A Journey Through Madison's Classical Music Scene
Jan 21, 2014
10:06 AM
Classically Speaking

Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra Goes Big, Small and Just Right

Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra Goes Big, Small and Just Right

COURTESY OF THE WISCONSIN CHAMBER ORCHESTRA

Ana Vidovic

In what could well be the most memorable calendar year in Madison’s cultural history, Andrew Sewell and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra kicked off 2014 with a touch-all-the-bases program in a sold-out Capitol Theater.

Whether the attendance was due to New Year’s resolutions, savvy gift-giving, folks just curious about that “other” orchestra in town—or desperate to break the midwinter blahs—the response in this corner is simply: It’s about time.

First the throng was treated to a chamber orchestra on its best behavior, that is to say, a group of thirty-three players offering a Mozart overture, “The Impresario.” Anyone familiar with the WCO only from Concerts on the Square immediately had the new experience of hearing, without summer listening distractions and necessary amplification, crisply precise and nuanced playing.

Surely part of the attraction of this particular concert was the choice of a guitar soloist, the young Croatian artist Ana Vidovic taking the stage for a true gem, the Guitar Concerto No. 1 of Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco. Even for an experienced concertgoer, it was a surprise to see the ensemble shrunk by half, with only nine string players, six winds and a timpanist.

Balance was no issue of course, and Vidovic supplied subtle and effortless virtuosity to the, by turns, jaunty and tender opening movement. The “Andantino” which followed was the first revelation of the musical new year, an understated display of gentle passion. Think Tchaikovsky, without any heart-on-sleeve histrionics; happily there seemed to be no end to the wind players’ opportunities for luscious and loving interaction with the guitar. The finale proved to be a lively affair that tight-roped a line between lilting and rollicking.

Any listener who hoped for a more overt display of Vidovic’s technical mastery got it—and more—in the encore. Tarrega’s “Recuerdas de Alhambra” is at once one of the most beautiful, best known, and difficult gems in the solo guitar repertoire. Never have I heard it on recording without thinking that it seems to require at least three hands, if not two guitars, with its insistently strummed melody and thumb-arpeggios accompaniment. Watching Vidovic bring it to hold-your-breath life illustrated a new impossibility, that anyone could play it so calmly and appear utterly relaxed and indeed, as entranced as the listeners. Ms. Vidovic needs to return, whether with WCO or the Madison Symphony, or in recital perhaps at the new Union Theater. Until then, we will have to content ourselves with her DVDs.

Having gone small, and relatively small in the first half, Sewell flipped the scales to large and long after intermission. Having proved last season that Anton Bruckner’s Symphony No.”0” was both do-able and worth a hearing, he doubled down by programming the Austrian’s Symphony No. 2.

The first movement alone lasts twenty minutes, more than long enough to prove that the winds (reeds and brass alike) could not have been better matched or internally balanced. It was not just a matter that the attacks were ultra-precise, but that volume and timbre kept adding and subtracting in ways that often suggested organ-like sonorities—an essential component for this composer. But we also learned that in an orchestra of forty, it doesn’t matter how game your twenty string players are, they are inevitably covered over to varying degrees in the climactic moments.

Once again, the question is begged: Does a chamber orchestra have any business playing works that are typically—and, frankly, best heard—from an ensemble of eighty or so performers?  

It didn’t take all of the symphony’s sixty-three minutes to lead me to a qualified “yes.” The playing remained consistently gorgeous (kudos to those strings for stamina alone!), and the work is significantly more substantial than last year’s foray into this unique reportorial side road. But I will be on the verge of shocked if Sewell takes a crack at any of the later Bruckner canon, which can only receive their due from a bigger group (and Symphony No. 1 is not worth anyone’s time or money).

As is often the case, Bruckner teases us almost to the breaking point with a third-movement scherzo that was way too short: A mere seven minutes of laser-brilliant flashes from brass and strings alike, slashing like a double-edged sword. It is unlikely that few in the audience were prepared for the Bruckner plunge, but judging by the response—intermittent “bravos,” a large number standing, and a prolonged ovation—Sewell convinced the majority that this was a night well spent. One can only hope that the Capitol Theater keeps getting filled for the rest of the WCO season. At last Madison may be realizing how fortunate we are to have that “other” orchestra and maestro in town.  

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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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