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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: ‘From the New World Symphony’ speaks volumes at UW-Green Bay

Critic At Large

Weidner Philharmonic

The Weidner Philharmonic conducted by Victor Yampolsky receives a standing ovation for the final work, Antonin Dvorak’s “From the New World Symphony” Saturday night at the Weidner Center. (Diane Nagy)

GREEN BAY, Wis. (WFRV)

Music makes statements. Saturday night, music was stating stuff like crazy.

Music spoke about a performance hall.

Music spoke about choices.

Music spoke about America.

Music spoke about beauty and grace and energy and verve and sorrow and glory and collective skill.

Music said, “We – we notes – are of substance. We, in varied forms, are gathered tonight to speak of a future. Tonight is a beginning.”

That was the immediate statement at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, in Cofrin Hall of the Edward W. Weidner Center for the Performing Arts.

Performing its first concert was the Weidner Philharmonic. Under UWGB Music leadership, the orchestra consists of musicians from the faculty and the region, including other campuses and the community.

The first notes on the first work on the program made statements. As drum notes power up import, brass instruments slowly join to herald an arrival. Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” tells the players and the place, “Go big or go home.”

The players and the place delivered.

Conducting was Michael Alexander, the new UWGB provost whose background is steeped in music – which would seem to say something.

Following warm applause, Alexander spoke. “This building was built to house a symphony orchestra, and it should have one. This community should have one. We should be doing this….,” he said.

Alexander also told of his active time in conducting and how he “idolized” the guest artist for the evening, Victor Yampolsky, who would conduct two works on the program.

That started with the next offering, a full plate of quickness, drama, power, lightness, thunder, lushness, swirls, romance and playfulness packed into a shifting aural landscape. The orchestra cranked up in Samuel Barber’s “Overture to ‘The School for Scandal’,” with flair – its mark for the evening. Not that every note was perfect, but 999,900-something out of 1 million is pretty darn good.

At the fore in the orchestra is concertmaster Luis Fernandez, who is new to the university faculty. That would seem to say something.

For the next two works, the university more fully took a presence with its music faculty. Perhaps a statement could be, “We have what we need on hand to make this thing work.”

The two works were of richness and variety.

The first was Sergei Rachmaninoff’s wordless “Vocalise.” Randall Meder conducted. He’s from the voice faculty, as is Courtney Sherman, who sang. Now, this piece is a statement of how the human voice can say so much without speaking a word. Sherman sang the vowel “a” in the shape(s) of “ah.” In her voice was melancholy, yearning, reflective warmth, tenderness, love, memory as if there has been a passing – all blending and flowing as if a leaf on a stream. Her voice was not amplified. The orchestra all evening played with no microphones. The music rose in the hall – another statement – in a natural way, as if breathing. At the climax for Sherman was a note at the top of the ladder – no more rungs left – that surged with intensity.

Courtney Sherman performs “Vocalise” with the Weidner Philharmonic. (Bloom Photography)

Next was a visit to a Cuban ballroom and street festival and wedding celebration and concert hall for an expression of variety in Latin rhythms. Conducting was Kevin Collins of the instrumental faculty. Somewhere in Arturo Marquez’s “Danzon No. 2,” every section has at another take on an infectious drive in the versatile music. Mambo, tango, muscle, mustard, mellow, snap, smooth, drama and romance are just a few words that go with the action. The choice of this work seems to make a statement that future audiences will find discovery on programs.

Part of Saturday’s experience was an incident as intermission started. A person lay in an aisle near the stage. Following much alarm, the person turned out to be okay. The person stayed for the rest of the program. This is mentioned only because some people in attendance who left for lobbies might not have known the outcome.

The second half brought Victor Yampolsky back to conduct Antonin Dvorak’s famed “From the New World Symphony” – part of the title for this concert. The work has such a degree of difficulty and is so well known by classical music audiences that Yampolsky’s expertise and knowledge and experience were called on to present the beloved work in the best possible way.

Yampolsky dispensed with using a score. He knows the work backward and forward, so he concentrated on drawing nuances of moments from sections and individual musicians. The latter particularly included Leslie Michelic as she presented on English horn the haunting, floating, flowing, embracing notes of the opening of the second movement, “Goin’ Home.” Outstanding.

With 999,900-something out of 1 million being at play, the orchestra performed wonderfully.

The piece says something about – and to – America. It came along in 1893 as an appreciation of what America has going for it – energy and sensitivity – expressed by a composer of the highest level from abroad. America had been busy growing and fighting, and Dvorak gave it pause as he said, “You’ve got something here.” He wasn’t being cute or patronizing. Dvorak expressed America in an artistic way for all the world to know forever – why classical music is “classical.”

At the end, Yampolsky beamed as the audience rose and applause took on a form of thunder. He left the stage and quickly returned, recognizing musicians and sections who made the music a success. Applause and stomping of feet by the orchestra brought Yampolsky back for another bow.

Following the opening fanfare, something of import did indeed happen.

***

Program

“From the New World Symphony for a New Symphony”

Part I

+ Aaron Copland, “Fanfare for the Common Man” conducted by Michael Alexander, UWGB provost

+ Samuel Barber, “Overture to ‘The School for Scandal’,” conducted by Victor Yampolsky, guest artist

+ Sergei Rachmaninoff, “Vocalise,” featuring Courtney Sherman, UWGB Music faculty, conducted by Randall Meder, UWGB Music faculty

+ Arturo Márquez, “Danzón No. 2,” conducted by Kevin Collins, UWGB Music faculty

Part II

Antonin Dvorák, “Symphony No. 9 in E minor, (‘From the New World’),” conducted by Victor Yampolsky, guest artist

   Adagio – Allegro molto

   Largo

   Scherzo

   Molto vivace

   Allegro con fuoco

***

Orchestra

Violin I

Concertmaster – Luis Fernandez

Jennifer Coopman

Christopher Kraly

Carrie Kulas

Erik Leveille

TJ Lutz

Lori Murphy

Audrey Nowak

Justyna Resch

Joan Shalit

Emily Sipiorski

Violin II

Jill Sousek, principal

Josh Agen

Janet Bond Sutter

Bruce Bowers

Larry Frye

David Oldenburg

Lauren Oldenburg

Chris Williams

Viola

Steve Schani, principal

Jane Bradshaw Finch

Julie Handwerker

Peter Neubert

Ann Stephan

Laura Vanenberg

Cello

Michael Dewhirst, principal

Adam Brown

Katie Decker

Wendy Scattergood

Kim Souther

Charles Stephan

Steve Westergan

Double bass

Mark Urness, principal

Brian Kulas

John Smoody

Susan Sullivan

Piccolo

Angela Erdmann

Flute

Kortney James, principal

Beth Kinzel

Oboe

Jennifer Bryan, principal

Deidre Rasmussen

English horn

Leslie Michelic

Clarinet

Eric Hansen, principal

Timberly Kazmarek Marbes

Marc Jimos

Bassoon

Susan Lawrence McCardell, principal

Mark Vach

Horn

Michelle McQuade Dewhirst, principal

Phil Klickman

Andrew Parks

Keith Powell

Trumpet

Adam Gaines, principal

Dan Marbes

Jamie Waroff

Trombone

Andrew Zipperer, principal

David Sawall

Bass trombone

Eric High

Tuba

Steve Wilda, principal

Timpani

Bill Sallak, principal

Percussion

Elizabeth DeLamater, principal

Marisol Kuborn

Paul Ristau

Harp

Tammy Kazmierczak, principal

Piano/keyboards

Michael Rector, principal

***

NEXT: “A Symphonic Night at the Movies: Casablanca,” Feb. 22.

THE VENUE: Cofrin Family Hall is one of three performance spaces within the Edward W. Weidner Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. At its maximum capacity setup, the hall seats 2,021 over its three levels of maple-and-burgundy seats. Opened Jan. 15, 1993, the hall was built to adapt to the needs of orchestra concerts, operas, musicals, plays and organ, band and choral concerts. 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 PEOPLE: The name Cofrin relates in great degree to A.E. Cofrin, founder of Fort Howard Paper Co., and his son, Dr. David A. Cofrin, who was instrumental in building the Weidner Center through multi-million-dollar donations. A friendship developed between David A. Cofrin (1921-2009) and Edward W. Weidner (1921-2007), the beloved founding chancellor of UWGB. Weidner spoke slowly and carried a big idea. Weidner 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.

ETCETERA

The following is an abbreviation of one of my recent columns.

***

Spillville, Iowa, normally has nothing to do with Green Bay, Wisconsin.

It is believed that Antonin Dvorak put some final polish on “From the New World Symphony” while enjoying a summer with his family in Spillville.

Surrounded by farms, Spillville is in the upper northeast sector of Iowa. For more than a century, its population has been about 360.

You can visit the sturdy brick house where Dvorak stayed and wrote.

A little museum on the second floor cherishes his months in Spillville in 1893.

Included is a heroic bust of Dvorak sent by the Czech government for a celebration of the 100th anniversary of his “sojourn to Spillville.”

Bust of Antonin Dvorak sent to Spillville by the Czech government. (Warren Gerds)

Such recognition from afar is a source of pride for Spillville, as are astonishing wood carvings on the first floor by two brothers who give the place its name, Bily Clocks Museum.

Personable glimpses of Dvorak’s time in Spillville are part of displays at the museum, whose name is somewhat misleading.

Yes, there are clocks, but what is astonishing is what surrounds the clockworks – the guts of an assortment of clock and other mechanisms. As a hobby, brothers Frank and Joseph Bily designed and carved detailed works of art that sometimes reach six or seven feet tall. The carved art encloses moving parts. Every piece has a theme: Transportation, American pioneers, the Bible’s apostles.

Antonin Dvorak and his family lived on the second story of this building during the summer of 1893. (Warren Gerds)

The brothers never sold any of their pieces that they made from 1913 to 1958. They donated their collection to the city of Spillville, which put them in the house where Dvorak lived. The combination creates an off-the-beaten path museum like no other. It’s one of those ya-gotta-see-it-to-believe-it places.

The Bily brothers knew of Dvorak and his place, not only in Spillville but the realm of masterful composers. They carved a piece in the shape of a large string instrument devoted to him noting his visit to Spillville.

Displays in the museum include colorful stories of Dvorak’s visit that humanize the great composer. Here are glimpses:

While working in New York City, Dvorak was enchanted by what he heard of the town from a colleague and decided to visit with his wife, six children, sister-in-law and a maid. “The teacher and the parish priest and everything is Czech and so I shall be among my own folks,” he wrote. “How grand it will be.”

The mother of the host was an early riser and was surprised near dawn one early June morning to see the Master, as he is called in the narrative, walking up and down in front of the school. She feared something bad happened. “Nothing happened – and yet a great deal,” Dvorak said. “Imagine, I was walking there in the wood along by the stream and after eight months I heard again the singing of birds! And here the birds are different from ours, they have much brighter colors and they sing differently, too.”

The narrative says back home Dvorak raised pigeons and frequently listened to birds and wrote down their songs. “In Spillville,” the narrative says, “the scarlet tanager particularly attracted his attention. Calling it some ‘damned red bird – red, only with black wings’ – he jotted down its insistent song and incorporated a variation into the string quartet he was composing.”

Dvorak rented the upstairs of a large house that belonged to a tinsmith.

During his strolls around town, the Master would stop at the home of an invalid woman and play her reed organ for her. The organ is on display in the museum.

Reed organ in Spillville that Antonin Dvorak played. (Warren Gerds)

Over the summer, Dvorak became part of the small community. He liked to play the Bohemian card game called “darde” at one of Spillville’s saloons. He played for a wedding on June 27. In August, he played for a funeral. On Sept. 8, he passed out cigars he had received from New York at a feast celebrating his 52nd birthday.

A neighbor woman who did laundry for the family later told of how hard it was to get Dvorak’s shirt cuffs clean because he often jotted down musical ideas on the starched cuffs as he wandered through the country.

Dvorak was heard playing violin late at night or in the woods.

Boys would go walking with the composer or take him fishing. A 13-year-old boy recalled an encounter with a skunk. The Dvorak kids raced home. Their father was a slow walker… “but this time he shifted from low to high when he got a whiff of the perfume… After the fourth day, Dvorak’s youngest daughter came over and said, ‘Mother says if you don’t stink any more, you can come over to our house.’ When I got there, Mr. Dvorak laughed his head off. I told him it was too bad the skunk didn’t baptize him instead of me. That made him laugh all the more.”

Dvorak attended 14 performances of a Native American “medicine show,” sitting in the front row. Music he heard made its way into the string quartet he wrote in Spillville.

The Dvorak family also ventured to Omaha, St. Paul and Chicago (for the World Columbian Exposition).

Dvorak wrote, “The three months here in Spillville will remain a happy memory the rest of our lives. Being among our own people… gave us great joy.”

Dvorak clock in the Bily Clocks Museum. (Warren Gerds)

The premiere of “From the New World” took place Dec. 16, 1893, in Carnegie Hall. The narrative says, “Dvorak described the premiere in a letter to the publisher Simrock: ‘The success of the symphony was tremendous; the papers write no composer has ever had such success. I was in a box; the hall was filled with the best New York audience, the people clapped so much I had to thank them from the box like a king!’”

The narrative says, “The slow movement with the ‘Goin’ Home’ theme attracted particular attention. Dvorak’s pupil William Arms Fischer attended a public rehearsal on December 15th, and wrote afterwards: ‘At the close of the Largo… so touched to the heart was the great audience that in the boxes women of fashion and all about the hall people sat with tears running down their cheeks. Neither before nor since have I seen a great audience so profoundly moved by absolute music’.”

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