by ZACH KAYSER
The Winona Symphony Orchestra (WSO) made a triumphant return to live performances Saturday night, after more than a year of waiting and online-only shows due to the pandemic. The musicians performed a program that was originally scheduled for March of 2020, so they had a long, long time to practice. It was the first year the WSO had forgone live performances since 1965.
Those seeming eons of waiting certainly sounded as though they paid off Saturday, as the Wesley United Methodist Church was filled with melodies that were as beautifully stimulating as the smell of early summer honeysuckle blooming outside the sanctuary.
The first half of the concert consisted of two Modernist pieces, while the second half was made up of Beethoven’s “Concerto for Violin, Cello and Piano in C Major, Opus 56.” Originally chosen by WSO last year to celebrate Beethoven’s 250th birthday, the composer undoubtedly did not object to waiting an extra year for the 251st anniversary of his birth instead. Similarly, a piece by famous British suffragette and renowned composer Dame Ethel Smyth was chosen in 2020 partly to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which granted women the right to vote — symbolism no less timely a year later. American composer Ruth Crawford Seeger, prominent in the early 20th century, had the first number on Saturday’s program with “Rissolty Rossolty,” emblematic of her connection to folk music and rural America. She wrote it for the early 1940s CBS radio program “The Wellsprings of America” that featured folk music, for which she was reportedly paid $400 (about $8,000 in today’s money). In addition to being Pete Seeger’s stepmother, Ruth Crawford Seeger knew Carl Ruggles, who founded the Winona Symphony Orchestra in 1908.
Speaking at a rehearsal earlier in the week, Concertmaster and violinist Hillary Kingsley said she was thankful that two women composers were featured on the program alongside Beethoven. “They’re clearly not programmed because they’re women,” she said. “It’s just great music. It’s organic.”
Kingsley was also grateful for the little things that came along with a return to in-person playing — such as having a “stand partner” again, that is, another musician sitting next to her, so that each one in the pair can help turn the page of music sitting on the stand while the other plays.
“For us as string players, it’s always been a social experience, playing,” Kingsley said.
Violinist and WSO Board of Directors member Heidi Guenther Ryan said the in-person concert was not just a return to normalcy, but an added refinement in her life. “We’re actually able to do something beautiful,” she said.
It was nice to feel the energy given off by a live audience again, Guenther Ryan added.
“It’s like an exchange, is what it is,” she said. “It’s like an energy conversation.”
Kayleen Berwick, personnel coordinator and another member of the WSO Board, said it was good to finally see the orchestra back in action.
“Music is just different when you get to be there, and see people doing what their passion is,” she said.
To learn more about the Winona Symphony Orchestra, including their upcoming concert schedule and how to donate, visit www.winonasymphony.org.