A Journey Through Madison's Classical Music Scene
Mar 19, 2012
08:32 AM
Classically Speaking

Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra Proves All of Us Are Lucky This St. Patrick’s Day

Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra Proves All of Us Are Lucky This St. Patrick’s Day

Who could have imagined that a conductor from New Zealand would put together a program for chamber orchestra that would so memorably celebrate St. Patrick’s Day? After all, this is not a holiday that usually brings particularly well known concertos or composers to mind. But with the considerable contributions of another local treasure, pianist Christopher Taylor, and a six-pack of harps (the instrument, not the lager!), a full Capitol Theater audience Friday night was treated to a fabulous concert from Andrew Sewell and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra.

But the musical passport was first stamped in Scotland, via a work of a German composer, namely the Hebrides Overture of Mendelssohn. Inspired by the “cave of melody” (the literal name of “Fingal’s Cave”) on the uninhabited island of Staffa in Scotland, the work is no stranger to programs. Sewell and his ensemble proved yet again however that chamber orchestras do not exist simply as an economically pared down version of a larger orchestra: Mendelssohn’s haunting woodwind passages emerged with unforced clarity, and the nineteen strings and minimal brass were more than enough to conjure the agitation of the rocky coastline.

The first programming coup came via the Piano Concerto No. 4 of John Field. Arguably the most famous Irish classical composer, Field is endlessly credited with the “invention” of the nocturne, and his subsequent considerable influence on Chopin, who made the form famous. But even some very studious non-pianist music students never bother to search out the concertos, and it is still a rather rare occurrence to encounter them in live performance.

As it turned out, it was astonishing at times to hear almost immediately one sequence after another that reminded one of Chopin’s keyboard style — and then recall that Field’s work was written while Chopin was barely out of diapers (the Piano Concerto No. 4 dates from 1812-15, Chopin was born in 1810). Field’s concerto was not the most engaging in terms of orchestral touches, or at times even memorably melodic. But it was never less than a showpiece for the soloist, and so we were all the more fortunate to have Christopher Taylor at the piano.

One still fears that to a significant degree, Taylor may be a prophet without honor in his own land. Based here at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, when he does venture abroad he floors otherwise staid critics with a true mastery of technique and virtually unmatched musicality. Friday night he proved once more that a great artist can elevate second-rate music to a position of honor. The second movement and finale gave Taylor the perfect opportunity to run the gamut of keyboard artistry, with a tender siciliano followed by a dazzling rondo finale.

The London-born Scot, Granville Bantock, might certainly receive more attention if he had not been prone to extravagances such as a Celtic Symphony for Strings…and six harps. The mere sight of a half-dozen harps arrayed along the back of the ensemble was a preliminary thrill — but overall one yearned for greater utilization of the heavenly instruments. Even a single arpeggio plucked simultaneously by a dozen hands was special, seeming to send a shimmer throughout the entire hall. There was unexpected compensation in the slow movement, where the solo cello is featured in a setting of a folk song (“Sea-Longing”), and Karl Lavine was given the opportunity to remind us of his richly expressive playing. Sewell had prefaced the reading with some wonderful insights that expanded upon Norman Gilliland’s printed (and ever-delightful) program notes.

Perhaps the Irish music chest was a little bare at this point, for Sewell ended the evening with a chamber orchestra staple, Mozart’s Symphony No. 35. But Mozart was no mere filler, and the WCO certainly wasn’t taking the work for granted: This “Haffner” Symphony received perhaps the most robust playing of the night, exuberant and transparent as needed, and left a cheering audience feeling as if they’d had the luck of the Irish on this night.

Photo: Christopher Taylor

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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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