Topeka’s Sunflower Music Festival will be June 19 through 27 next year. I’ll take note. We wouldn’t want to miss a year.
The very casual festival of serious music shows up at White Auditorium on the Washburn University campus every summer, just when we most need a diversion. The Sunflower, which concluded Saturday, included an institute for young musicians as well as a series of concerts over a period of eight days, including a jazz night.
The “serious music” evenings were performances by a chamber orchestra (made up of this year of 45 musicians), and ones during which ensembles of three or more of those same players, professionals recruited from around the U.S.
This year’s guest conductor, Antony Walker, was Australian, though he works as music director at Pittsburgh Opera and Washington (D.C.) Concert Opera. The orchestra roster includes names familiar from earlier years — MHK native Eric Tanner, for example. And festival Artistic Director Charles Stegeman has been with the operation from its beginning, 33 years ago.
Sessions started each evening at 7:30. Admission was free. The White is a nice-sounding, cool and comfortable venue with lots of leg room for those attending. The audience is getting a little old and continues to be even more enthusiastic than the solid performances of interesting music warrant.
Oh, and dress is casual to the point that T-shirts, shorts and flip-flops are worn to the shows. Not that barbecue dress is required for admission.
Wednesday night’s show was a chamber orchestra. The selection of music was especially interesting. We began with Luigi Boccherini’s Symphony 6, “The Devil’s House,” first performed in 1771.
It was followed by Hummel’s Trumpet Concerto in E-flat Major of 1804 and Mendelssohn’s Third Symphony, the “Scottish,” inspired by a visit to the Palace of Holyrood House in 1829 but not completed until 1842. So we heard on one program, 70 years of music.
Seventy dynamic years. From the neoclassical period we moved on into Mendelssohn’s early Romantic movement music. This particular concert, then, provided listeners with samples demonstrating how orchestral music changed. The experiment was productive.
One thing Sunflower ‘19, Program 5, showed was that orchestras got bigger. Boccherini (admittedly a composer who specialized in music for smaller units) required strings (but just two double basses), two oboes and two bassoons. With each composer the orchestra grew. The Mendelssohn took tympani and more brass and woodwind instruments including, especially, flutes.
Walker was an expressive conductor, fluttering his left hand and moving through poses the musicians must have found indicative of the rhythms and changes in the passages of music. The soloist for the Hummel piece, festival regular David Ammer, played a modestly elongated horn.
The Boccherini includes several interesting features. The basses tend to second the general developments rather than laying in supporting lines underneath melodies, making the orchestra sound constantly on its toes. The third and last movement, in three, featured supernatural themes including, the program told us, quotes from Gluck’s “Don Juan” ballet.
Hummel succeeded Haydn in the Esterhazy court, and like Haydn he wrote for Anton Weidinger, the trumpeter who is credited with the invention of the valved trumpet (though his had five valves, not the currently conventional three). Ammer played Hummel’s concerto ably, managing without error the flutters and half runs, and the fast solo line of the last movement.
The “Scottish” is a better-known piece of music, and a markedly bigger one. Melodic and dramatic, it proceeds through long dynamic ramps. There is nothing characteristically Scottish about the Symphony, but it is attractive and satisfying.
As is any evening trip over to Topeka for the Sunflower Music Festival.
I’m writing in next year’s dates on my calendar.