Monthly Archives:December 2016

Lana Sweeten-Shults , Times Record News 10:13 a.m. CST December 11, 2016

Hark! The choirs did sing, and they were spectacular.

Soprano Melissa Ward did sing, too, and she was spectacular, standing ovation included.

And the Wichita Falls Symphony Orchestra, whose numbers were rounded out by the 60-member or so Wichita Falls Youth Symphony Orchestra?

Yes, stupendously spectacular.

The WFSO, after several years of not tooting its own horns with the Wichita Falls ISD’s combined choirs, did so once again alongside some tremendous local talent Dec. 10 at Memorial Auditorium for its Hometown Holiday concert.

What’s amazing about the hometown-themed holiday concerts is that it’s a rare opportunity to see local talent all concentrated on one stage.

“Is she local?” one symphony-goer asked after Ward’s knock-out rendition of “Oh, Holy Night” – a performance that gave you goosebumps when she hit that high note while singing “Oh night … divine!”

That symphony-goer was surprised to learn that she is from the Wichita Falls area.

A couple hundred or more choir students from Hirschi, Wichita Falls and Rider high schools nailed their performance on several works.

“Carol of the Bells,” directed by Rider choir director Melanie Coons, resonated as the combined choirs’ many voices pipe in with so many different vocal parts going on simultaneously. It was a resplendent performance, though not quite my favorite from the combined choirs.

I gravitated toward the more spiritual pieces, namely “Follow That Star,” helmed by Hirschi choir director Mineasa Nesbit, and “Star in the East,” led by Wichita Falls High choir director Chris Jarvis, complete with clapping and insistent foot-stomping for rhythm.

Those songs stood out among the mostly traditional reverent tunes generally heard at Christmastime.

The choir also turned in a beautiful, peace-inducing “Silent Night,” directed by Rider assistant choir director Sarah Cook.

What I loved seeing was the choirs working together so well and ending a phrase so crisply. They gave strong performances.

Ward was so confident during “O Holy Night,” arranged by David Clydesdale, which included a prologue from the Bible about the birth of Jesus. Ward has such a powerful voice that stuns you, particularly when she hits those high notes with abandon.

Though, the favorite piece of the evening for my 12-year-old co-reviewer was Jeff Tyzik’s “The 12 Gifts of Christmas,” a rendition of the “12 Days of Christmas” that featured different sections of the orchestra as gifts. My favorite “gift” was the brassy horn section, which went into snazzy big band mode, and then hearing the orchestra break into mini Beethoven, Brahms and Mozart popular works was just fun.

It was one of those effervescent numbers, and the orchestra was lively and entertaining throughout.

The WFSO followed tradition for this concert, which included an audience sing-along section, as well as an appearance by Santa and the traditional end of the hometown Christmas concerts, a performance of Leroy Anderson’s “Sleigh Ride.” “Sleigh Ride” comes complete with percussion and brass sounds in which you really do somehow hear a horse-pulled sleigh.

I can’t fail to mention the Wichita Falls Youth Symphony, directed by Susan Harvey, which added such depth and texture to this holiday performance. They made the orchestra sound fuller and richer – in particular, I heard those happy flutists in the opening number, Leroy Anderson’s “A Christmas Festival.”

In past years, the two orchestras weren’t always in sync, but this year, the main and youth orchestras played as one and sounded as strong as ever.

And then there was the evening’s guest conductor, Jerry Steichen, music director of the Macon (Georgia) Symphony Orchestra, though he’s from Tonkawa, Oklahoma.

It’s too bad Steichen isn’t one of the finalists for the symphony conductor job. He had such a rapport with the audience and is so likable and energetic. He was one of the joys of the evening.

The only thing I wished by the end of the concert was to hear Mineasa Nesbit sing. The Hirschi choir director also is one of those stunning local talents.

The WFSO’s next concert will be 7:30 p.m. Feb. 18 at Memorial Auditorium and will feature pianist Sean Chen and finalist conductor Fouad Fakhouri.

Follow Times Record News senior editor/reporter Lana Sweeten-Shults on Twitter @LanaSweetenShul.


Lana Sweeten-Shults , Times Record News 12:44 p.m. CST November 13, 2016

Oh, the sweet melodiousness of Haydn’s Cello Concerto No. 2 in D Major.

If any classical work is just joy and bliss and beauty aplenty, it’s Haydn’s Cello Concerto No. 2. It does not falter in sheer giddy happiness.

I call it exuberant cello-ness. On steroids.

The Wichita Falls Symphony Orchestra during its Nov. 12 concert at Memorial Auditorium embraced all of that symphonic sunshine, thanks to resplendent guest artist Julie Albers on the cello. She gave this piece the lightness, effervescence and sprightliness it deserves.

It was a good time for some sheer giddy happiness. Considering the stresses of the recent election, we were all due for something lovely. Let’s make America glad again, already.

Not that this concert reached the highest high it could have, as the concert hit a slow spot or two before bursts of utter enthusiasm, particularly in the last work featuring the orchestra alone, Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Eroica.”

The orchestra seemed to have turned down, just slightly, the vibrant energy that dazzled the audience so much in its opening concert in October. The WFSO also lost some of the nuances it displayed recently, namely all the texture it added by really contrasting the highs and lows of a composition to add emphasis and dramatic effect.

Still, overall, the orchestra did not fail to convey all that infectious joy under the helm of finalist conductor Daniel Black, the associate conductor of the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra. Black is one of three finalists vying for the job of becoming the WFSO’s new conductor and musical director after the retirement in the spring of Candler Schaffer.

The challenge for the soloist in Haydn’s Cello Concerto No. 2 is that, while the work seems simple and effortless in all its happiness, it is a technically demanding work.

Albers was called upon to shine more than once in virtuosic solos with no orchestral accompaniment, all while throwing in tricky double stops and octaves. The cellist also must perform much of the work on the higher register notes, which is technically harrowing in itself.

The Cello Concerto No. 2 also speeds up and slows down for some tricky metronome-challenged passages that test the musicians’ timing.

Albers moved smoothly throughout the work, seemingly effortlessly. She impressed during those solos and when she lives in those high notes, never letting them get the best of her. But she also was plucky and confident in those low notes. She was so adroit in her fingerwork and technically spot-on, and her cello emitted such rich, gilded sounds that the audience couldn’t help but feel joyful.

Her performance was lovely.

And the strings – wow!

They are spectacular, so in sync and so rich in their sound. They dominated the concert this time around in a very strings-heavy evening, at least until the final work, Beethoven’s “Eroica.”

The Haydn piece wasn’t the only time during the concert that the strings dazzled. In the opening number, Beethoven’s Prometheus Overture, the violin players speed like a dervish through show-offy passages. They don’t tiptoe, but sprint, through what is yet another light, effervescent, full-happiness composition.

After the intermission, Black took time to speak with the audience about the final piece, Beethoven’s beast of a 45-minute, four-movement Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major, Opus 55, more popularly known as “Eroica,” or “Heroic”. He told how it was written not long after Beethoven learned he was slowly starting to lose his hearing and soon would not be able to hear at all.

This is, frankly, a mean, structurally demanding composition to perform with its dissonances, the span of human emotion it travels through, and some challenging horn passages. As musical lore goes, it was once dedicated by Beethoven to Napoleon to tell of his heroic triumphs and the great sorrow upon his death. Beethoven would later scratch Napoleon’s name out, which further adds to the legend of this work.

The orchestra was strongest in the third movement, the super-grand and very hyper and jovial scherzo. I loved it. Loved the chirping in of the amazing flutes and the horns and how one section echoed the other section. The orchestra really came together for the scherzo, with one section timed precisely to the other. The orchestra inspired a “Yeah!” yelled out from the audience at the dramatic ending of the movement. The musicians were all in, with blood, sweat and tears. They put all their energy into the movement’s very dramatic ending.

It’s also hard not to mention the second movement, “The Funeral March,” with all its low, rumbling-in-your chest notes that speak of death and that slow final walk to one’s resting place.The low-register instruments get to shine instead of playing a supporting role.

The “Eroica” did have its ups and downs, though, as the musicians really did not get fired up until those last two movements, and there were moments when the orchestra could have exploded much bigger in their sound. I’m not sure if the volume just wasn’t turned up enough, but I really wanted to feel the girth of that passion throughout the piece.

The WFSO’s next concert will be 7:30 p.m. Dec. 10 at Memorial Auditorium.

Follow Times Record News senior editor/reporter Lana Sweeten-Shults on Twitter @LanaSweetenShul.



Gina Menden, originally from Wisconsin, graduated from the University of Arizona with a Master of Music degree in Viola Performance and Drake University with a Bachelor of Music degree in Violin Performance.

With more than 15 years of studio teaching experience, Ms. Menden has helped develop winners of concerto competitions, symphony apprenticeships, and state UIL contestants with gold/silver placements, as well as students who’ve chosen to continue on in college as either music majors or very skilled orchestral players. Beyond these accomplishments, Ms. Menden enjoys guiding her students to be good citizens and to love what they do.

Ms. Menden began working for the Wichita Falls Youth Symphony Orchestra (YSO) in February 2010, where she established and still directs the developmental string orchestra (the “Philharmonic”) and a very robust public-outreach string ensemble program. She joined Christ Academy as a string teacher in October 2014 and later assumed a position as Adjunct String Professor at Midwestern State University in August 2015. In addition to her teaching commitments, Ms. Menden enjoys performing as a violist with the Wichita Falls Symphony Orchestra and is an avid musical freelancer.