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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: Fox Valley Symphony concert brims with appeal

The evening includes a moving tribute, flute flourishes and a powerhouse symphony.

PHOTO: Brian Groner has been conductor and music director of the Fox Valley Symphony at Appleton since 1995.

APPLETON, Wis. (WFRV) – Do notes know if they were written by a male or female? Do notes know what year they were written? Do notes know if they are played by a male or female musician?

I got to thinking those questions while listening to Saturday night’s, Jan. 25, concert of the Fox Valley Symphony Orchestra at Fox Cities Performing Arts Center, particularly because the concert was titled “Celebrating Women Composers.”

Notes don’t know nuthin’, of course, so my wonderings were somewhat philosophical gas. But the title did give pause. Alas, the poor notes – they suffer labels not of their making.

Enough.

It was an appealing concert devised by music director and conductor Brian Groner.

Immediately, the concert grabbed the soul. Brian Groner called attention to the passing of Betty Helms, who played cello in the orchestra for more than 40 years. The eight-person cello section then played an arrangement of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s “Ave Verum Corpus.” Mournful, slow, meditative, embracing – such power in the music. The moment after the final note brought DEEP SILENCE.

The announced program ventured along paths that I, for one, have not been taken on by an orchestra in this region. I like the unfamiliarity, the sense of newness – even though two of the pieces have been around for more than a century.

Diane Wittry’s “Mist” has a haunting aura. To me, it speaks of a solitary morning on a damp seacoast. Sights and sounds become the composer’s thoughts – an eerie, odd set of reflections around which I had a sense of waiting for something to happen. Brian Groner introduced the piece with descriptions – with instrumental assists – for the audience’s benefit. He thought we needed help, I guess, because it is a contemporary piece (2008).

It was a treat to hear a fine flute player take on Cecile Chaminade’s “Concertino for Flute.” Linda Nielsen Korducki of the orchestra captured the piece’s moments of sweet reverie, plus its heavy duty player tests of quickracingupanddownspeedandfinesseplaying. At the end, it was a treat seeing and hearing the orchestra applaud and stomp feet in approval of one of its own in a sterling performance. Sorry, PAC lovers, but I don’t think the hall did any favors to Linda Nielsen Korducki in delivering full liveliness from her instrument. To me, the carpeted stage floor restrains the sound of a light instrument a tad.

Amy Beach is a blast, at least her “Symphony No. 2” was Saturday night. The opening and closing movements were full-force vigor – surges of high drama, aggression and excited volume, which Brian Groner helped execute with zest. My favorite section was the opening of the second movement – the horn, walking nobly, followed by the oboe, feeling good, followed by flute, being thoughtful, followed by tension expressed in the strings. Delightful.

Basically, it was a well-formed program, well played (4 ½ stars out of 5).

IN MEMORIAM: Betty B. Helms was born April 7, 1924, in Johnson City, Tennessee. She died Dec. 11. Betty Helms graduated from the highly regarded Eastman School of Music in 1944. She met her husband, John, while playing in a symphony orchestra. They married in 1946 and spent most of their lives together in Neenah. Betty Helms was a charter member of the Fox Valley Symphony. Among her musical ventures, she taught private piano lessons in her home, accompanied students at recitals and contests and directed her church choir for 17 years. She and John often provided music for weddings in the Fox Valley.
VENUE: Thrivent Financial Hall is the main theater of Fox Cities Performing Arts Center on College Avenue in downtown Appleton. The capacity is 2,072, though that is reduced significantly by the setup for symphony concerts; the stage and orchestra are thrust into the hall. The seating area is in the shape of a horse shoe, with three balconies following the shape. The décor features Veneciano plaster walls with dark-stained cherry wood. In the oval dome ceiling is a 65-foot long chandelier that is reminiscent of the Art Deco era. The design includes ruby inserts in the opaque cream-colored glass. Flowing along the walls are parallel metal pipes as if of a musical instrument. The lobby area consists of lots of geometrics, glass and, on the ground level, a feeling of openness and spaciousness. The gray, cream, red design in the floor has the aura of radiating something, but what I can’t comprehend. The exterior of the gray building features gentle curves. A large glass skylight is reminiscent of a human eye, similar to what the shape of the stage is when set up for the Fox Valley Symphony concerts.

REST OF SEASON: “Cory Chisel and the Wandering Sons,” March 15; “Carmina Burana,” May 3.

You may email me at warren.gerds@wearegreenbay.com. Watch for my on-air features on WFRV at 6:45 p.m. Thursdays and every other Sunday between 6 and 8 a.m. (usually around 7:45 a.m.)

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