The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music review: If you want to hear the difference between talent and genius, compare the music of John Field and Frederic Chopin — and thank the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra. | March 19, 2012

By Jacob Stockinger

On Friday night, I went to the penultimate concert of this season by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra in the Overture Center‘s Capitol Theater. (This season’s last Masterworks concert is at 8 p.m. on Friday April 13, and features Beethoven’s iconic Ninth Symphony.) In so many ways, it was an enjoyable event with an appropriate sense of occasion for Saint Patrick’s Day.

Under the baton of Andrew Sewell, the WCO (below) just keeps sounding better and better. And the audiences just seem to grow bigger and bigger, and more and more enthusiastic.

Clearly, the WCO is on the march, as its expanded next season shows:

http://wcoconcerts.org/performances/future-season/

I was particularly impressed with the performances of two well-known and frequently perform classics: Mendelssohn’s “Hebrides” Overture and Mozart’s “Haffner” Symphony. These are great works that received great performances.

The overture by the transitional Mendelssohn (below) had precise Classical-era part playing and a clarity of texture. Yet the evocative reading also had Romantic color. You could feel the ocean swells and the Scottish mystery, the dark, almost Gothic atmosphere of the seashore cave that the work was meant to convey.

In the “Haffner,” I was impressed by the muscularity of the Mozart (below). The very opening bars had sharp and strong attacks, and that sense of energy kept up right to the closing measures. I like grace and elegance, but not when it descends into music-box Mozart and preciousness. This reading was decidedly NOT music-box Mozart. It was hearty and robust as well as refined.

The WCO is clearly mastering the playing of Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven and they should include more of those masters on each program. Lord knows there are enough pieces by each to choose from given overtures, symphonies and concertos.

In between came other pieces on the “Celtic Celebration” theme chosen to mark St. Patrick’s Day and to bring us neglected works.

Granville Bantock’s “Celtic” Symphony for string orchestra and six – yep, six harps a harping — was a gratifying piece with some lively moments. But like Vaughan Williams, to whom Sewell aptly compared Bantock (below), it lacked depth and had major moments of lateral drift. The plainsong aspect of the harmony and the Celtic dance rhythms proved particularly captivating. All in all, it proved a rarity worth well unearthing and hearing.

That kind of creative and original programming has become typical of WCO music director Sewell (below).

The major work of the first half was a performance of Irish composer John Field’s rarely heard Piano Concerto No. 4 in E-Flat Major. One of seven concertos by Field (below), it was performed to perfection by the remarkable UW pianist Christopher Taylor, who was superbly accompanied by the orchestra.

On the radio, in a Q&A for this blog and in his playing, Taylor made a convincing case for reviving this curiosity. And it does have a certain period charm, especially in a kind of proto-Chopin way that is looser in form and feeling than the powerful and stricter, less lyrical Beethovenian and Germanic traditions.

After all, you may recall it was Field who pioneered the form of the piano nocturne that Chopin, 11 years his junior, later perfected.

But if you ever want to take the measure of the difference between someone who is talented and someone who is a genius, then just listen to Field and compare him to Chopin (below) — either nocturne-to-nocturne (at bottom), or concerto-to-concerto.

Chopin gives you heart-breaking and memorable melodies and harmonies that you carry with you out of the concert hall. Field’s music seems, sad to say, forgettable as soon as the playing is over. You are glad you heard it, but would you hear it again right away, would you go home and put on a recording of it? I suspect not.

Like Chopin’s writing, Field’s score uses a lot of notes in the passagework. And how they sparkled under virtuosic fingers of Taylor (below). But overall the concerto lacks substance and that bel canto sense of singing or vocal line that makes Chopin so irresistible and seductive.

In a museum or gallery, I find that looking at a great painting or photography makes me wish I could paint like that or use a camera tike that. I want to go out and make a painting or a photograph of my own.

Chopin does the same. His music makes me want to go home and play the piano, and especially his works.

Field, however, does not leave with the listener with that desire. I find myself, saying: OK, I’m glad I heard it, but once every 10 or 20 years is enough.

Chopin’s music simply has, and deserves, a much longer shelf life.

So I guess what I am saying is that I hope the WCO books Taylor again — this time in one of the two Chopin concertos, and probably No. 2, which is more suited to the chamber ensemble than No. 1, the concerto that actually was composed later on a bigger scale. But either would do the job nicely.

Now that would be something memorable indeed.

Anyway, here are links to the other reviews since you may wonder: What did the other critics in town have to say?

We pretty much agree, but we differ in what we make of our minor disagreements.

Here is the review by John W. Barker for Isthmus:

http://www.thedailypage.com/daily/article.php?article=36238

Here is Mike and Jean Muckian’s review for the magazine Brava and their blog Culturosity:

http://culturosity.wordpress.com/

Here is the review by Lindsay Christians of the Wisconsin State Journal and 77 Square:

http://host.madison.com/entertainment/arts_and_theatre/reviews/wco-s-celtic-night-offers-delightful-mix/article_4f71f520-702b-11e1-8e78-0019bb2963f4.html

Here is Bill Wineke’s review for WISC-TV’s Channel 3000.com:

http://www.channel3000.com/entertainment/30700799/detail.html

And here is Greg Hettmansberger’s review for Madison Magazine and the blog Classically Speaking:

http://www.madisonmagazine.com/Blogs/Classically-Speaking/March-2012/Wisconsin-Chamber-Orchestra-Proves-All-of-Us-Are-Lucky-This-St-Patricks-Day/

But every listener is his or her own critic.

So, what did you make of the works by John Field and Bantock?

What part of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra’s “Celtic Celebration” pleased you the most and why?

The Ear wants to hear.


1 Comment »

  1. Field was a genius; without field, no chopin

    Comment by J E HOLMES — March 7, 2019 @ 12:31 pm


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