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Music director arrives with a flourish in Appleton

Sept. 21, 2019

Written by Warren Gerds/Critic at Large
As printed on www.wearegreenbay.com
Local 5 WFRV

As is tradition at season openers of American orchestras, the concert started with “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Everything else was other than “regular.”

The Fox Valley Symphony Orchestra concert Saturday night in Thrivent Financial Hall at Fox Cities Performing Arts Center centered on Kevin Sütterlin performing his first official concert as music director and conductor of the orchestra.

The first not “regular” item was a video projected on a screen above the stage prior to the concert. Kevin Sütterlin stated his agenda as music director – to give “underrepresented composers a voice” – and briefly outlined works on the evening’s program. In speaking his name, he gave a tip: It is pronounced Suit-er-lin.

Next, “The Star-Spangled Banner” introduced the person. Tall, lean. He wore the conductor’s formal tie and tails, with a white cummerbund. After the drums rolled in the opening, he turned to conduct the standing audience in singing “Oh say can you see…” At the end, Kevin Sütterlin bowed a low bow that spoke “European,” in keeping with his birthplace, Germany. Leaving the stage, as he passed concertmaster Yulyia Smead, he pressed his hands together in a sign of appreciation to her.

The first work on the announced program was something not that regular in orchestral concerts: Fun. Carter Pann’s “Slolom” describes the rush of a skier down a mountain slope. Notes race from the full orchestra at breakneck speed. Notes contain references to snow, to grandeur, to adrenaline and to other composers. They invigorate.

The piece ends on one long note from the piano. On the podium, Kevin Sütterlin raised his right hand and slowly closed fingers as if he were shaping the note’s passage to silence.

The next work was by a well-represented composer, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, but the piece was other than regular because it featured harp and flute.

The soloists were greeted in an other-than-regular manner. Kevin Sütterlin shook their hands before they performed.

Looking back, this concerto fit into the overall aura of the concert – to create a sense of pleasure. Angst was given the night off.

How the orchestra played the concerto was how it played all evening – ready, willing and able… more than capable. To say the orchestra wanted to impress its new boss would be flip, but there is no denying the musicians were on.

Grace and elegance are the main threads of the fabric of the Mozart piece. As part of this atmosphere, Kevin Sütterlin conducted without a baton. His hands floated as he made gentle notes appear.

Featured soloists Alison Attar on harp and Linda Nielsen Korducki on flute were in their element.

Their instruments alone speak to lightness in atmosphere, blended with the complexity of a tapestry.

To create that tapestry, sometimes the orchestra is the body of the artwork, and sometimes the harp and flute work together on fine points of the image and sometimes separately. Sometimes the harp and flute notes are akin to a duet, though often they complement one another.

At the climax, Kevin Sütterlin stood with his arms at his side and the orchestra players listened as Alison Attar and Linda Nielsen Korducki created pastoral visions as would masterful landscape artists.

How many life hours went into the two creating the fine individual notes that became the beautiful whole? The effect was not lost on the audience, which rose for an ovation that included cheers. Kevin Sütterlin held his arms out, aimed at Alison Attar and Linda Nielsen Korducki as if to say, “Admire them. Appreciate what they have done.”

To start the second half of the program, Kevin Sütterlin spoke.

He said he was “honored” and “truly blessed” to lead “your Fox Valley Symphony Orchestra.”

He put voice to his agenda: Each concert will be preceded by a talk by him at 6:40 p.m. Each concert will have music by a living composer. Each concert will have music by underrepresented composers. It his hope “to expand the symphonic canon by doing so.” That statement was met with applause.

The aim is “to reflect the community,” Kevin Sütterlin said as he moved on to another other-than-regular topic. The organization, he said, is joining the City of Appleton partnership in the “Dignity & Respect Campaign.”

Kevin Sütterlin said he had signed up online that evening to be part of the effort of inclusion. “Please consider making this pledge to make this world a better place,” he asked the audience.

Campaign flyer.
Part of Kevin Sütterlin’s talk served as an explainer. He told of Florence Price, the first African-American female to graduate from the esteemed New England Conservatory of Music. One of her works won the opportunity to be performed in the early 1930s by the Chicago Symphony, consisting entirely of white males. The piece then was abandoned until a few years ago. Along with an accompanying work by William Grant Still, a colleague and friend of Florence Price, Kevin Sütterlin seems to want to set things right. He said their works are masterpieces in the way of others.

The three movements of “Dances in the Canebrakes” by Florence Price are, in turn, sunny, dreamy and catchy. “Silk Hat and Walking Cane” is particularly infectious as it describes a jaunty fellow feeling swell about life and himself.

Broadly, this work and that of William Grant Stills say “American” and conjure impressions of a time past when jazz was making its way into orchestral works in rhythmic ways.

William Grant Stills’ “Symphony No. 1 (‘Afro-American’)” is especially expressive of many moods, emotions and images.

The music uses English horn for solemnity, oboe for melancholy and brass and percussion for eruptions of power. Horns impart images of a distant locomotive. Strings bring a melodic, majestic aura.

Along the way, the piece visits the vibrant, the soulful and the stormy.

In the final movement, one can almost hear a large, bluesy operatic voice building as its owner pours his/her heart out. In conducting this passage, Kevin Sütterlin called on the cellos and basses to emote as if from the heart as he clutched a fist to his chest.

The concert closed to another standing ovation and more cheers. Kevin Sütterlin left the stage during the first wave and quickly returned to stand amid the orchestra and beam along with his musicians, many of whom stomped their feet in approval.

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