Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: Green Bay orchestra features two "greats"

Civic Symphony of Green Bay

GREEN BAY, Wis. - Quite the variety pack was featured Saturday night as the Civic Symphony of Green Bay opened its 23rd season at the Meyer Theatre.

The first half of the program featured the Great Outdoors, and the second half featured the Great White Way – Broadway.

***

Program

Theme: “Songs with Old Friends”

Artistic director and conductor: Seong-Kyung Graham

Host: Stuart Smith

Part I

+ “The Star-Spangled Banner”

+ Aaron Copland: “An Outdoor Overture”

+ Brent Michael Davids: “By Our Nature,” including Davids performing on flutes with the orchestra to accompanying a documentary film by Robin Rupe of Volti Subito.

+ Ron Nelson: “Rocky Point Holiday”

Part II

+ Leonard Bernstein: “Candide Overture”

+ Various composers: “Tony Awards Musical Selections”

Guest appearance by St. Norbert College show troupe Knights on Broadway, directed by Kent Paulsen, with Natalee Cunningham, Brian Falk, Sarah Hibbard, Rebecca Jenneman, Walker Lake, Kiera Matthews, Adam Mayrer, Lauren Pavlik, Kathryn Sauter, Peter Schnell, Austin Walls

“Too Darn Hot” from “Kiss Me Kate” (1949 Best Musical)

“Say a Prayer” from “Memphis” (2010)

“Everybody Ought to Have a Maid” from “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” (1963)

“Memory” from “Cats” (1983)

“What I Did for Love” from “A Chorus Line” (1976)

“Bring Him Home” from “Les Miserables” (1987)

“Being Alive” from “Company” (1971)

***

The program’s overall title, “Songs with Old Friends,” referred to the guest artists, who had appeared previously with the orchestra.

The offerings had the stamp of Seong-Kyung Graham’s exploring nature in programming as the orchestra’s artistic director. (The title usually is “music director” with orchestras, and Graham’s distinctive “artist director” may be in recognition of her varied scope).

Also distinctive of this orchestra is the presence of a host, Stuart Smith, who provides verbal program notes of his creation. The notes often add illumination on the composer and work’s time, and Smith infuses his comments with waves of whimsy. Saturday, he opened with an overview of orchestral music with pun-laced references to it being akin to vegetarian fare. In keeping with his tone, this: Lettuce all praise corn.

The first half of the program was a musical representation of a large breath of fresh air. In ways, the three works were aurally “wide-screen” cinematic, with the central work being literally so as a documentary film accompanied Brent Michael Davids’ “By Our Nature.” Dressed in showy concert wear – top hat, long coat with geometric designs on the front and one shoe red and the other shoe green – Davids joined the orchestra in performing on two Native American flutes. Orchestral music is about precision timing, and it was doubly so in this case. Graham wore a headset to catch the cues in the film’s progression, which was especially important because Davids’ score is a musical representation of individual moments in scenes in the film. For instance, a sound of a frog jumping (artistically represented) has to be played exactly as it is happening on screen. The film includes many vistas, with the music being lyrical. The film also displays an array of wildlife – sandhill cranes, a beaver, a golden eagle, a fox, a raccoon, an owl, etc. – with the music characterizing each. And there are stirring storms – thus moments of tension. The underlying statement: You appreciate nature, so protect it.

Bookending the film section were colorful pieces by Aaron Copland and Ron Nelson, each exuding an overall exuberance around moments of peacefulness. This all was nicely played.

The second half turned to the bustle of Broadway, starting with some juiced-up action in Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide Overture.” In the midst of this work, the orchestra flowed into a golden passage when it was at a peak of creaminess. Very nice.

The final section of the program was like a pops concert as the St. Norbert College show troupe Knights on Broadway performed well-known songs from Broadway musicals that won Tony Awards as Best Musical. Troupe director Kent Paulsen cherry-picked the songs to suit his singers, all dressed in dress-up, black-featured concert wear.

What was offered Saturday night was a step up from what the Knights on Broadway troupe normally offers. The selections were chosen from a show that the troupe presented in Dudley Birder Hall on campus. In those presentations, Paulsen accompanies playing piano at something akin to warp speed across a wide array of styles. Saturday, Paulsen conducted the orchestra while his singers sang with the orchestra. To be able to sing in front of a live orchestra is like the ultimate thing for performers; it doesn’t happen every day.

Now, for singers to sing in front of an orchestra, there has to be a musical score for the orchestra to play and the singers to fit in with what they do and the orchestra plays. So Paulsen and fellow local music maker Shawn Postell labored a significant amount of time to create the arrangements and fitting orchestrations for the players to play and the singers to sing so seven songs from seven Broadway hits could sound swell. While the singers coalesce better in their “home field” shows, Saturday’s offering was pretty darn good and stirred some folks to a standing ovation. And the orchestra rolled merrily along.

As is tradition, the season opened with the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Everyone in the audience stood, and most sang.

NEXT: “Songs with New Friends,” Nov. 10.

Contact me at warren.gerds@wearegreenbay.com. Watch for my on-air Critic at Large editions on WFRV-TV at 6:20 a.m. Sundays. My new books, “Three Miles Past Lost and in the Pickers” and “Nickolaus and Olive – a naïve opera (in words),” are available online and in Green Bay at Neville Public Museum, Bosse’s and The Reader’s Loft.


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