A Journey Through Madison's Classical Music Scene
Oct 14, 2013
10:51 AM
Classically Speaking

Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra Opens Their Season with a Major Statement

Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra Opens Their Season with a Major Statement


Bryan Wallick

It was great to see an apparently full house in the Capitol Theater on Friday night for the season opener of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, reassuring to notice that music director Andrew Sewell retains his bulls eye knack for stimulating programming—and thrilling to hear an orchestra that, much like the Madison Symphony Orchestra two weeks ago, is playing at an even higher level of polish and beauty.

In recognition of the centennial anniversary of the birth of Benjamin Britten, Sewell opened with a true rarity, Young Apollo. The brief 1939 work, cleverly constructed for piano, string quartet and strings went unperformed for forty years after its premiere, and is still rarely heard. Without knowing that it was Britten, one would never have guessed its origin, particularly with its opening foreshadowing of the minimalism of the 1980s and beyond; think of it as Philip Glass with a clue.

Along with Sewell’s knack for picking pieces, he also brings in soloists that frequently are making a Madison debut. On this occasion it was the pianist Bryan Wallick, no stranger to much of Europe and North America since his gold medal-winning performance at the 1997 Horowitz competition in Kiev. Not only did Wallick and Sewell opt for one of the less-played composers, Saint-Saens, but offered the Piano Concerto No. 5, a charming and exciting work that languishes in the middle of the pack among the composer’s achievements.

From a seat in the balcony, the nearly 40-member orchestra almost covered Wallick in the big moments, but he had plenty of opportunity to seduce us with scintillating virtuosity and an impressive array of keyboard color—all the more appropriate as Wallick has the condition known as synesthesia, and he sees colors in response to the notes and chords he plays.

In case there were any doubts as to his total technical mastery, Wallick gave an encore of Liszt’s Concert Paraphrase on Rigoletto. As with every true artist, Wallick managed to find the expressive moments couched within the razzle-dazzle.

Sewell devoted the second half of the evening to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5. One looks forward to the middle symphonies of Beethoven in a chamber orchestra setting; the reduced forces can pay off with clarity of lines without sacrificing overall power. One of Sewell’s interpretive points was to prove that Beethoven’s tempo markings (rarely taken as fast as indicated) are essential to the work. The WCO, especially the lower strings, were fully equal to the task. But my notebook scrawl reads: “In a hurry, not gritty, too pretty.”

It just seems that the seminal, heaven-storming works of Beethoven almost need to sound like it’s more of a life and death struggle. So here we complain that our groups are not polished enough, and then when they appear to toss off masterpieces without breaking a sweat, we chide them for making it look too easy!

Lest my readers are left with the impression that I was somehow frustrated at night’s end, allow me to set the record straight: coming on the heels of a mesmerizing sonic output by the Madison Symphony two weeks ago, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra stepped up and matched their aural splendor and overall sense of mastery. If Madison Opera follows suit on November 1, musical Madison may be on the cusp of a season to remember.

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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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