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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: Phenomenal pianist caps exciting return of Appleton orchestra

Critic At Large

Fox Valley Symphony Orchestra

Program covers. (Warren Gerds)

APPLETON, Wis. (WFRV) – Concert pianist Victor Santiago Asuncion redefines the phrase “play the piano.”

He probably could take the plinkety-plink of “Chopsticks” to an elegant level.

Saturday night, Victor Santiago Asuncion was living proof of the epitome of interpreting music and a keyboard with amazingly expressive and pliable hands in a great and super-challenging piano work.

In Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s “Piano Concerto No. 1,” his hands alternately…

+ Flashed blinding speed.

+ Caressed notes from keys.

+ Created illusions of notes being water, simply flowing.

+ Brushed keys as if stroking a wrinkle of cloth, smoothly encouraging gentle sound.

+ Raced along the keys with powerful yet silken grace.

All was nuanced, finessed finery mixed with lightning power.

At times, as a kind of elixir of sound rose, Victor Santiago Asuncion looked upward is if transformed in contemplation.

He did not “play the piano.” This was a kind of sleight of hand magic.

The instrument he played was especially responsive, with big notes arriving from small motions.

The wondrous performance gave pause for a thought: The brain of Tchaikovsky – what a marvel of organized complexity, with the piano just one instrument in this colorful and exciting display.

Conductor Kevin Sütterlin athletically led the orchestra in the excursion along hairpin turns and a kind of mountainous scenery. His red jacket moved with the sweep and swirl of silk.

In the first moments, the musicians seemed to play close to the vest as if hesitant about the mighty task ahead. A few eruptions from the keyboard by Victor Santiago Asuncion, and everyone was aboard for a special performance.

The response at the end was immediate – a burst of applause mixed with cheers that filled the hall with a giant expression of “WOW!”

It’s been 93 weeks since the orchestra performed in Thrivent Financial Hall of Fox Cities Performing Arts Center, and this evening was a nifty return in performance. Masks were required of the audience and non-wind musicians for COVID-19 reasons.

As music director, Kevin Sütterlin has an eye on variety – the new, the hidden gem, the masterpiece. That was Saturday night’s program.

The first work, a world premiere in an orchestral setting, promises excitement in its title – “City of Ambition.” Its goal is to describe in sound what the eye would see in three locations preserved in photographs – shown on the pages of the printed program in the gallery below along with photographs of composer Theresa Martin on her night of achievement Saturday.

Theresa Martin’s home city is Appleton, where she grew up and now resides after musical training and experiences elsewhere. Her subject city is New York City from inspirations in striking photographs. The scenes are of the skyline and shimmering river captured in 1910 by the illustrious Alfred Stieglitz, a radiant night overview from on high on the Empire State Building taken by Berenice Abbott in 1932 and three steel workers dangerously aloft during construction of the Empire State Building taken by Lewis Hine in 1930-31.

Theresa Martin’s music generates thoughts of a subtitle for “City of Ambition – Sounds of Multi-pli-CITY.”

The music tells of myriad sights and feelings.

Just like with the city, a whole lot happens at once in Theresa Martin’s creation. Individual sounds flow, burst or rise as surprise from individual points in the orchestra. Portions include dreamlike comfort, charging energy and haunting scariness. The differing musical images – full of vitality – are blended into a cohesive base structure.

The orchestra had already roused with “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the traditional opening for a season among American orchestras. Now it unleashed something fresh and interesting with sparks of powerful dynamics by a living American composer – how cool is that?

At the end, Kevin Sütterlin called Theresa Martin to the stage a huge hug and bows amid hearty applause. Very cool.

The evening’s experience included a symphony by another American, Florence Price. Kevin Sütterlin is among music directors who are rescuing her work from oblivion. He and the orchestra previously played her first symphony.

The fabric of “Symphony No. 3” includes threads of spirituals. The threads provide hints of familiarity as sounds of Florence Price weave in gentleness, sweet dreams, dance zest and an especially vigorous finale.

All through the evening, the orchestra performed with eagerness and luster. That’s the stuff – the mustard of live music – that had been missing for lo, so many months and wearying days.

The evening already was invigorating by intermission. And then came Victor Santiago Asuncion and “WOW!” followed by an encore of “Clair de Lune” and more gossamer on the keyboard.

A well-attended pre-performance gathering in Kimberly Clark Theater with Kevin Sütterlin, Theresa Martin and Victor Santiago Asuncion was illuminating, like this from a question I asked:

Explaining the roots of western music in the Philippines, Victor Santiago Asuncion began with, “In 1521…” and went on to tell how the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan arrived in his homeland and set in motion the arrival of European influence that included music, the piano, the violin and more – such as the German lieder adapted in a way of its own in the Philippines.


Program: “Opening Night”

Conductor: Kevin F.E. Sütterlin

Part I

+ “The Star-Spangled Banner”

+ “City of Ambition” (World Premiere) – Theresa Martin

     I. City of Ambition
     II. Night View (from Above)
     III. Steeling the Sky
+ “Symphony No.3 in C Minor” – Florence Price 
     I. Andante – Allegro
     II. Andante ma non troppo
     III. Juba: Allegro
     IV. Scherzo. Finale

Part II
+ “Piano Concerto No.1 in B-flat Minor, opus23, TH 55” – Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Victor Santiago Asuncion, guest artist

     I. Allegro non troppo e molto maestoso
     II. Andantino semplice
     III. Allegro con fuoco

+ Encore: “Clair de Lune,” Frédéric Chopin, Victor Santiago Asuncion, piano


– Violin: Yulia Smead (concertmaster) Justyna Lutwo-Resch (associate concertmaster), Wes Luke (assistant concertmaster), Catherine Bush, Jennifer Coopman, Graham Emberton, Erik Leveille, Huy Luu, Jerad Miller, Alicia Mose, Audrey Nowak

– Violin II: Danielle Simandl (principal), Luis Fernandez (assistant principal), Bianca Balderama, Laura Burns, Emily Dupere, Melissa Gurholt, Dorothy Hollenbach, Sarah Koenigs, Addie Jo Lambrecht, Lori Murphy, Amir Rosenbaum, Jill Sousek

– Viola: Barb Beechey (principal), Corrina Albright, Lerryn Donatelle, TJ Hull, Cheryl Konkol, Mary Ellis Moran, Steve Shani

– Cello: Laura Kenney Henckel (principal), Jonathan Hodges (assistant principal), Nick Donatelle, Emily Gruselle, Nancy Kaphaem, David Veum, Heather Watney, Carrie Willer

– Bass: Susan Sullivan (principal), Emmett Jackson (assistant principal), Ann Boekman, Mike Hennessey, Ronna Swift

– Flute: Linda Nielsen Korducki (principal), Beth Kinzel, Kortney James, Suzanne Bunker Jordheim, flute/piccolo

– Oboe: Jennifer Hodges Bryan (principal), Suzanne Geoffrey

– English horn/oboe: Jennifer Hodges Michelic

– Clarinet: Sarah Manasreh (principal), Hakeem Davidson, Penny Paiser Wilson

– Bassoon: Cody Hunter (principal), Sharon Peterson, Stuart Young, contrabassoon

– Horn: Bruce Atwell (principal), Katherine Ritter (assistant principal), Dana Sherman, Andrew Parks, Keith Powell

– Trumpet: Michael Henckel (principal), Rand Skelton, Marty Robinson

– Trombone: Kyle Samuelson (principal), Roy Fine, Tim Albright

– Tuba: Marty Erickson

– Percussion: Marisol Kuborn (principal), Terry Smirl, Colin O’Day, Fred Poppe

– Timpani: Paul Ristau

– Piano/harpsichord: Sarah Kiefer

– Harp: Rebecca Royce


NEXT: “Marty Erickson, Tuba,” Jan. 29.

THE VENUE: Thrivent Financial Hall is the main theater of Fox Cities Performing Arts Center on College Avenue in downtown Appleton. The capacity is 2,072. The seating area is in the shape of a horse shoe, with three balconies following the shape. The stage is 60 feet across and 40 feet high. The décor features Veneciano plaster walls with dark-stained cherry wood. In the oval dome ceiling is a 65-foot-long chandelier that is reminiscent of the Art Deco era. The design includes ruby inserts in the opaque cream-colored glass. Flowing along the walls up to the chandelier are parallel metal pipes as if of a musical instrument. Flat walls in the front third of the hall are salmon colored, while red pleated theatrical curtains dominate the rest of the side walls. The white acoustic wing over the stage looks like the underside of a sci-fi spacecraft. The lobby area consists of lots of geometrics, glass and, on the ground level, a feeling of openness and spaciousness. The exterior of the gray building features gentle curves. A large glass skylight is reminiscent of a human eye.

THE NAME: Thrivent Financial has roots in a life insurance company that was chartered in 1902 as Aid Association for Lutherans, based in Appleton. The corporate name has been Thrivent since 2002.

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