By Jacob Stockinger
How far has the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra come in 50 years?
A very long way, as we found out Friday night in the Overture Center’s Capitol Theater — its indoors home venue for the concert season — when the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra closed out its 50th anniversary season.
The ensemble played to a three-quarters house – not bad considering all the other musical (University Opera’s “Maria Stuarda” and the Pro Arte String Quartet) and non-musical events going on the same night. That tells me the WCO has developed a loyal following beyond the fair-weather friends it always has when it plays the free summer Concerts on the Square.
Of course, the WCO has been progressing – some steps backward to many steps forward – ever since it was founded. It especially matured during its many years under the late David Lewis Crosby .
But it seems to have blossomed especially during the tenure, now entering its 10th year, of its current New Zealand-born music director Andrew Sewell (below).
I know personally because I have heard the WCO play for 35 or so years of its existence.
And today it plays with accuracy, precision and tightness in programs that years ago would have been too ambitious for the group.
Take Friday night’s Masterworks concert.
The unusual program, typical of Sewell’s eclectic approach, combined the tried-and-true with the relatively unknown.
In the latter category, the concert open with six string performers playing the Sextet from Richard Strauss’ late opera “Capriccio.” The played tightly and showed no pitch problems – which could not always be said about this chamber group in earlier times.
At times, the music recalled Strauss’ lovely opera “Der Rosenkavalier” is its late Romantic harmonies and its long, songful lines. It got a fine performance in front of many listeners who had never heard the piece before and probably won’t hear it again.
Then out came the soloist of the night – Canadian pianist Stewart Goodyear (below) – who performed another relatively rare work: Johann Neopmuk Hummel’s Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 85.
It recalls Chopin’s concertos – Chopin kept this Hummel work in his active repertoire – combined with elements of Beethoven and Schubert, Mozart and Haydn: That’s all to be expected from a composer who knew those greats and studied with most of them, and who was an important figure in the transition from Classicism to Romanticism.
In their roles as accompanists, both Sewell and his players were terrific. They never seemed out of synch or at odds in intent, and they sounded consistently balanced in dynamics, never drowning out the piano.
Goodyear himself is a very strong, virtuosic pianist – after the difficult concerto, he rewarded the audience with Chopin’s knuckle-busting “Heroic” Polonaise, Op. 53, which he seemed to just toss off. (In fact, at times I felt Goodyear was too strong, too brilliant, not only for what much of the music called for but also for the piano, which sounded thin and tinny in the upper treble registers the harder it was played.)
That is not to say that Goodyear did not play with some nuance, but he needed more subtlety and musicality, less pianism. If you heard pianist Jonathan Biss in his recent appearance with the Madison Symphony Orchestra in an early Mozart concerto, you know how totally deep and entrancing soft playing can be. I would have liked to hear more moments when both the orchestra and the soloist took the sound levels down a few notches and seduced me rather than attacked me.
Still, it proved a successful and popular performance – and perhaps the only live one many of us will ever hear of the quite lovely Hummel work that is both dramatic and lyrical.
The program concluded with a staple: Schubert’s Symphony No. 9, called “The Great” because of its ambitious compositional style and its length. In fact, the WCO (below) used extra brass and strings on stage.
Yet despite such massive force for a chamber orchestra, they played tightly in a difficult work to bring off, which they did.
To be honest, it is not my favorite Schubert symphony. I would have much have preferred to hear the Fourth (“Tragic”) in C minor, the Fifth in B-flat major or the Eighth “Unfinished.”
Not that the Ninth doesn’t have glorious moments. But, as often happens in Schubert’s piano sonatas, you get lost – as he himself seems to, perhaps wants to – in lateral drift. This same master of the short art song could also be a master of endless, and seemingly pointless, aesthetic digression.
So the piece is challenging, as challenging to the performers as to the listeners. And the WCO acquitted itself impressively. You could see Sewell and musicians working hard to keep the right balance, to bring out voices, to keep everyone together.
So in the end, this final all-classics concert of the season proved a fine sampler of just how impressively good the WCO can play across a range of styles and needs of music-making: in a very small group (the Strauss Sextet), which speaks the excellent staffing and high quality of the WCO players; in its usual configuration but acting as an accompanist (the Hummel), which speaks to its ability to adjust to and accommodate other outside musicians; and as a cohesive and independent group on entirely its own (the Schubert).
So the verdict is in: One can look forward to many more years and maybe even decades of fine music-making from the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra.
Happy Birthday, WCO!
And Thank You for many years of great music both in the past and yet to come.
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