Wyner strikes a high note

WPO conductor plans a celebratory finale

Susan Davenny Wyner planned her final concert as music director and conductor of the Warren Philharmonic Orchestra with the same intentions that guided her for 24 years.

“If music is presented in a way that is alive and filled with color and energy and communicative power, whether the audience thinks they like classical music or not, that becomes moot because they can be drawn into that world,” she said.

Wyner’s passion for classical music could be seen in her actions leading the orchestra and heard when she’s talking about the motivations behind the programs she assembled.

Perhaps that passion is so strong because she nearly lost her career in music and had to choose a different path.

Wyner was an acclaimed vocalist, singing for renowned conductors and making her Metropolitan Opera debut in 1981. Two years later she was struck by a hit-and-run driver while riding her bicycle and suffered injuries that ended her vocal career and nearly took away her ability to talk.

Conducting was an option she never had considered.

“I never thought I’d be in front of an orchestra, because when I was little, all the conductors were men,” she said. “It was earth-shattering for me to get on the podium.”

She learned from the conductors she worked with as a singer, both what to do and what she wanted to avoid.

“As a singer, I was a very private person until I was out of stage,” Wyner said. “When I first got in front of an orchestra or chorus, there was nothing I wouldn’t do to evoke or help share the joy of the music and enlightening people to be a part of that. It was very different from the conductors I saw (as a singer), who used cruelty to gain control of an orchestra. I felt very strongly our strength is gained from our vulnerabilities … My hope was being a conductor unlike the authoritative and cruel conductors I saw and sang with.”

Wyner lives in Boston with her husband, Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Yehudi Wyner, and she commuted to Warren for performances. She decided to step down because she felt the orchestra needed someone who could be more present in the community for fundraising and outreach, and that was difficult with the orchestra only playing two concerts a year due to budgetary constraints.

The move was announced in February, but she notified the board of her plans inJune, and the program she will conduct April 21 at Warren’s First Presbyterian Church was created knowing it would be her last.

The concert will feature compositions by two of the biggest names in classical music, opening with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Symphony No. 35 in D major, KV. 385, known as The ‘”Haffner” symphony. It will close with Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 in A Major, Op.93.

“I really wanted to explore two of the great masterpieces of orchestral literature, and part of the reason is that in our church situation, in that acoustical situation, the audience members get to experience the music so closely, they can watch the players, but also because of the beautiful amplitude of the church … You can hear the different sonorities of the instruments, and they get a kind of glow around them. It’s both a chance to hear with great specificity and with great warmth.”

She described both the Mozart and Beethoven pieces as demanding works that will showcase the talents of the orchestra.

“I knew I wanted to finish with Beethoven’s great symphony, which is so celebratory and a stage in his work that is both filled with surprise and grandeur and ends with a kind of Dionysian explosion of joy and dance and spinning and twirling … It’s just wildly exuberant.

“It’s a celebration of all these wonderful 24 years and our experience together, and the love I have of the community and the people I’ve gotten to know and had a chance to grow with over the years. So many of the orchestra members have been a part of the orchestra for almost as long as I have or as long as I have. I will be very sad not to make music with them regularly, but it is a time of celebrating for me.”

During her tenure as music director, the orchestra expanded its educational outreach, establishing its Frank R. Bodor Strings of Joy program that provides free violin instruction for Trumbull County students in grades three to seven.

In addition to programming masterworks by composers like Mozart and Beethoven, Wyner also exposed audiences to works by under-recognized composers.

Sandwiched between Mozart and Beethoven on April 21 will be two compositions by Florence Price, a female African American composer who died in 1953.

“She was the first African American composer to have a big symphony performed by the Chicago Symphony,” Wyner said. “Her music now is beginning to come back in print and be performed.

“They’re very American in their warmth and pure in their style. I thought it would be fun to put these two very European pieces — the Mozart and the Beethoven — and then put this American experience and color in the middle. I think it will be both a surprise and feel beautiful and embracing.”

If you go …

WHAT:”The Sound of Magic!” — Warren Philharmonic Orchestra with Susan Davenny Wyner, conductor

WHEN: 3 p.m. April 21

WHERE: First Presbyterian Church, 256 Mahoning Ave. NW, Warren

HOW MUCH: Tickets are $30 for adults, $15 for students and free for children ages 13 and younger with a parent or guardian and will be available at the door. For more information, call 330-399-3606 or go to warren-philharmonic.org.


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