The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music review: Is there a better way to end a season than with Beethoven’s Ninth? Not if you judge by the outstanding success of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra.

April 16, 2012

By Jacob Stockinger

Is there a better way to end a classical music concert season than with Beethoven’s iconic Ninth Symphony?

I don’t think so.

And it seems I am not alone.

At least not if you judge but the outstanding results of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra’s concert on Friday night in the Overture Center’s Capitol Theater.

First off, the concert drew a rare sold-out house of about 1,000 – a large and appreciative audience that rose immediately to its feet for a prolonged, and well deserved, standing ovation at the end of the epic Beethoven work.

Music director and conductor Andrew Sewell put together a talented ensemble that featured an expanded orchestra, the Festival Choir of Madison combined with the newly formed Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra Chorus plus four very talented and well-matched soloists (below): soprano Michelle Areyzaga; mezzo Jamie Van Eyck; tenor Robert Bracey; and bass-baritone Timothy Jones.

The program was pure Sewell, a New Zealand-born Anglophile and Francophile who likes to explores the edges of the known repertoire and is not afraid to venture beyond his ease with and mastery of the Classical-era style of Viennese masters Haydn, Mozart, Schubert and Beethoven. You almost always come away from a Sewell program with some new and unknown work in your mind and ears.

Before performing the Beethoven, one of the best-known works in the repertoire, he performed one of the least-well known: Gerald Finzi’s “Dies Natalis.” Composed in six movements, “The Day of Birth” cantata may sound more like a Christmas piece, but it proved perfectly suited to springtime as a the time of rebirth and renewal. Even a similar text about joy is close to Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” that Beethoven used in the final movement of his symphony.

Finzi writes haunting and poignant string parts; and the solo tenor part was delivered with immediacy and emotion, as well as great tone, by the tenor Robert Bracey (below left, with Sewell on the right).

Then, after intermission it was on to The Ninth.

One usually hears more massive forces perform the legendary Beethoven. But I found it refreshing to hear the smaller chamber orchestra and choruses. The texture had a clarity that allowed much more transparency in the call-and-response between different sections. The woodwinds particularly came through the strings, brass and percussion.

Most listeners focus on the choral ending, which always and justly impresses with its singing by soloists and chorus.

But this time I found the first movement absolutely riveting. By using a brisk tempo; by focusing of the rhythmic motif of the dotted note; and by using sharp attacks to emphasize the silence between dramatic chords and passages, Sewell (below) added dramatic cohesion to the first movement, something it often lacks. The first movement often seems to me to wander or meander; not this time. It possessed a tight structure and pulse that carried you along with its logic.

Make no mistake: The Ninth is a very hard work to perform — for conductor, for instrumentalists and for singers. There were a few moments that needed just a bit more something – more sharpness and punch in the opening measures of the scherzo, which can easily get away from the players; or even a bit more silky and songful lyricism in the adagio to set up the frenzied opening of the final movement. But those are very minor and subjective quibbles.

This was a deeply moving and convincing performance that marks a new era for the WCO, a performance that spoke to people. Beethoven and Schiller’s populist plea for brotherhood and joy seemed especially fitting, with the state Capitol in sight and with the upcoming recall elections looming – something Sewell couldn’t have known when he first programed it and when protestors filled the Capitol Square and the Capitol (below).

In any case, Beethoven’s Ninth is a BIG work. So this successful performance of it marked a milestone undertaking in the history of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, which had never before performed it.

Now 11 seasons into his tenure, Sewell has brought the WCO to a new plateau. It is playing at a higher level. It is garnering more praise than ever before. It is performing in a home venue. It is booking terrific soloists. It is programming more ambitious works. And it is putting its stamp, through Sewell’s own distinctive philosophy of eclectic programming, on a very crowded local classical music scene.

That is a lot of joy to be celebrated.

And celebrated it was — at a season’s-end post-concert reception (below) but  mostly in the music itself.

Here are links to other reviews of the concert:

Here is John W. Barker’s for Isthmus:

Here is Lindsay Christians’ review of 77 Square (The Wisconsin State Journal and The Capital Times):

Here is Greg Hettmansberge;rs review Madison Magazine an this blog  “Classically Speaking”:

Here is Bill Wineke’s review for Channel 3000:

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