A Fond Farewell to Andre Raphel

WHEELING — For Andre Raphel, the Wheeling Symphony Orchestra’s departing maestro, the repertoire for his final concert this week represents “the sound that has developed during our work together” over the past 15 seasons.

A year ago, Raphel announced that he would be leaving the position of conductor and music director at the end of the 2017-18 season.

The orchestra’s 88th season will conclude with Raphel’s final appearance on the podium. The concert will begin at 7:30 p.m. Friday in the Capitol Theatre.

“This program is one that really focuses on the musical traits which have become a part of the orchestra sound,” he said. “The composers represented — Dvorak, Beethoven, Richard Strauss and Respighi — are composers that I have a connection with as such, as does the orchestra.”

He observed, “In that sense, it is very special for us to be able to present this music and to connect, if you will, connect for the season finale program. It certainly says a great deal that we can actually present this program of these four composers and specifically these four works because it is a challenging one.”

For Friday’s program, the orchestra will perform Dvorak’s “Carnival Overture,” Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4, some of Strauss’ orchestral songs with soprano Deborah Selig and Respighi’s “Pines of Rome.” Raphel said the selections reflect the challenging programs that he and the WSO musicians have done in their work together.

The Wheeling Symphony’s board of directors has named Raphel to the honorary position of conductor laureate, beginning with the 2018-19 season.

“I was very honored to have the title of conductor laureate to be bestowed upon me by the organization last week,” he said.

But the maestro humbly regards the honorary title as recognition to share with the members of the orchestra. He explained, “The bestowing of this honor is a testament to what we’ve been able to accomplish as an organization in the past 15 years.”

Reflecting on the development of their music making, he said, “As a musician, I think we’re hopefully always growing. The more one lives with these composers and collaborates with other musicians, the more the music clarifies itself.

“As a conductor, I believe that during this time with the Wheeling Symphony, my own thoughts about the music and what it has to say has become more concentrated and clarified,” he said. “There is greater depth to my work than there was 10 years ago. That’s a wonderful feeling to be convinced about what one’s approach to the music is.”

Citing another aspect of his relationship with the players, he said, “Something that also has developed is a real flexiblity — a flexiblity to live in the moment in terms of concerts. That’s something that has really developed between the orchestra and myself.

“There is a real trust. There’s a lot of give and take between the orchestra and me over the way the music is shaped. That is something that develops over time. It’s a wonderful thing to experience in music making.”

Referring to the programming for the season finale, the conductor said, “That flexiblity is what enables us to present works by Richard Strauss and Respighi, where you need a certain type of flexiblity. It’s a wonderful attribute that has developed over our experience together.”

Raphel also is proud of the musical selections that the orchestra has performed during his tenure.

Discussing the programming choices made for the past 15 seasons, he said, “I believe that what’s developed is a combination of presenting works that are not played as often from the standard repertoire and an emphasis on the history of West Virginia and the Wheeling community.”

For instance, he said, “I had the great pleasure to conduct the orchestra in the first performance of Sibelius’ Symphony No. 7. That work is really a part of the standard repertoire, but is a work that the Wheeling Symphony had not played. It was a great discovery for us onstage and, I imagine, for the audience as well.”

For the 2009 bicentennial of President Abraham Lincoln’s birth, the WSO celebrated the occasion with a special concert at West Virginia Independence Hall in Wheeling to highlight the state’s history and its role in the Civil War.

To celebrate West Virginia’s sesquicentennial in 2013, the Wheeling Symphony commissioned a special piece, “Fanfare,” by American composer Kenneth Fuchs.

Raphel’s regular season choices have involved “combining new works with standard works and rediscovering works which have not been programmed in the orchestra’s history. Both of those have been very much a part of our programming over the years,” he said.

The maestro also has sought to find new ways to connect to audiences, such as organizing the East Meets West Festival that was presented in March.

“What I was especially drawn to with that particular program and the week was that we were able to focus on storytelling. That is so much a part of West Virginia and so much a part of tradition in Chinese culture,” he said.

In addition to the East Meets West concert at the Capitol Theatre, the WSO presented an event featuring West Virginia Poet Laureate Marc Harshman of Wheeling at Oglebay Institute’s Mansion Museum. “That is such a wonderful gift to the community. It makes it very much a presentation for the people of Wheeling,” Raphel remarked.

Reflecting on his tenure, he said, “It’s been a wonderful journey, both professionally and personally … With the orchestra, every concert becomes a special event, and so there have been so many moments which have been special during our time together.”

Memorable concerts have included the West Virginia premiere of “Concerto for Three,” written by American composer Jennifer Higdon, and performed by the Wheeling Symphony with the group Time for Three.

“This was a wonderful triumph for us,” Raphel commented, observing that Higdon is “an important voice, a major composer,” while the Time for Three members are “three artists who have their finger on the pulse of what is happening musically.”

The performance “gave us the prestige, if you will, of an organization that is really progressive,” he said, adding, “By co-commissioning (the work) with the Pittsburgh Symphony and the Philadelphia Orchestra, it focused on something we’ve been keen on, which is collaboration. That is one of the highlights of our time together.”

Other notable programs were a performance with the Bach Choir of Pittsburgh and an opportunity to conduct Beethoven’s great Ninth Symphony.

Raphel said he plans more guest conducting appearances with various groups around the country, but he declined to discuss any other future work. He said, “There will be no announcements until after my tenure concludes.”

In the immediate future, he is excited to be conducting “Pines of Rome” as the finale of his final WSO concert.

He said, “It’s such a terrific piece and a great piece to be able to close out the season with. It’s a work that is timeless because it reminds us of the magic of the Eternal City of Rome. Respighi, through his music, is giving us an evocation of the pine trees around Rome. It just seems so perfect, in a way, that this is the closing work in this program,”

Noting the composer’s image of children at play in springtime in a garden of Rome, Raphel said, “Throughout my tenure, I’ve had a very close relationship with students, both with young kids, the students at various schools in Wheeling, and also the college community. That’s been one of my passions.”

The work’s final movement is set among pine trees along the Appian Way, where Roman soldiers marched toward the high point in the Eternal City.

“It’s an exciting way to close out this program, to be able as the season closes, to be able to conduct this. I think it will be exciting for our audience and for the orchestra and myself as well,” the maestro concluded.