A Journey Through Madison's Classical Music Scene
Oct 10, 2012
09:37 AM
Classically Speaking

Doubleheader Weekend for the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra

Doubleheader Weekend for the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra

Andrew Sewell and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra wasted no time in bringing something new to their 2012 season: a move on Saturday from their usual Capitol Theater setting to Overture Hall to launch a new “Wisconsin Pops Series.”

 But the Friday night season opener of the Masterworks Series was a standard Sewell blend of unjustly neglected music, ten fistfuls of soloists, and some newer music.

Starting ten years ago, with breakthrough exposure via “60 Minutes” and "The Oprah Winfrey Show,” The 5 Browns have been known as the family famous for fifty fingers. Now in their mid-twenties to early thirties, the quintet of pianists is still best known for their recital appearances featuring unique arrangements.

All the more intriguing then to see them with orchestra, and as none of the major composers has written accompanied works for more than three pianos, they brought a work of their own, or at least written just for them in 2011: “The Edge of the World,” by former Juilliard classmate Nico Muhly.

From the opening movement it was not hard to guess that Muhly has been influenced by the likes of Phillip Glass and John Adams, but lest you are one of those who cringe at any hint of “minimalism,” take heart: Muhly’s music has far more to do with arresting colors than with mere repetition. Soloists Gregory, Ryan, Melody, Deondra and Desirae were seated at Steinways that formed an awkward pentagon (as viewed from the Capitol Theater balcony), with Sewell literally surrounded by grand pianos with an enlarged WCO beyond.

Not wasting an opportunity for a triple concerto, Gregory, Ryan and Melody then offered the Concerto No. 7 for Three Pianos by Mozart. Here there was need for even greater clarity and seamless transitions from one soloist to another, and as the full family of five had done before, the three remaining protagonists delivered with ease.

Of course one was still left wanting for some soloist-times-five action, and the siblings came through, with an encore of Greg Anderson’s arrangement of Mozart’s “Rondo all Turca” (which can be seen and heard on the Browns’ home page).

Sewell was up to his usual programming tricks in the first half—it’s largely because of directors such as he that I can say that after fifty years of classical listening, I still experience “new” old things. In this case the gem was Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 1, written at the ridiculous age of fifteen, and highlighted in the finale by a beguiling solo from clarinetist Nancy McKenzie, over a whispered, then hushed, collective pizzicato from the strings.

Think of Saturday’s Disney affair as Concerts on the Square indoors. The crowd may not have filled Overture Hall, but happily the audience makeup was similar to those seen on those summer Wednesday evenings—lots of families and load of kids.

It was multi-media as promised, with projections of clips from films old and new, mostly as a backdrop to three orchestral arrangements, and eight other segments that employed a quartet of soloists: Candice Nicole, Whitney Claire Kaufman, Andrew Johnson and Aaron Phillips. While the first three are all polished, fresh-faced and Broadway bound talents, it was Phillips who revealed that kind of charisma that reaches from footlights to back row, balcony. In “I Wan’na Be Like You,” from “The Jungle Book,” Phillips rocked the house with as much energy as could be seen in the video clips.

Sewell and company (again an ensemble of close to forty) thoroughly seemed to enjoy the unbuttoned approach indoors…one can hardly wait for the Paul McCartney “Live and Let Die” tribute in March.

Photo: The 5 Browns, courtesy of 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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