The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music news: Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra plans to offer multiple performances

October 26, 2010

By Jacob Stockinger

This Friday night at 8 p.m. in the Overture Center’s Capitol Theater, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below) will perform the second of this season’s Masterworks concerts.

The concert is special on two counts.

First, it is another in the on-going celebration of the Music Director Andrew Sewell’s 10th anniversary with the WCO.

It also marks a special appearance by professional piano-playing  twin sisters – recently signed by Columbia Artists Management Inc. — Christina and Michelle Naughton, formerly of Madison.

The program includes Schubert’s popular “Unfinished” Symphony, Mendelssohn’s Concerto for Two Pianos and Michael Torke’s “Adjustable Wrench.”

Tickets are $15-$62. Call the Overture Center box office at (608) 258-4141.

For more information, visit:

Sewell granted an email interview to The Ear on the occasion of the WCO’s season opening concert earlier this month. But major glitches with technology prevented that interview from appearing.

One of the surprises to come out of that interview is Sewell’s hope that the WCO will one day be able to offer multiple performances. To my ears, the quality of the WCO has gotten so good and the classical music schedule here has become so crowded with conflicts that that would be a very favorable development.

Here is the full interview:

This marks your 10th year in Madison as artistic director of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra. How has the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra changed in the 10 years of your tenure? How has your position changed?

The WCO has changed in personnel quite significantly since I began in 2000. Through expanding the core to 34 musicians, and as some positions have been filled by audition, the level of playing has risen significantly. We have a number of musicians traveling from far away as Ohio, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Missouri, Vermont and Illinois.

My position has remained the same as music director, and we have expanded our program to include five Masterworks concerts instead of three, a Holiday Pops pairing over Thanksgiving weekend, and continue with our Youth concert s in the spring. The six Concerts on the Square have remained a staple with some higher-profile guest artists, and the audiences continue to grow each year.  The “Messiah” tradition has recently returned after a hiatus of four years and the popular Halloween concert I introduced 10 years ago is taking a break this year.

The economic downturn over the last two years has impacted us and other arts groups. For example, we are no longer accompanying the Madison Ballet for their “Nutcracker” production, as they have gone to taped music. But hopefully that may return. Collaborations are always important, and we have worked with the Madison Ballet on other projects recently, as well as two Side by Side concerts with the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras in previous seasons.

You left the Wichita Symphony Orchestra at the end of last season. Is that because you plan on doing more freelance guest conducting? Do you have dates lined up and what are they?

Yes, with 10 years of commuting down to Wichita during the regular season, a change has meant more time to be with my family. Mary and I have three children – one in college and two in high school — so it’s important to be home during these critical years, and the timing was right for a change.

I do plan on having more time available in my schedule to be able to guest conduct, and have several dates lined up later this season with the Green Bay Symphony in December and February, and with the Salem Chamber Orchestra in Oregon next April. There have been other times in the past when my schedule has not allowed the flexibility to fill in for a cancellation at short notice, which does happen from time to time.

The flip side to this of course is the guarantee of steady employment. I think with any job, it’s important to remain fresh and aware of what’s going on in the industry and taking opportunities to work with other orchestras when they come along is a good thing.

What part of conducting interests you the most? The least? What do you consider to be your major achievements of the past 10 years with the WCO?

I have always enjoyed programming, and putting together programs for a variety of audiences, from Masterworks to Concerts on the Square (below) to Holiday Pops. Tweaking their interest and seeing how the programs come together is always satisfying. I also enjoy meeting and working with guest artists, which has worked well over the years with two orchestra positions.  Finding soloists that will captivate our Madison audience is what I aspire to achieve.  Catching some of the next generation artists as they are on the rise distinguishes us from other orchestras in the area.

There are not too many aspects of conducting that I don’t like.  I enjoy studying scores and listening to music, holding auditions and public speaking.  Probably the least favorite thing is the audition process because it is so competitive and there are so many fine musicians. It’s a healthy situation, but tough on those trying out for positions.

I would consider the improvement in artistic quality one of my major achievements. On the business side, the orchestra staff work incredibly hard and have demonstrated their commitment to the organization with high standards of excellence. We have a great Board of Directors and staff, and a very supportive arts-loving public here in Madison.

You led the WCO to its first recordings ever and to its first permanent home in the Overture Center.  What plans do you have for the WCO in the coming years?

That is a very good question and one I ask myself constantly.  What is next for the WCO?  The beauty of recording is the ability and discipline of really listening and honing a performance to a high level.  The process of recording improves an ensemble tremendously. We have produced three CDs in the past, the last one being a double CD of Mozart Piano Concertos released in 2008 with Adam Neiman.

Recordings are important but very expensive to make, and these days orchestras are releasing them under their own labels. The new Capitol Theater is a dream to perform in and we are very fortunate and thankful for this permanent home.  The most important part is maintaining high standards of performance and engaging our audiences in quality chamber orchestra repertoire.

Plans for the coming years are to continue to build our audience, so we can give repeat performances, and to increase and widen our donor base.

What would you like listeners to know about the WCO’s upcoming program with the Naughton sisters on October 29th?

The Naughtons (below) grew up in Madison, having attended Blessed Sacrament School and Edgewood High School.  In 2005 Christina won our Young Artist Concerto Competition as a high school freshman, and performed at Concerts on the Square. In June 2009, she opened our summer season performing Rachmaninov’s “Variations on a Theme of Paganini.”  We are delighted to welcome them home as a piano duo, to perform Mendelssohn’s Concerto for Two Pianos in E. Written when Mendelssohn was just 14, it is a work that deserves to be heard more often in the concert hall.

The remainder of the program consists of Michael Torke’s “Adjustable Wrench” and Schubert’s “Unfinished Symphony.” Michael Torke is originally from Milwaukee and in this minimalist chamber work, he divides the orchestra into three main groups, and, by using subtle changes in rhythm and instrumental timbre, creates a vibrant collage of sound.  He even uses a keyboard synthesizer. Schubert’s “Unfinished “Symphony will conclude the first half, and is the most familiar work on the program.

Is there anything else you’d like to say?

I enjoy being in Madison, and making it my home. The education it offers my children and the entertainment and culture available make it a unique place to live, and I’m happy to be a part of it.

Posted in Classical music

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