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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: Sheboygan Symphony, Chorus ride on Beethoven’s glories

The 95th season closes with the energetic “Ode to Joy” ringing.
Kevin McMahon
Kevin McMahon

SHEBOYGAN, Wis. (WFRV) – There’s something about Beethoven’s “Ninth Symphony” that inspires. One hundred and 90 years after its creation, it still generates HEAT. Daring and demanding, it asks that performers give their all. That happened Saturday night, May 10, at the Sheboygan Symphony Orchestra concert (4 stars out of 5) at the Weill Center for the Performing Arts.

The evening opened with a somewhat tepid and timorous rendition of Bach’s “Brandenburg Concerto No. 2.” A sprinkling of missed notes took the piece off course, though the overall mood was still uplifting.

The performance of the “Ninth” got stronger as it went along. Conductor and music director Kevin McMahon often got caught up in the power that’s stoked into three of the four movements, his feet dancing on the podium with his arms rotating emphatically as if he were churning a huge pot of boiling, steaming liquid (which the “Ninth” is in a sense).

The orchestra rolled with the shifting tide of the piece – the fiery first movement, the striding second, the somnolent third and the joyous fourth. Collaborating in the fourth movement and its "Ode to Joy" glories were the Sheboygan Symphony Chorus, which produced a clear, clean sound, and four soloists – hired guns who by their stunning sound and presence lifted the performances of everybody else. My theory is Jennifer Grimaldi, Julia Benzinger, Robert Breault* and Stephen Morscheck are of such top-shelf vocal quality that charisma kicked in; they seemed to say, “This piece deserves the best.”

At the instant final notes fell, up rose the audience and cheers and hoots of erupted. The theater radiated the kind of excitement that makes listeners look forward to a next season.

***

Performers: Kevin McMahon, music director and conductor; Sheboygan Symphony Orchestra; Sheboygan Symphony Chorus of 70 singers; soloists Jennifer Grimaldi, soprano; Julia Benzinger, mezzo-soprano; Robert Breault, tenor; and Stephen Morscheck, bass-baritone.

Program: Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Brandenburg Concerto No. 2,” Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 9”

***

VENUE: The 1,153-seat Stefanie H. Weill Center for the Performing Arts is a renovated, majestic movie palace that dates to 1928 – just before the arrival of “talking” movies. Located in downtown Sheboygan, the building is easily spotted by its long, horizontal marquee that says, “Sheboygan,” the original name of the theater. In the late 1990s, efforts swung into motion to restore the building. In October 2001, the theater re-opened as home to several local performing arts groups with additional programming of its own. The design is of the Spanish Colonial Revival style. The lobby areas and auditorium are adorned in elaborate architectural designs that evoke a courtly era. Huge flowers, medallions and human forms in relief add visual punch. The rectangular auditorium is light and airy, with the blue ceiling sprinkled with blinking lights representing stars. To heighten the orchestral/choral sound, the stage area includes a set of wavy, wooden acoustical clouds along with floor-to-ceil wooden panels. Saturday night, the acoustical effects worked especially well for the chorus, which sent powerhouse sounds to the balcony. The theater was constructed as part of the Universal Pictures circuit for $600,000 – a whopping sum for 1928. The building is on the National Register of Historic Places. It’s one of Wisconsin’s remarkable old theaters – and well kept.

THE PERSON: Stefanie H. Weill and her husband, John Weill, emigrated from Vienna, Austria, to the United States in 1941. John Weill was a businessman – president of American Chair Co. and board chairman of the parent Thonet Industries in New York. He died in 1967. Stefanie Weill was active in community and civic activities, including serving on the board of the John Michael Kohler Arts Center and being part of Friends of Sheboygan Symphony. The Stefanie H. Weill Charitable Trust was established in 1969 to support such ventures as the center for the performing arts.

* - The program didn’t say it, but Robert Breault is a native of Marinette. A high school music teacher was smitten by his voice, and off he went to St. Norbert College in De Pere and beyond to a well-established career that has carried him all over the map. Saturday, Robert Breault and the other soloists made a huge difference in the outcome of the performance.

You may email me at warren.gerds@wearegreenbay.com. Watch for my on-air features on WFRV between 6 and 8 a.m. Sundays.

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