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home : lifelines : lifelines Thursday, May 25, 2006

5/23/2006 10:00:00 PM Email this articlePrint this article 
Women’s energy fuels OP-RF Symphony tribute

By Cathryn Wilkinson

Gladys Welge

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.

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