On a Tuesday night in January 1933, Oak Park resident
Miss Gladys Welge first brought the Oak Park Symphony to life in the
OPRF High School auditorium. Marking their inception from Welge’s
founding of a local "Sunday School Orchestra" in 1931, the Symphony of
Oak Park and River Forest culminated a celebration of 75 years of
music-making this past Sunday.
The anniversary was observed with a tribute to the
memory of Miss Welge on May 21 at First United Church. Seventy-five
years later, the audience continues to respond to "the hometown band
with vigor and enthusiasm," just as Sylvia Neuzil in The Oak Parker
remarked of the first audience in 1933.
The commemorative concert featured the fine touch of
several females: Welge’s programming of Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony
was repeated, Anna Burden as cello soloist filled a role played
originally by Bernice Bott on violin at the debut concert, and a new
work by Angel Lam was conducted in its U.S. premiere by Maestra Kim
Diehnelt, assistant conductor.
Elizabeth Rexford, author of a scholarly article on
Welge in Women Building Chicago (Indiana University Press, 2001) and a
violinist in the orchestra, began the concert with a brief tribute to
Welge. Four members of the audience, as well as the current
concertmaster, Donald Schmalz, studied with Welge in her later years.
According to one former student, Susan Cartland-Bode,
Welge used to travel to homes throughout Oak Park giving violin
lessons. She was so energetic that she took the steps to the second
floor two at a time. Welge’s energy and talent eventually earned her
the post of conductor of the Woman’s Symphony Orchestra of Chicago, in
an era when women were infrequently admitted to professional orchestras.
As for the musical portion of the afternoon, Schubert
set aside his 8th Symphony in favor of pursuing more lieder and the
Great C major (9th) symphony. In the two completed movements, the mood
ranges from dark and brooding, communicated most ominously by the
double basses on each recurrence, to the blithe and dreamy musings of
the higher strings in the Andante con moto. Diehnelt’s pleasantly slow
tempo in this movement allowed the layers of accompaniment to sparkle
beneath the lazy opening theme.
Narrator Gigi Buffington, noted for her acting and
writing for screen and stage, joined the orchestra for Angel Lam’s
Symphonic Journal: Ambush from Ten Directions. An exceptional find on
the part of Diehnelt, this work was originally premiered by the Hong
Kong Sinfonietta in 2005.
Ms. Lam’s musical recounting of a battle during the Han
dynasty in 202 B.C.E. began with a dramatic narration in a newscast
tone. We were introduced to an eyewitness, "traveling through time at
900 times greater than normal energy," expressed in a swirling clarinet
cadenza. Brass swells, horn calls, and trombone sforzandi rose to a
frenzy at the height of the battle. Ms. Lam exhibited considerable
facility at dipping into the tonal palette of the western orchestra,
while skillfully weaving in elements of an ancient Chinese battle song.
She commented that "writing for an orchestra is like
having the sounds of the whole world before you." A young composer, she
does have the world before her; however, as in Welge’s era, men have
traditionally dominated the world of composition. Her cohesive, yet
kaleidoscopic, outpouring reaches heights far above mere tone-painting,
and is even more impressive, coming from the aural inventiveness of a
composer-in-training at Peabody Conservatory of Music.
Anna Burden, soloist in the Dvorák Cello Concerto
(1895) represented yet more womanly vigor, with strength, skill,
talent, and stage presence belying her years. An undergraduate from
Northwestern University, she displayed assurance and control throughout
this lengthy and technically difficult work, and carried us naturally
from passages of intense gravity off into Dvorák’s many sudden
explorations of whimsy.
Burden conveyed a splendid grasp of her role as
soloist, although the orchestra at times overwhelmed her lush tone in
the middle register. After offering a 40-minute concerto with passion
and skill, she closed with a touching gem of an encore in a blue-grass
idiom by Mark Summer of the Turtle Island String Quartet. She displayed
yet more energy with string-slapping percussive effects.
And poised to the finish, she exited the stage,
elegantly making her way among the crowded music stands, balancing
cello, bow, and bouquets from admirers.
Yes, even strong and energetic women love flowers.