Saturday, February 25, 2017

The Creative Marvel that is the Orchestra of Southern Utah

By Bryce Christensen

First, go to a large American city. Second, buy season tickets for that city’s municipal symphony orchestra. Third, prepare for financial pain. After all, the cost of a full-season package may easily run north of $500. What will you receive for enduring this pain? Memorable classical music superbly performed, of course. But if you expect to hear world premieres of new compositions, you’ll likely be disappointed. And if you hope to hear daring arrangements of both new and canonical numbers, arrangements that fuse music with other modes of creative art, you again will likely come away from the concert hall unsatisfied.

No wonder that music lovers could only marvel when leaving Cedar City’s Heritage Center after the latest concert of the Orchestra of Southern Utah (OSU), the February 23rd concert extending this year’s Legacy series with the theme Creative Legacy. How, these overwhelmed music lovers had to be asking themselves, could an orchestra located in Cedar City (with a population of under 30,000) deliver so much to patrons paying so little--just a fraction of what big-city orchestras demand? For this is an orchestra that delivers not only the sublime pleasures of well-known classical music brilliantly performed but also the rare stimulation of stunning new compositions and the bracing challenge of innovative arrangements of works new and old, arrangements that refreshingly link great music to other imaginative arts. The innovative musicianship of the Creative Legacy concert was so daring that it combined, in unforgettable fashion, piercing strains of wonderful music with beautiful visual images, sonorous poetry, and even pyrotechnic science.

If you tell the big-city music lovers who are shelling out far more for much less about this concert, they may—when they have finished gnashing their teeth and pulling out their hair for sheer envy—pack up and move to Iron County.

Reminding his Cedar City audience of their good fortune in living here, OSU President Harold Shirley opened the Creative Legacy promising a performance so incandescent with creativity that it would “light up the house” from its opening number.

The evening’s musical fireworks—that quite literally did light up the house—began under the baton of assistant conductor Carylee Zwang, who led the OSU musicians in an exceptionally high-energy performance of a Rossini’s William Tell Overture. Popular culture has made at least one segment of this work so familiar that one wit has cheekily defined an intellectual as any person who can hear this number without thinking of the Lone Ranger. But it was never the masked man with the silver bullets who captured the attention of the riveted audience this evening.

Indeed, the opening strains of this number are muted and tranquil—featuring a tender solo by cellist Leah Brown—transporting the audience to a serene realm of Swiss alpine meadows far from Wild West fantasies. When the serenity is broken, it is not by Clayton Moore and Jay Silverheels but rather by the arrival of a summer thunderstorm, its energy first manifest in a quickening of breezes conveyed by tight interplay between piccolo (soloist Tanisa Crosby), flutes, oboe (soloist Patrice Ramsey), clarinets, and bassoons (solo passage from Julie Kluber), deftly unfolded against a taut backdrop of strings. Brass and percussion join in the onset of the full storm. Mellow flute and English horn passages (played gracefully by Adrienne Read and Virginia Stitt) signal the end of the storm.

But nature is not Switzerland’s only powerful force. And in the famous final section, listeners hear a musical cavalcade celebrating the triumph of brave Swiss soldiers fighting off Austrian oppressors. (The fact that among many 21st-century listeners this exultant conclusion now conjures only images from a serialized Hollywood Western must considerably unsettle Rossini’s graveyard slumbers.) But neither Swiss soldiers nor Hollywood actors commanded center stage for the finale; rather, it was Southern Utah University’s physicist Brandon Wiggins who made every crescendo, every percussive outburst, of the music, apt accompaniment for pyrotechnic science—hydrogen explosions, kaleidoscopic flames spurting from alkaline metals, sparks arcing through the air above front-row seats, even fire leaping from Wiggins’ upraised hand as he ignited its coating of superabsorbent polymers. Not in the most breathtaking climax of any Lone Ranger episode did Rossini’s exhilarating conclusion find a more electrifying embodiment than it did on this night, as a modern Prometheus brought fire down from the heavens into the concert hall. While this was a thrill for all in attendance, the thrill stirred the most insistent questions in the children and adolescents in attendance: So this is classical music? Why didn’t anyone ever tell me before? When can I get more?

As they relished Wiggins’ high-octane entertainment, those in the audience may have wondered how Zwang—remarkable for her nuanced directing in the pacific opening movement—remained completely poised and focused while directing the orchestra from a podium scant yards away from the most pyromaniac performer ever admitted to the Heritage Center.

The only pyromania in the evening’s second number—Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Opus 43—was the dazzling pyromania that pianist Christian Bohnenstengel brought to a keyboard he nearly set aflame. As he played the more kinetic of the Russian-born composer’s twenty-four variations of the original Paganini theme, his fingers—almost a blur to the eye—moved so rapidly that the audience feared they were about to see the evening’s second and third hands burst into flame, with fiery friction setting the keys burning beneath them. But Rachmaninoff’s two dozen variations are not all incendiary—some, including the irresistibly romantic variation made famous by the movie Somewhere in Time—call for a sensitive and delicate touch. In his mastery of the entire range of Rachmaninoff’s variations, Bohnenstengel demonstrated an astonishingly versatile virtuosity. With unobtrusive but unfailing skill, assistant conductor Adam Lambert deftly wove together the collective talents of the orchestra with the individual talent of the guest soloist. Whether the orchestra was echoing a passage first played by Bohnenstengel or anticipating in a range of instrumental voices what Bohnenstengel would then distill in the sound of a single instrument, the entire ensemble remained perfectly coordinated.

After the intermission, the orchestra continued to deliver on their president’s opening promise to “light up the house”—but did so with neither the combustive energy of a piano soloist nor the ardent force of chemical explosives. The luminosity that the orchestra delivered in the evening’s final notes came through a remarkable welding of three different art forms: photography, poetry, and music. As a creative celebration of Southern Utah’s natural splendors, the final number featured a video montage projected onto screens on either side of the stage. Combining pictures taken by a dozen gifted photographers, Charles Shirley turned the walls of the Heritage Center into windows opening onto mountains, valleys, cliffs, rock formations, streams, forests, and wildlife. Enhancing the effect of these magnificent pictures were memorable lines of poetry by SUU creative-writing professor Danielle Beazer Dubrasky. Dubrasky, in fact, introduced the final musical number of the evening by reading, with great feeling, a key passage from her poem.

Though the complements were resplendent, nothing brought more radiance to the concert hall on this night than the final musical number itself, a specially commissioned symphonic tone poem entitled Valley of Enchantment, by Mark Dal Porto, publicly performed for the very first time. In its ten sections (seven accompanied by lines of Dubrasky’s poetry), Dal Porto’s composition tracks a day—from the moment “Dawn sets fire to red cliffs” to the twilight hour, when “Sagebrush roots drink from an ancient sea / the earth has always held.” Within the span of this day, listeners soar over a richly variegated landscape, experiencing a wide spectrum of moods. Between the profound first-light stirrings of the first section to the evening repose of the final section, this diversely textured piece captures the dancing gleams of a mountain brook, the sylvan solemnities of a deep wood, the soaring natural buttresses of a canyon cathedral, the ominous rumble of approaching thunderheads, and the serene repose of evening.

An orchestra merits high praise for a polished performance of any symphonic number. But when that number is entirely new, not a familiar part of any musician’s repertoire, the praise should be even more generous. Accordingly, the audience had every reason to rise to their feet in a standing ovation at the close of this awe-inspiring number, recognizing the genius of its composer, surely, but also honoring the devotion and musicianship of OSU Music Director and Conductor Xun Sun and the members of the orchestra under his baton. Guided by Sun’s impassioned directing, the orchestra delivered a performance both compelling and carefully nuanced of a composition that truly stirred the soul, instilling profound feelings of reverence for the natural grandeurs of our region.

While the orchestra as a whole deserves kudos for a splendid performance of this new number, five soloists deserve special mention: Virginia Stitt drew a richly pastoral song from her English horn; Richard McMaster pierced the empyrean with his trumpet; Patrice Ramsey coaxed warm euphonies from her oboe; April Richardson enticed round and full sonorities from her clarinet; and harpist Jane Taylor reminded all present what instrument the angels play.

Well-led symphony orchestras in other cities could perhaps have matched what OSU delivered in its performance of the Rossini and Rachmaninoff selections. But these orchestras only very rarely premiere magnificent new compositions even remotely comparable to Valley of Enchantment. And trying to find any other orchestra that offers not only newly commissioned compositions such as this but also novel new blendings of music with poetry, photography, and let’s-test-the-limits-of-the-fire-code science is an exercise in futility.

Those who attended Creative Legacy concert left the Heritage Center newly aware that the Orchestra of Southern Utah is a marvel—and newly grateful that sponsors such as the Charles and Gloria Maxfield Parrish Foundation open the door wider to area residents who want to share in that marvel.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Creative Legacy Concert on Feb. 23, 2017

Poster Design by Rollan Fell

Guest Scientist Brandon Wiggins

At Jubilee on Feb. 11

Science, orchestra, and Rossini's music

An Evening of Enchantment with a
World Premiere, A Science Soloist, and Rachmaninoff

The Orchestra of Southern Utah presents Creative Legacy on February 23 at 7:30 p.m in the Heritage Theater, Cedar City. The concert includes the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini by Rachmaninoff, the William Tell Overture by Rossini, and the world premiere of the OSU commissioned Valley of Enchantment by Mark Dal Porto. The concert is sponsored by the Charles and Gloria Maxfield Parrish Foundation.

Musically Speaking with Dr. Nicki Frey and composer Mark Dal Porto begins at 6:15 in the back of the theater. Dr. Frey will be discussing the challenges and importance of preserving the scenic wonders that have inspired the world premiere of Valley of Enchantment. Mark Dal Porto will talk about his composition in detail.

The virtuosic Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini by Sergei Rachmaninoff features talented guest pianist Christian Bohnenstengel. The piece, created for a solo piano accompanied by symphony orchestra, has delighted audiences with its challenging exhibition of technical precision on the part of the pianist. The guest pianist teaches at SUU, directs the annual “Monster Piano Concerto” for area students, and performs in jazz ensembles as well as many classical music engagements. Adam Lambert directs the piece.

The familiar and dramatic William Tell Overture by Rossini presents a unique multifaceted performance with guest scientist Brandon Wiggins performing science experiments alongside live music. The piece is recognizable as the theme from The Lone Ranger series. It begins with a cello choir at dawn and progresses through a thunderstorm, celebration, and gallop of Swiss soldiers. Carylee Zwang directs.

After finding inspiration in the splendor and majesty of the Southern Utah landscape, Mark Dal Porto composed Valley of Enchantment. The symphonic tone poem is structured in ten sections, each named for the natural scenery it conveys. Danielle Dubrasky’s poetry is combined with a visual presentation produced by Charles Shirley that adds beautiful imagery to complement each section. Local photographers have contributed stunning visual art for this performance. The piece is directed by Xun Sun.

Tickets are available at the Cedar City Heritage Theater Box Office by calling 435-865-2882 or online at Admission is $10 for adults, $5 for students, and $30 for groups up to 6. Because evening concerts are recorded, it is requested that babies and children under the age of six not attend. Children over the age of six are welcome at all OSU concerts with adult supervision. For more information, please, call the Orchestra of Southern Utah at (435) 233-8213, or email

Program available for download

6:15 p.m. Musically Speaking (pre-concert) with Dr. Nicki Frey and Dr. Mark Dal Porto 
“This program  has received funding from Utah Humanities (UH). UH empowers Utahns to improve their communities through active engagement in the humanities.”  Join us for a discussion of public lands issues and the inspiration for the world premiere music. OSU is facilitating the discussion as a public service, but the presentation reflects only the the opinions of those attending.

Concert at 7:30 p.m.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Excitement and fun with music and science at Children's Jubilee

Thanks to OSU Musicians, community and SUU volunteers, and patrons for another memorable Children's Jubilee on Feb. 11, 2017.  Photos courtesy of musicians, family, patrons, and teachers.

Guest scientist Brandon Wiggins coordinates the big moment in William Tell Overture with Carylee Zwang and OSU.

Getting ready to pop.

Xun Sun directing the new music by Mark Dal Porto.
Guest scientist and conductors after the music.

SUU Animal Ambassadors are always a hit.

Cedar Music Store and Studio had impromptu music lessons

Women in Science and Engineering fun after the music.

256 pounds of food collected for Care and Share. 

After concert art and science activities downstairs and in lobby

Face painting thanks to Cedar City Children's Choir

OSU Musicians and families join in the fun at the Jubilee.

Music Director Xun Sun, OSU Manager Emily Hepworth, and OSU President Harold Shirley

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OSU Education Director Melissa Leavitt and the SUU Chem Club provided nine school assemblies prior to Jubilee