A Journey Through Madison's Classical Music Scene
Apr 13, 2014
07:57 AM
Classically Speaking

Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra Goes Big Before Going Home

Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra Goes Big Before Going Home


Pianist Stewart Goodyear

Well, if it’s true that all good things must come to an end—like Andrew Sewell’s fourteenth season as conductor of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra—then you might as well make the most of it. And in adding the WCO Chorus, the Festival Choir of Madison, the UW Madrigal Singers, and the explosive talent of pianist Stewart Goodyear, all wrapped up in a program packed with power and beauty, that’s exactly what Sewell and friends gave to a nearly filled Capitol Theater audience Friday night.

Suitable for the season, and doubtless not wanting to waste the luxury of seventy-five excellent singers onstage, the “Ave Verum Corpus” of Mozart opened the proceedings. The brief, soothing work was effectively presented, as evidenced by the silent pause before the applause began.

The main reason for the combined choruses followed, the Choral Fantasy, Op. 80 of Beethoven, for the aforementioned forces and piano. Stewart Goodyear, in his third Madison appearance, launched into the opening solo the second he landed on the bench. Coming after all five of Beethoven’s piano concertos, including the celebrated “Emperor” Concerto of course, the keyboard part is only occasionally challenging but more importantly, completely stimulating for the listener when delivered with the clarity and attention to detail that Goodyear brings. He is one of the best known Beethoven interpreters of our time, not only exploring the sonatas again and again, but even on one occasion performing all thirty-two of them in a single day.

The Choral Fantasy as a whole is too easily dismissed as a warm-up exercise for the eventual finale of the Ninth Symphony, with its ubiquitous “Ode to Joy.”  But as heard Friday night, with Sewell and the orchestra treating the event as a chance to play something less familiar, the audience could revel in the charm and graciousness that the players uncovered.

The main event for Goodyear was his own Piano Concerto. Commissioned by the Peninsula Music Festival and premiered there in 2010 with Goodyear as soloist—and Sewell conducting—the work is on one level an astonishing tour de force for the composer as soloist. It was easy to understand why at last summer’s Festival up in Fish Creek, Goodyear made both Shostakovich concertos sound like child’s play. In the first movement of his own vehicle, subtitled “Sweet,” one couldn’t help but wonder if the terms of the commission were to pay him by the note: Rarely have I heard such an unquenchably busy piano part, and much of it really in an accompanimental role. But the real bottom line was hearing the musical equivalent of candied “pop rocks,” music that was sweet indeed, but laced with little bursts of energy and pungent instrumental colors. The applause that prevented the immediate start of the second movement was quite understandable, and deserved.

The central movement, “Salt” gave Goodyear more of the solo spotlight, and as the movement unfolded a sense of deep yearning, almost a wailing at times, accompanied the piano. The finale, “Mash ‘em Up,” tore the air at once with slashing sonic swaths, and in a short time utilized various percussion and the winds in electric fashion. After the lengthy ovations, Goodyear sat down and announced “I’m restricted to two minutes,” which explained his dive into the last few pages of the finale of Beethoven’s “Appasionata” Sonata. The initial effect was that of a Chopin etude, played with crystalline clarity; in the end it was simply breathtaking in its audacious tempo.

Left on his own with “just” the orchestra, Sewell closed the concert and the season with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3, “Eroica.”  For all his useful experiments with early Bruckner, and even Beethoven’s own mighty Ninth Symphony, this was where we benefit most from hearing only about thirty-three players. For all its revolutionary power and scope, the “Eroica” was born in 1805, long before the average orchestra was anywhere near “modern” size. Here we do appreciate a relative leanness from the strings, allowing for precision and an x-ray perspective of the inner lines, particularly in the great slow movement. That self-titled funeral march emerged with a more palpable sense of loss and fragility than many a mightier orchestra has produced.

And so we look forward as excited as ever for Sewell’s fifteenth season on the podium…but not so fast—we’ve got six wonderful Wednesdays (Concerts on the Square) starting June 25 to enjoy the summer version of WCO delights. See you there.

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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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