Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: ‘Oneida Art Songs’ sets GBSO concert apart

Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: ‘Oneida Art Songs’ sets GBSO concert apart

The composer sings her aria-influenced songs in Oneida with a full orchestra.

NOTE: This review has been updated since originally posted. See CONCERT UPDATE at the end for scenes from the concert and afterward.

GREEN BAY, Wis., (WFRV) – Taking one step back and looking at Saturday night’s Green Bay Symphony Orchestra concert, the word “historic” comes to mind.

The concert at the Weidner Center for the Performing Arts included robust sounds of two extremely popular works AND something never done before by the organization that is celebrating its 100th anniversary season.

Opening the concert were three songs composed by Jennifer Stevens, a visual artist who also is a classically trained singer – and a bridge between Native American language/life and the operatic style of music.

The section was quite a large production. Behind Stevens was a FULL orchestra. Projected on a screen were titles of her songs followed by images in keeping with the songs’ concepts – babies/childhood, Oneida life and remembrance of a life appreciated (Stevens’ grandmother, Maria Hinton).

In general, the songs are gentle and flowing. Stevens embraced them with her airy voice and deep soul. She sang in Oneida.

The songs are from a whole different world than tribal songs that come with high-pitched, rhythmic singing and powerful drum beats. These songs are from a gentler sensibility and, with complementing orchestrations, inescapably beautiful. Alaric Coussons composed for “Kahsl-ta” (Dream) and “Owi-la” (Wind), and Zinsmeister composed for “Ol-na” (Prayer). Adding the ethereal qualities to “Owi-la” (Wind) was Native American flute player Wade Fernandez.

The theme of the evening was “Heritage,” and this section brought to the fore a part of a heritage that has been in Northeastern Wisconsin all along but now is expressed in a new way. The songs are a confluence of a whole lot of sources and to have them come together in flesh-and-blood performance on Saturday night was a milestone.

The other works on the program (4½ stars out of 5 overall) gave guest conductor Octavio Mas-Arocas a chance to stir the orchestra and audience.

The program

Octavio Mas-Arocas, conductor

Jennifer Stevens, arrangements by Alaric Coussons: “Oneida Art Songs for Soprano and Orchestra”

Jennifer Stevens, soprano

  “Kahsl-ta” (Dream)

  “Owi-la” (Wind)

  “Ol-na” (Prayer)

George Bizet: “Suite from the Incidental Music to Alphonse Daudet’s Play ‘L’Arlesienne’”

I.                    Prelude

II.                 Menuetto

III.               Adagietto

IV.               Carillon

V.                 Farandole

Antonin Dvorak: “Symphony No. 9 in e minor, Opus 95, (‘From the New World’)”

I.                    Adagio – Allegro molto

II.                 Largo

III.               Scherzo: Molto vivace

IV.             Allegro con fuoco

A high point was a moment in the applause for the performance of Antonin Dvorak’s “From the New World” symphony when Mas-Arocas worked his way through the musicians to give first credit to oboe player Andrea Gross Hixon. The work features exposed solos all over the place, and Hixon touched hearts in the crucial section in the second movement that’s also known from the song, “Goin’ Home.”

Mas-Arocas is from the faculty of Appleton’s Lawrence University Conservatory of Music. He impressed with his facility to guide the orchestra through the invigorating Dvorak and George Bizet works, plus tune in to Stevens’ wave length.

In keeping with the “Heritage” theme, the Grand Foyer prior to the concert was filled with displays by area historical organizations. The concept of GBSO executive director Dan Linssen is to dress up the concert evenings with extras.

Linssen also greeted the audience from the stage prior to the performance. The effect is welcoming, in part because Linssen is free to move because of a wireless microphone. Saturday, he pointed out bits of interest, such as the presence of a large contingent of students from Algoma who had come, thanks to sponsorship of the Algoma Optimists club, to take in the wonders of “From the New World.”

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.

CONCERT UPDATE: At http://wakohsiyostudio.com/gbso_heritage_concert is Jennifer Stevens’ recap of the concert, including photos from before, during and after the performance. The site chronicles the "Oneida Art Songs" section in detail.

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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