played it and have always wanted to. It has the most gorgeous woodwind writing, especially in the second movement, and to me, it is like playing chamber music.”
On Sunday, September 15 beginning at 7:30 pm in E.J. Thomas Hall, the Akron Symphony Orchestra led by Maestro Christopher Wilkins, opens its 2013-2014 season with a concert featuring Brahms’s Symphony No. 1, American composer Ron Nelson’s Savannah River Holiday and Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 25.
Levi Hammer, who is also the Akron Symphony’s assistant conductor as well as music director of the Akron Youth Symphony, says that he sees his career following the long tradition of conductors who have ascended to the orchestral podium through the piano. “You think about Karajan, Bernstein, Levine, Barenboim, Muti and Eschenbach and even Szell and Reiner: they were all fantastic pianists and they all continued to play even though they were essentially conductors. Nowadays we have the likes of Asher Fisch, Antonio Pappano and Robert Spano, who are all conductors but still remain very active as pianists. It is important to me that I follow this tradition and I am following it quite consciously.” Read the rest of this entry »
by Mike Telin
Although Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring is now recognized as one of the most important musical scores of the 20th century, the story of its premiere in May of 1913 is now a legend. And the question of whether or not it was Stravinsky’s music or Nijinsky’s choreography that caused the near-riot reaction from the Parisian audience is still the subject of debate. On Saturday, April 13 at Akron’s E.J. Thomas Hall, the Akron Symphony Orchestra and Cleveland-based GroundWorks DanceTheater along with guest dancers — both professional and amateur — presented an enthralling new production of Stravinsky’s mammoth ballet score.
During the past few years The Akron Symphony has presented some outstanding performances resulting from community-based projects (think Porgy and Bess) and Saturday’s performance did not disappoint. Stravinsky said, “What I was trying to convey in The Rite was the surge of spring, the magnificent upsurge of nature re-born,” and GroundWorks’s artistic director David Shimotahakara’s imaginative choreography brilliantly served the composer’s wishes. And a cast of dancers that included GroundWorks’ five members, three other professionals and an ensemble of 15 Akron area students performed with style and conviction. Read the rest of this entry »
by Daniel Hathaway
There are lots of ways of celebrating the centennial of Igor Stravinsky’s revolutionary ballet score, The Rite of Spring. The Joffrey Ballet’s reconstruction of the original Ballets Russes production will be a highlight of The Cleveland Orchestra’s Blossom season this summer. Cleveland’s Verb Ballets is undertaking a new version with an overdubbed performance of the original two-piano score.
Taking a different tack, the Akron Symphony is spreading the joy by creating a community project spearheaded by David Shimotakahara’s GroundWorks Dance Theater that will involve eight professional dancers and fifteen student dancers in addition to the more than one hundred musicians Stravinsky’s score requires. The performance, led by ASO’s music director Christopher Wilkins, will take place in Akron’s E.J. Thomas Hall on Saturday, April 13 at 8 pm (followed by an orchestra-only runout performance in Medina on Sunday afternoon).
“I wish I could have been at that performance,” Shimotakahara told us by phone from his studio, referring to the ballet’s turbulent premiere at the Theatre Champs-Elysées in Paris on May 29, 1913. “Nijinsky was trying something with movement that had never been done before.” Read the rest of this entry »
by Daniel Hathaway
The Times of London has a long tradition of publishing letters from its readers claiming to have heard the first cuckoo of Spring. Though Delius’s piece of the same name wasn’t on the program at E.J. Thomas Hall on Saturday evening, the cuckoo did make an appearance as Christopher Wilkins and the Akron Symphony and Chorus might have been the first musical organization in Northeast Ohio to spread the message that balmy breezes will be blowing not too far in the future. The program brought together two Austrian works first performed in Vienna only seven years apart, each of which evokes the joys of nature in its own delightful way.
Beethoven’s sixth symphony, subtitled “Pastorale,” paints vivid scenes of the countryside and its rustic inhabitants, whose peasant dance is interrupted by a thunderstorm and who return to sing a song of thanksgiving after the skies clear. One of Beethoven’s only ventures into “program music”, the 1807 symphony begins with a depiction of cheerfulness on the part of an urban escapee arriving in the country, authentically incorporates the songs of a nightingale, dove and cuckoo in a scene by the brook, conjures up Donner und Blitzen with the help of thundering kettledrums and drama in the brass, and finally restores peace to the countryside with bucolic horn calls. Read the rest of this entry »
by Mike Telin
“It really is the most coming together project in Akron” … Ann Lane Gates, honorary chair. — “We use it to come together and to share something very powerful” … Christopher Wilkins, conductor. — “It’s like stepping into the family that you never knew you had.” … Jennifer Mekel Jones, chorus master. — “It truly brings the community together and shows everyone that we can all find common ground” … Angeleina Valentine, assistant-chair. There is only one northeast Ohio event these four people could be talking about, and that is Gospel Meets Symphony.
On Saturday, February 23th beginning at 7:30 in The University of Akron’s EJ Thomas hall, the Akron Symphony Orchestra will celebrate Gospel Meets Symphony’s 20th anniversary concert featuring the 200 voice Gospel Meets Symphony Choir. The concert includes inspiring gospel and classical music under the direction of ASO Music Director, Christopher Wilkins, and Gospel Meets Symphony Chorus Master, Jennifer Mekel Jones. The concert also features performances by Divine Hope, YEPAW (Youth Excellence Performing Arts Workshops), and The LeGrair Brothers. Former ASO assistant conductor Eric Benjamin will also return for the occasion. Read the rest of this entry »