A Journey Through Madison's Classical Music Scene
Jan 17, 2012
08:32 AM
Classically Speaking

Andrew Sewell and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra Offer a Lesson in Programming

Andrew Sewell and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra Offer a Lesson in Programming

Any established chamber orchestra will give you a fairly regular diet of Haydn symphonies and the like—and rightly so—but the tenure of music director Andrew Sewell has been distinguished by consistently imaginative programming. Friday night at the Capitol Theater may have been the first major musical event of Madison’s new year, but happily Sewell stuck to his “old” formula.

Along with returning soloist Amit Peled, the results were a stimulating evening of renewed favorites, and delightful and powerful rarities.

Sewell opened the concert by surveying a fellow New Zealander’s work, the “Diversions for String Orchestra” of Douglas Lilburn. After studies with Ralph Vaughan Williams in London, Lilburn returned to his native country for good in 1940, but lost none of the natural folksiness that Vaughan Williams’ teaching and own works imparted. Lilburn’s five movement “Diversions” employed vibrant pizzicato effects, lovely tunes and even a “William Tell” joke in the central movement. The fourth movement throbbed with richly harmonized phrases and the finale proved brisk and bright.

Israeli cellist Peled gave a robust and expressive reading to Boccherini’s Cello Concerto in B-flat, G482. For some tastes, the 1768 work may have lacked the more transparent, delicate sound encountered on original instruments (although Peled’s instrument is a 1689 Guarneri cello of incredible presence). Peled added a few personal (and appropriate) touches to the cadenza. The slow movement gave him a chance to display a rarer kind of virtuosity: His subtle increase and decrease of dynamics and vibrato on a single note were breathtaking.

If one had wished for a bigger, bolder vehicle for the soloist, it came in the opening work of the second half, the Kaddish of Mark Kopytman. The Soviet-born composer emigrated to Israel in 1972, and passed away just weeks ago. Peled, who has forged a personal relationship with the work, and having recorded the cello/piano version under the supervision of the composer, gave the audience some fabulous insights into this unique work. The kaddish is the prayer that the oldest son gives at the funeral of his father, and the solo cello represents the son, and the orchestra the father. During an extended cadenza, the cellist works through both sets of themes, with a high harmonic note marking the moment of death. While the soloist sustains the eerie note, the orchestra recalls the father’s motifs, and the work ends quietly.

Long before that hushed conclusion, there is a dance-like energy and occasionally angular aspect to the struggles of father and son, and Peled had ample opportunity to display a full palette of technical effects and emotion. Kudos to Sewell and the WCO as well for a polished reading of what was undoubtedly an unfamiliar work. Having re-established his local popularity, Peled has also given notice that he is a young artist to be keenly watched over the next several years—and, hopefully, a very long and illustrious career.

And so we got our familiar Haydn at last, and Sewell led his full orchestra in a delightful transversal of the Symphony No. 100, “Military” to close the evening. The second movement which led to the work’s nickname, with its pedestrian trumpet call and the addition of then-novel percussion (triangle, cymbals and bass drum!), was the least interesting—through no fault of director or players. The cherishable moments came with sword-thrust attacks in the Minuet and a bouncy, invigorating finale. Happy New Year, indeed.

Photo by Henry Fair.

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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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