‘Life and love’ Allentown Symphony brings ‘powerful pieces’ to audiences
First of two parts
After a season celebrating her 20th anniversary as artistic director and conductor of the Allentown Symphony Orchestra, Diane Wittry knew she wanted the 2016-17 season to be even more memorable.
You couldn’t do better than “Lights, Camera, Oscars!” the opening Allentown Symphony Pops Series Concert, 7:30 p.m. Sept. 24, with ASO associate conductor Ronald Demkee and vocal soloists Marie Danvers and Destan Owens; the Symphony Classical Music Series Opening Gala, featuring Grammy winner jazz saxophonist Branford Marsalis as soloist for Villa-Lobos’ “Fantasia for Saxophone and Orchestra,” Oct. 15, 16, and the Symphony’s Classical Series of Elgar’s “Enigma Variations,” Nov. 5, 6.
Allentown Symphony season programming for 2017 includes the Pops Series Concert with pianist Jim Brickman, Jan. 21; “Viennese Nights” Classical Series Concert, Feb. 11, 12; “Peter and the Wolf” Family Classical Concert, Feb. 25; Symphonic Organ Festival, March 11, 12; Mahler’s “Resurrection Symphony No. 2,” April 8, 9, and the season-concluding Pops concert, “Rock On! Classic Rock & Pop From the 1970s and 1980s,” May 13.
The 2015-2016 season was themed to commemorate Maestra Wittry’s 20 years leading the Symphony. For the 2016-2017 season, Wittry says, “There’s no overall theme,” but then, qualifying, she adds, “There are some themes that are surfacing after the fact, like life and love.
“The Mahler ‘Resurrection Symphony’ is about life and what might happen after life,“ says Wittry. The April 8 and 9 concerts include the Allentown Symphony Chorus, with chorus master Eduardo Azzati and guest soloists, soprano Elizabeth De Trejo and mezzo-soprano Charlotte Daw Paulsen.
“I realize that I’m also doing ‘Death and Transfiguration’ before that, which also deals with the love of life and something beyond,” Wittry says. The Strauss work is part of the Symphonic Organ Festival, March 11, 12, highlighted by the world premiere of “Ewazen” for organ and orchestra by guest composer Eric Ewazen and performed by organ soloist Hector Olivera.
“‘Viennese Nights’ is all about love of life,” Wittry continues. “It’s a party, designed after a New Year’s celebration, and it’s also about resolutions about your life.” The “Viennese Nights” concerts, Feb. 11, 12, include piano soloist Katie Mahan, soprano Jessica Lennick and the Bel Canto Children’s Chorus Of The Bach Choir Of Bethlehem, with artistic director Joy Hirokawa, in a selection of works by Strauss, Nicolai, Schubert, Suppe, Mozart and Lehar.
“‘The Enigma Variations.’ That’s Elgar,” says Wittry. “It’s a melody that came to him, pointing out his love for his life. He took that melody and he was playing with it and making it sound like this friend and that friend. He captured 12 of his friends in this work. It can be a love of life and the love of people near you.” On the Nov. 5 and 6 concerts program is cello soloist Alexander Hersch, 2016 Schadt String Competition winner, performing Schumann’s “Cello Concerto in A minor, Op. 129.” There’s also the world premiere of “Local Composer Variations on a Theme by Elgar.”
“The composer contest went so great,” says Wittry. “We had 25 entries. The quality level of all of the entries was amazing. The winners will be presented at the November concert.
“Each person took the Elgar theme and characterized a friend of theirs. We selected four. One is by a seventh grader who is studying at Juilliard pre-college. It was so advanced that we called the coordinator to make sure it wasn’t in the wrong category. The word came back that he wrote it in one night.”
Each piece is about two-minutes-long. Moravian College composer-in-residence Larry Lipkis has themed them together into one work. “So, it’s our own ‘Engima Variations,” says Wittry.
“The title [‘Enigma Variations’] has been the conversation of a lot of research. All of the titles are initialed with three initials. And one is titled by three asterisks. There’s also the enigma that there’s a theme that he stole his theme from. The word from the latest research is ‘A Mighty Fortress is Our God.’ Luther looms, which also talks about resurrection and transformation.
“And then with Marsalis, it’s certainly a love of the saxophone,” Wittry says. Marsalis performs Villa-Lobos’ “Fantasia for Saxophone and Orchestra.” Paired with that is Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 3.” “Talk about serious pieces,” says Wittry. “That was the whole turning point in his life and in his world. That’s where he [Beethoven] was becoming deaf. It’s facing life and facing death.
“These themes I didn’t plan, but I realize that there’s an underlying theme about how we express our deepest concerns and emotions in music. It’s interesting that looking at it afterwards that there were some tie-ins that were subconscious,” Wittry observes.
“But the most important thing about the season is that there are so many powerful pieces, pieces that capture so many emotions and feelings and move us. This is why we do this music.
“The Pops series is also very eclectic. We had the sold-out the Disney concert [for the 2015-16 season]. We have ‘Lights, Camera, Oscars!’ Jim Brickman is New-Age and we end with ‘Rock On! Classic Rock & Pop From the 1970s and 1980s.’ There’s really something in there for everyone.
“I’m excited about the season,” Wittry continues. “I just think the orchestra is playing so well. A lot of the people who have moved to the area don’t realize we have a great orchestra and a great concert hall. I ran into some people yesterday and they said they don’t feel the need to go to Philadelphia, that we have great concerts right here.
“A lot of our concerts are selling well. You can still get subscriptions. You can still get single tickets. The Century Fund has been providing free tickets for anyone up to age 21.”
The ‘Allentown Sound’
In orchestral music, there’s said to be the “Philadelphia Sound” of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Is there an “Allentown Sound” for the Allentown Symphony, Wittry is asked?
“We have an energy to the performance, of absolute commitment to music-making. You get people who are on stage playing at 150 percent at all times.
“This orchestra has a lot of heart. And to me that’s why music-making is all about. It’s not just playing the notes. It’s what you bring to the music.
“All of our auditions are done blind, behind a screen. We definitely look for a presence of sound, confidence in playing and something musical to say. We’re not interested in a technician, someone who is playing technically, but is boring.”
Many Allentown Symphony musicians live in the Lehigh Valley. However, some orchestra members commute from New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia and Baltimore. “Two of our players love playing with us so much. One moved to Huntsville, Alabama. Jennifer Case, second oboe, and one moved to Ontario, Canada. Robin Lubert, second violin, for 30 years, One flies back and one drives. We have some committed players.
“It’s so competitive now to play with the Allentown Symphony,” says Wittry. “We’re graduating more and more amazing players. They go to schools all over the country.”
New, enhanced programs
Under Wittry’s tutelage and that of Allentown Symphony Association Executive Director Sheila Evans, new programs have been launched and enhanced.
The Symphony’s Conducting Fellows Program allows conductors to hone their craft through mentorship in the Symphony Association’s programs. The Conducting Fellows travel to the Lehigh Valley to work side by side with Wittry before and during a Classical Series Concert.
The weekly noon concert series, “A Taste of Allentown Symphony,” with ASO duos performing classical music, popular songs and other repertoire at center city locations, including the Arts Walk and the Allentown Art Museum cafe, continues Sept. 9, 16, 23 and 30. The schedule is on the Miller Symphony Hall web site.
“Meet the Artist” is held at noon Fridays at Miller Hall before Symphony concerts weekends.
The Allentown Symphony Chorus performs for the Mahler “Symphony No. 2, C minor: Resurrection,“ April 8, 9 concerts.
“One of the reasons I wanted to form a chorus is to form something different,” Wittry says. “It’s a project chorus. They only meet six weeks before the concert. It fills a void for people who are very busy.
“I was trying to build something that would be very, very high quality, which is why it’s an auditioned group, and they become our ambassadors into the larger community. We have people coming from an hour away to sing with our chorus. It makes them have pride and personal involvement with the organization.”
Another community-involvement endeavor is the “Fantasy Symphony,” Nov. 20, Miller Symphony Hall, giving area musicians the opportunity to play under the baton of Wittry and alongside Symphony members. Registration information is on the Miller Symphony Hall web site.
“With the ‘Fantasy Symphony,’ people can bring their instruments and play the music and sit with members of the orchestra that they look up to,” says Wittry.
The Symphony also has major outreach programs for young persons.
“We have an El Sistema summer program,’ says Wittry. “El Sistema has been so rewarding to watch how students who have never had an instrument in their lives to see how it’s totally changed their lives. Two students were selected to go to a national program. And there’s no way that that would have happened.”
The Symphony’s most high-profile international youth initiative is the Annual Schadt String Competition, in its 21st year March 3 - 5, 2017. This year, the contest is for classical guitar musicians.
The Schadt Competition was begun in 1997 following a bequest to the Symphony Association from Edwin H. and Leigh W. Schadt. The contest alternates annually between violin, cello and classical guitar.
The Schadt Brothers String Summer Camp Scholarship Program provides opportunities for young string students in the Lehigh Valley region.
There’s also the 62nd Annual Voorhees Concerto Competition, and the eighth annual Young Musician String Festival, the latter Nov. 6, Miller Symphony Hall.
For the younger set, there’s the Symphony’s “Petting Zoo,” where children can touch musical instruments, including 1 - 6 p.m. Sept. 11 at the Lehigh Valley Festival of Art, Science, and Technology, PPL Center, Allentown, and 1 - 2 p.m. Oct. 8 at the 2016 Kids Discovery Expo, Da Vinci Science Center, Allentown.
Wittry’s email includes the phrase, “Changing the world through music,” a motto she believes in:
“My life’s goal is that I love music. But if I was playing music in an empty room, that’s not what it’s all about. For me, it’s about sharing the music and seeing how the music can impact people and change their lives for the better. That might be as simple as, you know, somebody had a bad day at work and they leave the concert feeling real concert.
“It’s one thing about coming to a concert and being moved, but it’s also personal involvement with music,” Wittry says.
Allentown Symphony Orchestra season subscriptions and single tickets for the season and other events at Miller Symphony Hall: millersymphonyhall.org, 610-432-6715. Tickets for students 21 and under are available free, courtesy of a grant from the Century Fund, at the box office: 610-432-6715.
Next week: Allentown Symphony Association Executive Director Sheila Evans previews the Miller Symphony Hall season and plans for the venerable center city Allentown concert venue.