A Journey Through Madison's Classical Music Scene
Nov 29, 2011
10:12 AM
Classically Speaking

Seasonal Sweets (and a few empty calories) from Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra

Seasonal Sweets (and a few empty calories) from Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra

The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra has partnered with the Middleton Tourism Commission for fifteen years now for Holiday Pops, a local tradition as much a part of the holiday season as white Christmases and Badger bowl games. Held at the Marriott West last Saturday night and Sunday afternoon, a packed ballroom of patrons enjoyed some happily predictable holiday fare, along with a few surprises … some more delicious than others.

Through the vagaries of this year’s calendar, we’ve only heard the WCO once this season, but not to worry—they are as fresh and vibrant as ever. They shone brightest in the most substantial fare, the second movement of Hely-Hutchinson’s “Carol Symphony,” and the second of Respighi’s “Botticelli Pictures,” “The Adoration of the Magi.” It was an added treat to have the titular painting projected on the large viewing screens, as Andrew Sewell and his ensemble wove a hauntingly exotic musical tapestry. Sewell offered the finale of the Hely-Hutchinson work on last year’s program, and it was a major treat to hear even part of this unjustly neglected work again.

A tradition within the tradition is the addition of the Middleton High School Concert Choir. First heard in two Rutter compostions, the whimsical “Donkey Carol” and reflective “What Sweeter Music,” their own director, Tom Mielke, was given the podium for Hirsch’s “Bashana Haba’ah,” a Hebrew song for a prosperous and peaceful New Year. Later the thirty-plus singers acquitted themselves with burgeoning professionalism in the demanding “Gloria” movement from Haydn’s “Heiligmesse.”

This year’s guest vocalist was A.J. Gil, a finalist from the first season of American Idol. The final result was a little like finding a specially wrapped present under the Christmas tree, only to find that what was inside was less exciting than hoped. Gil tackled “O Holy Night,” and while there is nothing wrong with a non-classical singer having a go at this operatically styled chestnut, one wanted greater integration of soloist and orchestra and more sensitive phrasing. The ensuing “What Child Is This?” proved a happier collaboration.

But the oddity was that Gil then offered two songs not on the program: First, there was a Stevie Wonder tune that Gil himself handled at the keyboard, and then his own song with acoustic guitar, “Listen to My Heart.” We second his dedication of the latter to his wife, just returned from a tour of duty in the Navy, and to all service men and women who have or continue to serve our nation. But for one listener at least, the flow of the concert was abruptly changed. It should be said for the record, though, that the vast majority of the audience clearly enjoyed Gil in both genres.

The rest of the program was filled out with some hoped-for musical bon bons (“Silver Bells,” “Carol of the Bells,” etc.), and the traditional encore, a brisk and bracing “Sleigh Ride.” And for those critics and non-critics alike who may feel that they’ve already overdone their fill of musical sweets, Sewell gives us the serious side of the musical season as well: Friday, December 9 the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra presents Handel’s “Messiah” at Blackhawk Church.

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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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