A Journey Through Madison's Classical Music Scene
Apr 17, 2012
07:49 AM
Classically Speaking

Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra Surprises with “Low-fat” Beethoven

There is no official line of demarcation when it comes to what a chamber orchestra can offer. But while all of Beethoven’s concertos and the first eight of his symphonies are welcomed when heard in reduced numbers, the decision from Andrew Sewell to close the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra season with the mighty Symphony No. 9 raised a significant number of eyebrows around town.

By the end of Friday night’s concert in the Capitol Theater, eyebrows weren’t the only things raised: a sold-out audience raised voices, and rose to their feet practically before the final chord had died away, in response to a performance that on the whole must be described as a triumph.

It took all of about two minutes into the opening movement for this auditor to be convinced that Sewell had been right to try this — and the rest of the profound Allegro to prove just how much can be done with only twenty-seven string players. It was as if the WCO was answering a different question — not whether we would miss the heaven-storming, blood-pounding passion of this mighty work, but what we might gain instead. The answer lies in the word “proportion.” Here the winds, particularly the woodwinds, became the backbone of the musical propulsion, with the strings playing off of them, as it were.

The famous Scherzo, with its insistent timpani motif, opened at a more measured pace (but not dragging), with the contrasting Trio briskly clipping along. The Adagio emerged as a stretch of sublime playing of the order that seems to make time stand still, anchored again by woodwinds employing equal parts immaculate intonation and beauty of tone.

And so we came to the great choral finale, dominated at first by the quasi-operatic “recitatives” from the cellos and basses. In a full symphony orchestra, this can (and should) be something of a tour de force for ten or twelve cellos and about a half dozen basses. But it can easily become a kind of musical scrum, with all manner of scuffling; here just four cellos and a pair of basses put musical cleanliness next to godliness, and still managed a credible display of angst — after all, we had already had forty-five minutes of proportioned sounds.

Which brings us of course to the chorus, which was a combination of the newly formed WCO Chorus, Scott Foss, director, and the Festival Choir of Madison under the direction of Bryson Mortensen. Together they added up to about sixty singers, and much like the last couple of season’s performances of Messiah, Sewell successfully toed the line between robust contributions and any temptation to force or strain (which is almost written into this music, thanks to Beethoven’s cavalier disregard for the boundaries of the human voice).

Each member of the solo vocal quartet handled their responsibilities without a hint of undue labor: Bass Timothy Jones set the proper tone of consternation in his first solo, and tenor Robert Bracey delivered jaunty singing in the “Turkish” episode. The ladies’ parts always seemed to me under-utilized, but certainly soprano Michelle Areyzaga and mezzo-soprano Jamie Van Eyck made the most of their parts, with the foursome wonderfully full and balanced in their final extended sequence.

Sewell answered the question of what to program with the Beethoven Ninth as only he could — with something few in the audience had likely ever heard, yet cries out for performance. The Dies Natalis (“Day of Birth”) of Gerald Finzi, for strings and tenor, is a sublime marriage of music and text; its five movements span twenty-five memorable minutes, and Bracey here had every opportunity to display his unforced and nuanced voice. The seventeenth century poet Thomas Traherne was the source of this journey of wonder of a newborn babe — not the Christ, as is sometimes the case in works of this name, but more of an “every-infant.” The performance raised but one question: should the house lights be up, at least partly, to follow an unfamiliar text, albeit in English?

But in the end, Sewell answered the larger musical and programming questions with his Beethoven, and crowned a thoroughly memorable indoor season. It’s on to Concerts on the Square a couple of months from now…Mahler, anyone?

Photo: Michelle Areyzaga, Jamie Van Eyck, Robert Bracey and Timothy Jones, courtesy of Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra.

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About This Blog

Years before I contributed my first classical review to the Los Angeles Times in 1988, I started a class in music appreciation for adults that had one aim: to put a few cracks in the “ivory tower elitism” I found pervasive in the classical music world since my boyhood days. Whether as a critic, program annotator or band director, that goal has never changed. After all, Mozart and Beethoven and the gang wrote their music for people like you—not critics or professors!

After growing up in the suburbs of New York City, and spending twenty years in and around Los Angeles, the last twelve years here leave me more amazed than ever at the musical riches of Madison. I’m a cheerleader at heart, because I always think more people would become classical fans if they’d give it a chance—but I’m also quick to tell you when you’re not getting your money’s worth. Classically Speaking brings you as much news and as many reviews as possible, and I hope you’ll join me for a fabulous musical journey.

–  Greg Hettmansberger
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