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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: Green Bay Symphony opens on right note(s)

An official proclamation honors the orchestra’s century mark.
Donato Cabrera
Donato Cabrera
Green Bay Symphony Orchestra (Warren Gerds)
Green Bay Symphony Orchestra (Warren Gerds)

GREEN BAY, Wis., (WFRV) – Da da da dah.

That doesn’t look like much in print, but in sound those are among the most famous notes in classical music.

Da da da dah.

It’s Saturday night, and everybody is paying supreme attention to those four notes at the Weidner Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.

Da da da dah.

“Everbody” knows those notes. They’re from Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 5,” which, if it were a rose or a Grecian urn, somebody would write an ode to it.

Da da da dah.

The work is the climactic piece on the program that – Da da da dah – starts the 100th anniversary season for the Green Bay Symphony Orchestra.

Da da da dah.

The program has started with a joint proclamation by Brown County Executive Troy Streckenbach and Green Bay Mayor Jim Schmitt that, speaking for the citizens of the county and the city, the Green Bay Symphony is a marvelous endeavor. Here, here!

Da da da dah.

On the podium firing up the orchestra with those notes and the storm to follow is conductor and music director Donato Cabrera, who has put a priority on the symphonies of Beethoven as a major factor in his tenure in Green Bay.

Da da da dah, indeed.

From the Da da da dah onward, the audience is riveted to every note. In passages when the work calms briefly, the audience can be “heard” in absolute silence that comes with mutual admiration and awe.

Reader’s Digest version of Beethoven’s Fifth: Bolts of energy followed by the regal second movement followed by stealth in the third that slips without break into the fourth, featured by incredible sustained force.

Saturday’s performance earned a standing ovation. Cabrera and the musicians soaked up the moment of excitement that is a symphony concert that has hit on all cylinders all the way through a work.

Da da da dah was the icing on the evening, a 4½ stars out of 5 experience.

Activities started with an Octoberfest-flavored pre-concert performance by Jerry Voelker and the Jolly Gents. Some people danced. Some tasted beer from two local breweries. Many people socialized in the German-flavored event. All the music on the formal program was by composers with German roots, thus the connection. Mayor Schmitt really got into it, wearing lederhosen.

Symphony executive director Dan Linssen wore a German-style hat, including during his introductory remarks. Linssen was with it in wearing a wireless microphone as he spoke of the organization’s pluses and its Achilles Heel – faltering attendance despite the quality of the concert experience. Noting that attendance is in the 700 to 800 range, Linssen encouraged audience members to tell their friends about the good thing the Symphony has going. He kidded that he told his two friends.

Music started with the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” It’s the traditional season-starter. Cabrera turned and faced the audience as he conducted. He sang along. Very nice.

Drama, excitement and adventure followed in Richard Wagner’s “Overture to The Flying Dutchman.”

Next came Cabrera to introduce Richard Strauss’ “Death and Transfiguration” with a few words on what to listen for. Cabrera paraphrased a line that pretty much dismisses verbal introductions: “Where words fail, music begins.” But the guide was useful as the orchestra took the audience on a journey that included a soft beginning to full-bore tumult to a climactic blaze of glory leading to rest and peace.

Not every note was perfect, but the performance overall met its profound intent. It received a standing ovation.

THE VENUE: Opened Jan. 15, 1993, Cofrin Family Hall is one of three performance spaces within the Edward W. Weidner Center for the Performing Arts at UWGB. At its maximum capacity, the hall has 2,021 maple-and-burgundy seats spread over three sweeping levels. Capacity is less for symphony concerts. By adjusting hydraulic lifts, the stage can be converted so that orchestra virtually sits in the hall with the audience. The architects listened to the acousticians in a design described as “hybrid shoebox opera house.” The shoebox – with a long, narrow audience chamber, shallow balconies and a high ceiling – has long been thought to produce the ideal reverberation. Audience members feel the sound “bloom” as it arrives in carefully timed sequence from the stage, then from the side walls and last from the ceiling. For acoustical properties, wood is emphasized on the seats, mezzanine and balcony surfaces and walls near the stage. Many surfaces are curved to help shape the sound.  Wood is featured for an aesthetic reason, too – a “from here” aura of woodsy Northeastern Wisconsin.

THE PERSON: Edward W. Weidner (1921-2007) was the beloved founding chancellor of UWGB. He arrived when there were no buildings on the present-day campus on rolling hills near the shore of Green Bay. His interests ranged from academia to birding to sports. He loved building projects. It was in his blood. He guided the building of the Weidner Center, so named from early on in construction. Weidner admitted his eyes welled once when driving to a performance and seeing a green sign along the highway: WEIDNER CENTER.

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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