A Journey Through Madison's Classical Music Scene
Apr 14, 2013
11:51 PM
Classically Speaking

Perfection? Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra Comes Close in Closing the Season

Perfection? Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra Comes Close in Closing the Season

In the last three seasons, I’ve heard twelve of the fifteen concerts on the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra Masterworks series. Those audiences in the Capitol Theater have witnessed conductor Andrew Sewell nurture brilliant accompaniments to world class soloists, and the orchestra members were frequently stars in their own right in programs of unflagging taste and sophistication.

In closing the current indoor season Friday night with soprano Susanna Phillips, Sewell and the WCO just might have scaled new heights, and presented an evening of virtual perfection.

It took literally less than a minute for the strings of the WCO to make us believe that all was right with the world, as the opening bars of Haydn’s Symphony No. 83 (“The Hen”) poured out with sumptuous tone and immaculate precision. Sewell coaxed each end of the dynamic spectrum, from robustly full-throated unisons, immaculately blended, to a long diminuendo that made you want to chase the sound down whatever sonic rabbit hole it seemed to be disappearing into.

There was great anticipation in the return of the featured soloist: Susanna Phillips appeared at the end of the Concerts on the Square series in August, 2011. It was the event moved to the Exhibition Hall of the Alliant Energy Center, and what a blessing it was that it was not cancelled altogether. On that occasion she sang Barber’s “Knoxville: Summer of 1915.” Dawn Upshaw had recorded a version in the 1990s that one could argue was definitive—and I had heard her work the same magic in a live performance. Phillips’ reading two years ago bore favorable comparison.

Phillips' return this season featured a selection of the “Songs of the Auvergne” by Canteloube, another staple of Upshaw and others such as Kiri Te Kanawa. And again, Phillips’ artistry can be mentioned in the same breath as those superbly gifted ladies.

“Bailero” may have been the brightest gem in this diadem of vocalism, a seductive blend of lullaby and dream, with Phillips spinning lines of such length and aural effortlessness that it seemed she could sing forever without breathing. These preciously unique settings are full of pastoral lushness and innocent sparkle, and Sewell and the orchestra matched Phillips with one voluptuous shade after another. The only “tsk, tsk” of the night falls in the footnote category: if you’re going to take the trouble to print translations on a separate page and pass it out with the programs, please leave the house lights up at least half so they can be followed.

Canteloube set dozens of these French folk songs from Auvergne, and five offerings only whet the appetite for more. But we were all the richer for Phillips giving us instead two Mozart arias, the “Non mi dir, bell’idol mio” from Don Giovanni (coming to the Overture Center on April 26 and 28 via Madison Opera), and the concert aria “Bella mia fiamma—Resta, oh cara.” Think of them as a “post audition”: this is the repertoire that plays a large part in Phillips’ growing reputation, and the core of her appearances at the Metropolitan Opera these last five years. It was easy to hear why she seems to be finding a home on the world’s greatest opera stages.

Sewell and the orchestra concluded their season with an object lesson on how to distill the essence of the nearly mature Beethoven, in his Symphony No. 2. This is the work that sits at the apex of Classical structure without bursting the boundaries the way the “Eroica” Symphony would just a few years later. But the key is to capture all the potent energy seething just below the surface, and Sewell’s forces walked that stylistic high wire to perfection. For all the deserved applause for Ms. Phillips, it was Sewell and the orchestra who ultimately garnered the longer and more boisterous ovations at the end of the night. The fare may be lighter and the venue less friendly acoustically come June when Sewell returns with Concerts on the Square, but musical appetites of all ages are guaranteed to be satisfied. See you there…

Photo: Susanna Phillips, courtesy 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
Follow Greg on Twitter @ghettmansberger

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