The Kettle Moraine Symphony with Corky Siegel (harmonica)
Ruth A. Knoll Theater; Hartford, Wisconsin -- January 24, 2004
Review written by Tom Wilmeth
How far is it from Chicago to Hartford, Wisconsin? For harmonica virtuoso Corky Siegel the distance is not measured in mere miles, but in quantum leaps. Siegel has arguably done for the harmonica what Bela Fleck did for the banjo – unleash the stylistically fettered instrument onto brave new musical worlds and widening audiences.
Siegel was and remains the namesake of the Siegel-Schwall Band, a seminal blues quartet from the Windy City that has been releasing albums since 1966. He began recording with conductor Seiji Ozawa and the San Francisco Symphony in 1973 (for the prestigious Deutsche Grammophon label). In recent years he has also led his genre bending group Chamber Blues to critical success. Saturday at Hartford’s intimate Knoll Theater Siegel joined The Kettle Moraine Symphony Orchestra as featured soloist for composer William Russo’s “Street Music: A Blues Concerto.”
“Street Music” is that rare mixture of a full symphony with an untraditional featured instrument that actually succeeds on various musical levels. The composer does not use the orchestra merely as a backdrop for harmonica solos. Instead, under the baton of Albert Asch, different instruments take up themes that initiate conversations with Siegel’s harmonica, beginning with a low brass trio and moving through the orchestra’s sections.
Siegel was in good form throughout the half-hour piece, which offered enough breathing room for him to present formal classical, as well as some less structured blues-flavored harmonica cadenzas. The middle movements of “Street Music” call for various piano styles, including stride and 12-bar blues. So in addition to harmonica Siegel happily demonstrated his Chicago-based piano chops, at a Steinway grand no less.
Siegel was clearly having fun winning over an audience largely unaware of their soloist’s lengthy and varied musical tenure. His body language often acted as joyful co-conductor, to the delight of both audience and orchestra members. In Siegel’s hands the unexpected pairing of symphony with harmonica defied limits, conjuring musical portraits free of category.
No one would ever confuse Hartford, Wisconsin, with Chicago. But Corky Siegel’s recent visit to The Kettle Moraine Symphony served as musical diplomacy. By bringing fine samples of both blues and classical music to the area, he was able to make Chicago seem as if it were just down the road.