Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: Conductor Brian Groner Ends His Appleton Days With Flair

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At the very end, returning to the stage in a squall of applause, Brian Groner made his way to sections in the rear of the orchestra that had been his for 23 years. He spread his arms, saluted and/or bowed as he wove past players. At the front, Groner bowed his final bow, strode off and was gone.

Earlier, prior to performing his final work with the Fox Valley Symphony Orchestra, Groner spoke to the audience in Thrivent Financial Hall of Fox Cities Performing Arts Center. He described what he called “Sibelius Two,” noting the work’s dark and brooding elements and sections of vitality and a “colorful ending that is bittersweet, as many endings are.”

Groner said he had previously played the piece as is finale work as assistant conductor of the Nashville Symphony, “When I was 6” – teasing a comment made earlier by guest artist violinist Joshua Bell.

Groner then said a mentor once told him his first job was “that you love the music,” then the orchestra, then the audience. His final words were about community and his desire – pointing throughout the audience – “to love each and every one of you, and thank you for the opportunity.”

And then Groner turned and led the orchestra in another fine performance on a fine night, with a section in the first movement especially savory: Individual sections shone – the brass in power, the reeds in melodic and dancing rhythms, the strings in nimble and flowing grace.

The orchestra was solid all night.

Not so solid was a snafu between the orchestra and the center, which had this concert as part of its subscription series. In neither the center’s printed program nor the orchestra’s pamphlet giving various credits was an absolute necessity that so many in the audience searched for: A listing of the works to be played in the concert. This very basic thing:

***

Program

Part I

“Overture: The Roman Carnival, Opus 9,” Hector Berlioz

“The Trois,” Libby Larsen

“Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso for Violin and Orchestra,” Charles Camille Saint-Saens – Joshua Bell, violin

“Ziegurnerweisen, for Violin and Orchestra, Opus 20,” Pablo de Sarasate – Joshua Bell, violin

“Fantasy for Violin and Orchestra” from the film “Ladies in Lavender,” Nigel Hess – Joshua Bell, violin

Part II

“Symphony No. 2, in D minor, Opus 43,” Jean Sibelius

***

And this is just me: It was nice that at the beginning there was a video of various entities saying nice things about Groner, but at a live performance – the whole point of why orchestras still exist – I wanted to hear a salute from a flesh-and-blood individual on stage for all in the living, breathing audience to hear. Two people did come to the stage to give the high-ho to sponsors. Not the same. That was not about the parting, hard-working conductor who polished up the orchestra so it shone on the community’s showcase stage. Heck, even the janitor could have come out and said, “Hey, Brian, thanks a lot.”

Libby Larsen’s “The Trois” was an agreeable touch to add to the occasion. The work in three portions has three personalities, two with a New Age aura and the third at Groner-like bustle and drive. The work ends on a long, chimed note – perhaps representing the lasting value of Groner’s tenure with the orchestra.  

Great artists are fun to listen to. Joshua Bell was such fun.

Instead of having Bell play in one big horse of a concerto, Groner programmed the star violinist in three shorter pieces of varied character. Sections spanned from light and playful to dramatic and lush. This was the epitome:

In Nigel Hess’s “Fantasy,” Bell reaches a solo in which is touch is that of a feather on the strings and yet the sound soars and carries throughout the hall. It is the gentle stroke of a brush on a masterful painting, the smooth arc of shoulder on a classic sculpture, a softly radiating sunset to close an idyllic day. Perfect.

As is his style, Bell dressed a bit casually in an open shirt and all black. He was engaging as he spoke to the audience. He said he was “honored to be part of celebrating Maestro Groner’s final concert” with the orchestra. Bell said he owes a lot to the orchestra. “They gave me one of my first chances in my career,” he said. He kidded: “I was 6.” (Add 10).

Next season, Fox Valley Symphony will feature four candidates for conductor and music director – standard operating procedure for such searches. Meantime, Groner will continue as conductor and artistic director of another Fox Valley Orchestra in Aurora, Ill.; artistic director for the Midwest Mozart Festival in Woodstock, Ill.; and conductor of the symphony offerings at Birch Creek Music Performance Center in Door County’s Egg Harbor.

Wednesday, when Groner arrived on the podium, there was a slight pause in the hall. Applause rose, and eventually so did members of the audience. Cheers sprinkled through the strong handclaps. After “Sibelius Two” was done, Groner bowed to the audience and turned to the musicians in the arc closest to him. One by each, he shook hands with, kissed hands of and or/hugged the individual players. Eventually, for the audience, there was one long, long bow. 

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.

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.

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