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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.

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by Daniel Hathaway

Bombardment-Fort-McHenryTwo 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 Daniel Hathaway

Bottom-TranslatedPity 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

ASO-MND-DancersIt’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

Akron-VirtuososSymphony 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

JELEN-BRAULTScaled 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

FILJAK-Martina-GreenThough 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

EJ-Thomas-exteriorThere were no speeches on Saturday evening when Christopher Wilkins and the Akron Symphony celebrated the fortieth anniversary of E.J. Thomas Hall, just plenty of rich orchestral sound, cleverly designed to make a dry acoustical space ring with festive sonority.

Canny programming added to the celebratory nature of the evening. Brahms’s Academic Festival Overture (led by UA’s Guy Victor Bordo) contributed a sense of gravitas to a joint observance between the ASO and the University of Akron, and UA composer Nikola Resanovic’s infectious clarinet concerto provided bubbles for the anniversary toast. Richard Strauss’s brilliant orchestral tone poem (and monumental tribute to himself), Ein Heldenleben, gave the orchestra an opportunity to show itself off, something it did unabashedly and to brilliant effect.

One big factor in pulling this celebration off so successfully was Wilkins’s decision to fill out the string sections for the occasion, and to elevate winds and brass on a series of risers to better equalize balances and projection. Read the rest of this entry »

by Mike Telin

EJ-Thomas-exteriorWhen the Edwin J. Thomas Performing Arts Hall opened at the University of Akron in October 1973, the multi-use space received rave reviews from critics. The 2,955 seat auditorium also became home to the Akron Symphony. On Saturday, October 12 beginning at 8:00 pm, Music Director Christopher Wilkins will lead the ASO in a concert that celebrates the Hall’s 40th anniversary. The program features Brahms’s Academic Festival Overture conducted by Guy Victor Bordo, Nikola Resanovic’s Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra (Collateral Damage) with Kristina Belisle Jones as soloist, and Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben.

As is the case with many of the world’s concert halls, E.J. Thomas has presented acoustical challenges for the symphony. But as Wilkins points out, “the positives of E.J. Thomas are easy to enumerate. It’s a very comfortable space for the audience and I think it’s an interesting piece of architecture. Also the physical location is ideal because it’s right on the line between the University campus and downtown and as the campus has moved toward downtown that whole area is so active.”

Wilkins says he chose Ein Heldenleben not so much because it was autobiographical for Strauss but rather it was a musical story of an artist’s life. Read the rest of this entry »

by Daniel Hathaway

ASO-WilkinsThe 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

ASO-RiteAlthough 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

The TimesWILKINS-Christopher2 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 Daniel Hathaway

TwentyWILKINS-Christopher2 seasons ago, late conductor Alan Balter and the Akron Symphony leadership launched an initiative that soon gained so much momentum and community support that it still lives and flourishes two decades later. Gospel Meets Symphony may sound like a potential collision of musical styles but the results are an engaging synthesis of Euroclassical and African American traditions. The latest edition on February 23 brought a choir of two hundred voices and a gospel rhythm section together with the ASO and guest artists, and drew a large and enthusiastic crowd to E.J. Thomas Hall.

Music Director Christopher Wilkins was the warm, chatty and versatile emcee for the evening, which began with tributes to volunteer leaders Ann Lane Gates, Brenda L. Justice and Angeleina Valentine. Read the rest of this entry »

by Daniel Hathaway

GermanSCHIMPF-Alexander pianist Alexander Schimpf performed with a Northeast Ohio orchestra under the baton of Christopher Wilkins for the second time in two years on Saturday evening. His first appearance on August 6, 2011 — with The Cleveland Orchestra in Beethoven’s fourth concerto — won him top prize in the Cleveland International Piano Competition. His second collaboration came as part of that prize package — a series of bookings with orchestras — as he returned to be the featured soloist in Chopin’s first concerto with the Akron Symphony at E.J. Thomas Hall.

It was clear from the contingent of Cleveland fans who drove down to hear Schimpf that the Cleveland Competition continues to support its laureates not only with post-contest bookings but with enthusiastic moral support. On Saturday, both Akron and Cleveland listeners were obviously thrilled by Schimpf’s gorgeously assured performance of a work the pianist has lived with for more than a decade: Chopin No. 1 was the first work he ever played with an orchestra, at the age of 18. Read the rest of this entry »

by Laura Genemans

This past Saturday, the Akron Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Maestro Christopher Wilkins and the Akron Symphony Chorus under the direction of Maestro Hugh Ferguson Floyd in no uncertain terms established its excellence and value in this area as an exceptional musical force.

Verdi’s La forza del destino: Overture opened the program and established the tonal three notes representing the forces of destiny.  Thanks to the excellent pre-concert talk by Maestro Wilkins you knew what to listen for.  Without words, the orchestra created pictures with the entrance of the strings followed by the lyrical “gypsy-like” melody from the clarinet and flute. The continual movement between the strings (celli and viola) and winds wove the story taking you to your inevitable destiny – concluding with the low brass.  The music carried you due to the way the ensemble followed each other letting the Maestro lead – never releasing that thread of interest and tension.

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