Topeka, Kansas — Topeka, the capital of Kansas, is a relatively small town of about 100,00 residents, about an hour-and-a-half from Kansas City by car. It is a delightful city with most of the amities of a larger city, combined with friendly people, small-town charm and a noticeable lack of big-city frenzy.
And in the summer, there is the Sunflower Music Festival.
The festival is relatively unknown outside of the surrounding area although its Artistic Director, Charles Stegeman, is a well-known violinist and conductor with an international reputation as a performer and teacher. He is active as a guest concertmaster and soloist with orchestras around the world and has the permanent position of concertmaster with the Pittsburg Opera and Ballet.
Stegeman founded Sunflower 20 years ago in Topeka, and his presence is the first hint that this is something special. As the chamber orchestra took the stage of the White Concert Hall on the campus of Washburn University, first-time attendees familiar with the top orchestral musicians in the country are surprised to see who is there.
Pulling from many of the top-level orchestras around the country, past and present, there are more than a dozen principal chair players, nearly a dozen concertmasters, and another dozen distinguished chamber music musicians from internationally recognized ensembles. The Dallas Symphony is represented by Nicolas Tsolainos, principal bass.
The list is a Who’s Who of orchestral music. Stegeman apparently invited all his friends over the years and they all stayed. Stegeman sits as concertmaster for the chamber orchestra. As you can imagine, such an orchestra sounds magnificent. It is a Dream Team.
The orchestra is filled out with apprentices and advanced students of the distinguished faculty.
The program opened with Bach’s Harpsichord Concerto No. 1 in D minor BWV 1052, which has a fascinating history. Musicologists think it was first a concerto for violin. Since they were based on chorale tunes, Bach stole from himself and arranged the last two movements for organ as part of two cantatas. Then, he converted it into the present harpsichord concerto. It is thought that Bach used the violin concerto parts for the first performance and improvised the solo part, only writing it out later.
Nicholas Good did the honors at the harpsichord for this performance. Distinguished violinist Andrés Cárdenes conducted. Good played with a great deal of skill, nimble fingers and careful observance of historically correct performance practices. He played all of the tutti passages, which is thought to be the way Bach would have played it. However, letting the strings play the tutti passages by themselves gives a welcome sonic contrast.
The unsubtle amplification of his instrument did him no favors, making it sound even twangier that usual. Further, turning pages distracted him, a service any student could have offered. Even better, these days instrumentalists use a tablet for music. Tapping a pedal does the page turns. Since he played continuously, his page turns were a frantic ripping of pages. Once, he missed a beat in the process but it only took a couple of seconds for Cárdenes and the orchestra (with Stegeman’s help at the concertmaster’s desk) to get it back together.
Cárdenes held the concertmaster chair for decades with the Pittsburg Symphony Orchestra and he also appeared as guest conductor with that orchestra as well as many others. He was one of the guest concertmasters in Dallas during the search process when Emmanuel Borok retired. So it was a happy surprise when he took center stage to both play and conduct Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1 in B flat Major, Op. 60.
This in one of the warhorses of the repertoire and is frequently played by students and international artists alike. Even after hearing countless performance of this piece, Cárdenes’ performance was revelatory. Every phrase and nuance was just right. He guided us through the piece, pointing out its many glories, some new to these ears, along the way. It is a welcome and rare occurrence to hear an overly familiar piece in a new light.
That said, the shortcomings of conducting a big romantic score like this while playing the solo at the same time creates some problems with balance, even though every player in the orchestra played this concerto countless times. While this works for Baroque and even Classical era concerti, it is not the ideal situation for romantic music. A separate conductor would have shushed the brass, created a more balanced orchestral sound, bringing out counter melodies in the orchestra that remained buried and let Cárdenes feel more comfortable to take some spontaneous rubato.
Cárdenes took the podium after intermission for a memorable performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4 in B flat Major, Op. 60. This symphony stands meekly between the mighty Third (Eroica) and the Fifth, which is a miracle of brevity and power. The Fourth is not played all that often and it was good to hear it, especially played in such an excellent manner.
The conductor took a light touch with it, keeping the big moments appropriately in check and letting his musicians play. His tempi were on the quick side, but effective. However, the last movement went at nearly twice Beethoven’s marking (a guess since I didn’t have a metronome handy). This is very risky, but Cárdenes knew his players and this lickity-split reading was refreshing and bracing, but more importantly it was amazingly clean and precise.
(Those familiar with the symphony eagerly awaited the moment that the fast moving theme is handed to the less facile bassoon, but not to worry, bassoonist Richard Beene nailed it.)
The day before, some of the students presented a chamber music concert with ensembles made up of strings, woodwinds, and brass. All coached by the faculty, they did an outstanding job, showing great promise.
This festival is different from most of the others. The players keep coming back because it is a pleasure for them to make music together without the pressures of their big orchestra positions. That definitely comes across to the audience. Sunflower is definitely worthy of notice and should be included in the summer plans of all music lovers who hunt for places to visit in the summer.