A Journey Through Madison's Classical Music Scene
Oct 10, 2011
10:08 AM
Classically Speaking

Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra Sets the Bar High and the L.A. Philharmonic Continues to Soar

Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra Sets the Bar High and the L.A. Philharmonic Continues to Soar

Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra music director Andrew Sewell offered up a concert of “firsts” on Friday night: the season opened with four works each among the earliest significant pieces of Elgar, Prokofiev, Copland and Gershwin.

Better still, we were treated to the first Madison appearance of Russian pianist Ilya Yakushev.

Launching into the knuckle-busting Piano Concerto No. 1 of Prokofiev (who had composed it for his own use in a Moscow Conservatory competition), Yakushev looked delighted, almost surprised at what his fingers were producing. Sitting on this occasion where I could see his hands and his face, it was hard not to agree with him: “Dazzling” is too dull a word to describe the sheer virtuosity and musicality that Yakushev produced.

In the finale, the piano moved around so much that one could have believed that local seismographs might have registered some measurable tremors emanating from the Capitol Theater. For his part, Yakushev grew so animated that he barely stayed seated until the end. Indeed, he virtually leapt off the bench at the final chord—and the near-sold-out audience was nearly as quick to come to their feet.

The WCO strings and Sewell had already established that their portion of the orchestra was already in mid-season form, with a lovingly shaped reading of Elgar’s “Serenade for Strings.” Following intermission the entire ensemble met that standard, in a brisk and still-new-sounding traversal of Copland’s “Music for the Theatre.” The 1925 opus is full of clear foreshadowings of the later masterpieces (“Appalachian Spring,” et al), but Sewell focused on that elusive “American-ness” that is woven into the very fabric of Copland’s style.

Yakushev returned for the most famous “first” of the night, Gershwin’s jazz-crashes-concert-hall bombshell, “Rhapsody in Blue.” This was not your daddy’s “Rhapsody”—or Lenny Bernstein’s or Andre Previn’s, either. This was a reading both cleaner and freer than one is apt to hear live or on recording. Again, Yakushev launched from the bench at the end, and the audience nearly met him in mid-air. After a few curtain calls, Yakushev returned alone, and as he approached the piano said “something a little slower.” In what sounded like Bach, he proved that he can both keep the piano in one place and draw a liquid lyricism from it. It turned out that the sublime movement was a 2003 Earl Wild arrangement of the Marcello Oboe Concerto a work that Bach had indeed transcribed for keyboard.


Sunday afternoon saw the return of LA Phil Live to Point and Eastgate cinemas. I saw it at the latter venue, and for lack of space suffice it to say that the thirty-year-old Gustavo Dudamel may be making the Disney Concert Hall the happiest musical place on earth. The all-Mendelssohn program must have looked like something of a breather: When this program opened Thursday, the orchestra was playing its fourth program in ten days and had already notched two major U.S. premieres in the first two weeks.

Dudamel treated the “Hebrides” Overture and the Violin Concerto almost like chamber music, greatly aided in the latter by the Dutch virtuoso, Janine Jansen. She and Dudamel had collaborated in the work some five years ago, but it almost sounds as if they had been rehearsing it together ever since. The second half was as colorful and detail-rich reading of the “Scottish” Symphony as could be hoped for; it is scarcely any wonder that last week Gramophone magazine named Dudamel “Musician of the Year.”

While there may be legitimate concerns as to the long-range effect on local ensembles of these “theater casts” by a growing number of national and international groups, clearly it’s not happening yet in Madison—there were all of four of us at Eastgate. But I will urge you now and later to mark your calendars for February 18, 2012; on that occasion Dudamel will bring his sleek LA ensemble back to his native Caracas, Venezuela, for a performance of Mahler’s “Symphony of a Thousand” that will have far more than the thousand performers referred to in the title. Meanwhile, don’t forget about our own Madison Symphony back at Overture Hall this weekend … See you there.

Photo courtesy of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra.

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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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