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October 6, 2015

Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: Sheboygan Symphony concert distinctive

SHEBOYGAN, Wis.

The unusual dominated Saturday night as the Sheboygan Symphony Orchestra marked the beginning of its 97th season at the historic Weill Center for the Performing Arts.

The overall concert was nicely played as it featured disparate elements. Standing ovations met every piece.

Coming into play were two themes, “A Season of Surprises” and “Beginning with a Fond Farewell.”

Music director and conductor Kevin McMahon, starting his sixth season, also made a verbal appeal for the organization’s adult and youth arms to move hand in hand into the future. McMahon introduced his appeal with, “Like Martin Luther King, I have a dream.”

***

Program, with additions on the evening

- Johann Sebastian Bach: “Concerto for Two Violins” with Debbie Williamson and Kevin McMahon, violin

- Keith Emerson: “Piano Concerto No. 1,” with guest artist Jeffrey Biegel

Encore: Frederic Chopin solo piano work

- Ferde Grofé: “Grand Canyon Suite”

Encore: Claude-Michel Schönberg: Selections from “Les Miserables”

***

The “Beginning with a Fond Farewell” related to the opening work, featuring concertmaster Debbie Williamson and Kevin McMahon side by side in a flow of Bach sounds from elegant to bracing. This was the final concert for Williamson, who is retiring from the orchestra after 34 years as its concertmaster. Ahem – 34 years as concertmaster. Rare is the orchestra to call on a single person for so long for all the skill and knowledge that position requires. Additionally, Williamson conducted the Sheboygan Area Youth Symphony for 19 years. While McMahon is not an effusive personality, he acknowledged Williamson’s dedication in a musician’s way, picking up the violin to share and support Williamson in the Bach work that speaks of classical music tradition. In turn, the audience caught the spirit of this part of the concert by applauding after each movement – something the audience did not do for movements the rest of the evening – and then giving the performance a warm standing ovation.

The orchestra was chamber size for the first work. It bulked up for the rest of the evening in more out-there works that included large gusto.

This concert provided an opportunity to hear a piano concerto by Keith Emerson played by one of his skilled proponents, Jeffrey Biegel. Emerson was a member of the progressive rock supergroup Emerson, Lake and Palmer that surfaced in the 1970s. The only hint of anything rocky in Emerson’s concerto is its bursts of energy. Otherwise, it has both feet in the classical music realm, agreeably so. McMahon managed the solid byplay between his orchestra and the often-spirited Biegel, who has both the work’s gentleness and electricity in his hands. Overall, Emerson is light of heart in this piece – and in the end full of excited, explosive, dramatic energy. I liked the way Biegel ended: His hands were going at full tilt, producing roaring sounds, and then, suddenly, the piece was over and his hands flashed in opposite directions above the keyboard and essentially saying, “DONE.”

Biegel added an encore, showing deftness of touch and quickness in the warm realm of Chopin.

The second half of the concert opened with the best descriptive work of the American west and one of its natural wonders. “Best,” of course, is totally subjective, but I really like the “Grand Canyon Suite,” and I’m writing this, so it’s “best” (for this day anyway). McMahon and the orchestra tapped into the work’s huge musical murals, from the graceful sunrise to sunset to the catchy “On the Trail,” donkeys and all, to the rip-roaring storm. I daresay, the Sheboygan Symphony Orchestra can let out a mean sound; in the peak intensity of the “Cloudburst” movement, the dynamism reached to my seat in row T and grabbed my ears. Near pain, it was.

“A Season of Surprises” came into play after the “Grand Canyon Suite.” McMahon and the orchestra added an encore of selections from “Les Miserables” that was end-to-end enjoyable melodies colorfully played.

The evening included recognitions other than Williamson’s – for Arthur Kiehl, retiring after 25 years of playing horn in the orchestra, and for Terry House, for being guest artist donor for the season. House spoke, expressing what trips his trigger (and really so many other people’s triggers) about symphonic music.

With the printed programs came an insert that will be in all programs this season. It’s a “People’s Choice Concert Ballot” for suggestions for orchestral works to be performed next season’s November concert.

AHEAD: “Russian to the Finnish,” Nov. 14; “The Glory of Christmas,” Dec. 12, joined by the Sheboygan Symphony Chorus; “Traditional and Beyond,” Feb. 6; “A Century of Song – Shawn Weber McMahon in Concert,” March 12; “PASSION: Music from the Heart, World’s Greatest Opera Choruses and More,” May 14. Info: sheboygansymphony.org

VENUE: The 1,153-seat Stefanie H. Weill Center for the Performing Arts is a renovated, majestic movie palace that dates to 1928 – just before the arrival of “talking” movies. Located in downtown Sheboygan, the building is easily spotted by its long, horizontal marquee that says, “Sheboygan,” the original name of the theater. In the late 1990s, efforts swung into motion to restore the building. In October 2001, the theater re-opened as home to several local performing arts groups with additional programming of its own. The design is of the Spanish Colonial Revival style. The lobby areas and auditorium are adorned in elaborate architectural designs that evoke a courtly era. Huge flowers, medallions and human forms in relief add visual punch. The rectangular auditorium is light and airy, with the blue ceiling sprinkled with blinking lights representing stars. To heighten the orchestral/choral sound, the stage area includes a set of wavy, wooden acoustical clouds along with floor-to-ceil wooden panels. The theater was constructed as part of the Universal Pictures circuit for $600,000 – a whopping sum for 1928. The building is on the National Register of Historic Places. It’s one of Wisconsin’s remarkable old theaters – and well kept.

THE PERSON: Stefanie H. Weill and her husband, John Weill, emigrated from Vienna, Austria, to the United States in 1941. John Weill was a businessman – president of American Chair Co. and board chairman of the parent Thonet Industries in New York. He died in 1967. Stefanie Weill was active in community and civic activities, including serving on the board of the John Michael Kohler Arts Center and being part of Friends of Sheboygan Symphony. The Stefanie H. Weill Charitable Trust was established in 1969 to support such ventures as the center for the performing arts.

Because I review performances that range from amateur to professional, and because production budgets range tremendously, I no longer use star ratings. You may email me at warren.gerds@wearegreenbay.com. Watch for my on-air segments on WFRV between 6 and 8 a.m. Sundays.

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