Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: Classical music concert in Green Bay signals a future

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Sunday afternoon’s concert by the Civic Symphony of Green Bay looked at past unfinished works and at the same time looked to the future.

The program’s concept prompted a move of the orchestra’s normal home base of the Meyer Theatre to the larger Cofrin Family Hall in the Weidner Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Wisconsin Green Bay.

It was necessary to have, as host Stuart Smith playfully noted, the “wide” of the Weidner Center stage to accommodate the featured, combined orchestra of the concert – 105 musicians.

That large orchestra consisted of 65 players of the Civic Symphony and 40 players of the Bay Port High School Chamber Orchestra.

The brainchildren of this meeting did their thing within feet of each other. Conducting on a podium was Seong-Kyung Graham, artistic director and conductor of the Civic Symphony. Seated nearby in the chair of the concertmaster, the lead violinist of the Civic Symphony, was Audrey Nowak, whose day job is orchestra director at Bay Port High School.

In the Bay Port program are 165 string students in four orchestras.

Graham told the audience, “That’s a remarkable number.”

Indeed.

Even among the most ambitious school music programs in the region, that is a lot.

This concert told one other thing: These students can play.

In the concert, all four of the Bay Port orchestras performed – sometimes as a single entity, sometimes with a boost of Civic Symphony players and sometimes blended with the full Civic Symphony.

That last blend provided the tangiest mustard of the program.

In the final two works, Graham performed without a score. That is a subtle feather in the cap for conductors – that they have studied the music so much and know the music so well that they need no sheet music in front of them to get through the performance. And, notably, they can put full attention to bringing out the best in the players. A conductor in that situation is doing what conductors at the highest level do.

In short, the musicians in the Bay Port Chamber Orchestra were in a situation where, so to speak, real bullets were used. This was a real deal.

Nothing was watered down as the whole gathering performed in very fine form two highly popular and especially lustrous pieces in classical music – the strong, firm charge of Franz Schubert’s “Unfinished Symphony” and the bright energy of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s “A Little Night Music.”

Along the way, Stuart Smith asked the Bay Port musicians on stage to stand to be saluted. Smith spoke of the “unfinished” element in the program and noted the standing players were at a beginning in whatever their musical future will be. Unspoken but likely part of the thought was maybe their future would be in the Civic Symphony or maybe teaching locally as does Audrey Nowak.

All of the orchestras came off well in performance. Cofrin Family Hall is of such quality that there is no way of hiding clinker notes or passages.

The program included the flair of “Finlandia,” flourishes of Spanish music and a desperate reach in an attempt to create another Beethoven symphony out of a patchwork of scribblings he left behind. Stuart Smith appropriately noted the Beethoven “Symphony No. 10” is not only hypothetical, “It’s fake news.”

Overall, the concert was highly appealing as it revealed the vigorous music program of a public school in the Green Bay area.

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Program: “Unfinished Potential”

Conductor: Seong-Kyung Graham

Host: Stuart Smith

Part I

+ “Finlandia,” Jean Sibelius – Civic Symphony of Green Bay

+ “El Relicario,” José Padilla, arranged by Merle J. Isaac – Bay Port High School Sempre Orchestra with Civic Symphony winds and percussion

+ “Granada (Serenade)” from “Suite Espagnole, Opus 47,” Isaac Albéniz, arranged by Clark McAlister – Bay Port High School Assai Orchestra with Civic Symphony winds and percussion

+ “España Cañí,” “A Spanish Gypsy Dance,” Pascual Marquino Narro, arranged by Albert Wang – Bay Port High School Tutti Orchestra with Civic Symphony winds and percussion

+ “Symphony No. 10 in E-flat Major,” Ludwig van Beethoven, assembled and elaborated by Barry Cooper – Civic Symphony of Green Bay

Part II

+ “Symphony No. 25 in G minor,” Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – Bay Port High School Chamber Orchestra, directed by Audrey Nowak

+ “Symphony No. 8 in B minor, D. 759 (‘Unfinished’),” Franz Schubert – Civic Symphony of Green Bay and Bay Port High School Chamber Orchestra

+ “Eine Kleine Nachtmuski, K. 525 (‘A Little Serenade’),” Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart– Civic Symphony of Green Bay and Bay Port High School Chamber Orchestra

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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.

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 latest book, “I Fell Out of a Tree in Fresno (and other writing adventures),” is available in Green Bay at Neville Public Museum and Bosse’s.

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