The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra turns in a two-fold triumph with a Madison’s first live Bruckner symphony and a darkly elegant Mozart piano concerto with Shai Wosner as soloist. Moreover, the WCO plans on another Bruckner symphony (No. 2) next season. | March 25, 2013

By Jacob Stockinger

Is this a case of saving the best for last (or next to last) ?

Probably not, as most performing groups want to put their best foot forward all season long.

But now there can be no doubting that the smaller David took on the bigger Goliath (the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra vs. the Madison Symphony Orchestra, though they are really friendly competitors, not enemies) for the honor of presenting live Bruckner symphonies in Madison first – and won. Moreover, the ambitious and accomplished WCO has programmed Bruckner’s Symphony No. 2 for next season while the MSO has once again taken a pass.

So some history was made, and much beauty was created at last Friday night’s concert in the Overture Center‘s Capitol Theater by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below top) under its longtime music director and conductor Andrew Sewell (below bottom).

WCO lobby


The evening started off with the Israeli-born and now New York-based pianist Shai Wosner (below) once again substituting for a missing Anne-Marie McDermott in Mozart’s dark and dramatic masterwork the Piano Concerto No. 24 in C Minor. K. 491.

Wosner is a master of clarity, elegance and rounded tone with a great gift for playing quietly, with understatement.  His scales remain strings of individual pearls — not a choker. Trained as a composer, Wosner also played his own cadenzas in the first and last movements, and provided his own variations and ornamentation in the second movement when the theme gets repeated five times.

Shai Wosner Photo: Marco Borggreve

Most of all, Wosner displayed in abundance what great Mozart concertos – which are  difficult to bring off because of their transparency – require. Both Wosner and the WCO played the concerto as chamber music, holding dialogues with the various sections of the chamber orchestra.

The effect was magical and moving. It was an enthralling performance, and makes one hope to hear more of the Wosner-Sewell partnership in more Mozart piano concertos as well as other repertoire. There are, after all, 27 piano concertos by Mozart, of which at least 12 or 18 are undeniable masterpieces. And Wosner told The Ear that is looking into recording piano concertos by Haydn and Ligeti. Madison could be a test run.

The audience appreciated the Mozart performance so much that they elicited from Wosner a perfect encore: a Schubert miniature, the haunting “Hungarian Melody,” which Wosner plays on his all-Schubert CD for the Onyx label. (Below is a YouTube video with Andras Schiff playing part of it.) The audience was hushed and spellbound by the entrancing beauty played so subtly, so fluidly and so warmly.

It sure makes one hope that someone – perhaps the Wisconsin Union Theater or Farley’s House of Pianos – brings Shai Wosner back for a solo recital.

Then, after intermission, came the historic Bruckner.

This is officially his “Zero” or “Nullte” Symphony, as good a place as any to start a Bruckner quest. And once again the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and Sewell showed their respective talents in this long and difficult, if early, score by the deeply religious and solitary Austrian Bruckner (below):

Anton Bruckner 2

All the sections  — strings, brass, winds, percussion — performed superbly with sharp attacks and even sharper silences.

To be clear: This is certainly not Bruckner’s greatest symphonic work. But it is well worth playing and hearing, and it proved a wonderful first introduction to hearing live Bruckner symphonies in Madison.

I loved especially the first movement, with its haunting violin opening that made one wonder if the sophisticated movie composer and orchestrator Bernard Hermann had listened to it or had it in mind while he was writing the edgy score for Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho.”

Compare the opening minutes of the two works with the sharp, jagged violins and judge for yourselves:

The slow movement proved lovely, and the Scherzo, which looks forward and is perhaps the most Brucknerian movement, proved by turns forcefully dramatic and songfully lyrical.

All in all, this was one of the finest and most impressive pairings – of both the programming and the performances – of this season. It was on par with the outstanding concert of an early Mozart Violin Concerto and a late Shostakovich symphony that the Madison Symphony Orchestra performed only two weeks ago. Are we in Madison not lucky? One can only hope for more concerts like these two.

Of course, we are all critics. And you should know that The Ear is not alone is his very positive regard for the WCO concert with Wosner and Bruckner.

Here, for example, is the review by John W. Barker, a frequent guest blogger for this blog, that appeared in Isthmus and briefly explores the contrasts between Bruckner and Mahler, who are so often mentioned together:

 And here is a review by Greg Hettmansberger for the “Classically Speaking” blog he writes for Madison Magazine:


  1. I know Smith has done Mahler recently (1 and 6 both in the last four years), and I’m sure he did Bruckner 4 in 2010 – the proof is here:

    Comment by Mikko Utevsky — April 4, 2013 @ 10:01 pm

    • Hi Mikko,
      Thank you for the updated and corrected information.
      I missed Mahler 6 because of spring break last year.
      Didn’t remember the Bruckner, so I must have missed that too.
      My loss and my regret.
      I bet it was terrific.
      Thank you again.

      Comment by welltemperedear — April 4, 2013 @ 10:06 pm

  2. Hi Jacob – Just wanted to offer a correction to your statement that WCO’s performance of the “Nullte” is the first Bruckner symphony performance in Madison. It’s been a while, but MSO did a full performance of the fourth in November 1989. And though I don’t have specifics, I’m fairly sure that the UW Symphony has programmed a few Bruckner symphonies over the years.

    Best, Mike Allsen (MSO bass trombone and annotator)

    Comment by Mike Allsen — April 4, 2013 @ 7:01 am

    • Hi Mike,
      Firs let me thank you for all the wonderful PSO program notes you do as well as the music you play.
      Then I want to Thank You for the correction.
      I did try to find records of other Bruckner symphonies being performed in Madison but was unsuccessful.
      I accept that the Fourth in 1989 forma the MSO, though I don’t know how I missed that. I like the Fourth and I liked Roland Johnson.
      At the UW, I remember hearing Catherine Comet do a fine performance of big Mahler (Symphony No. 6) but no Bruckner.
      Maybe other readers or even conductors like James Smith or David Becker will recall specific works and performances.
      Can you help us out, readers? Conductors? Players?
      Thanks too for reading an deploying.
      All the best,

      Comment by welltemperedear — April 4, 2013 @ 8:34 am

  3. Jacob,

    Good morning! I thought I would send you a quick not to let you know that your posts seem to be arriving with very odd subject lines. I’m not sure if there is anything you can do about it, but as you can see from my reply subject line it’s kind of a mess. That hasn’t always been a problem, but lately almost every post arrives in my email box with these non-sensical subject lines.

    Oh, not sure if this helps, but I’m on a Mac using MS Outlook for UW email.



    Jeffrey Potter Marketing Director Wisconsin Public Radio 821 University Avenue Madison, WI 53706

    P: 608-890-3908 F: 608-263-9763

    Learn more, listen and donate online at:

    From: The Well-Tempered Ear <> Reply-To: The Well-Tempered Ear <> Date: Monday, March 25, 2013 12:00 AM To: Jeffrey Potter <> Subject: =?UTF-8?B?W05ldyBwb3N0XSBDbGFzc2ljYWwgbXVzaWM6IFRoZSBXaXNjb25zaW4gQ2hhbWJlciBPcmNoZXN0cmEgdHVybnMgaW4gYSB0d28tZm9sZCB0cml1bXBoIHdpdGggYSBNYWRpc29u4oCZcyBmaXJzdCBsaXZlIEJydWNrbmVyIHN5bXBob255IGFuZCBhIGRhcmtseSBlbGVnYW50IE1vemFydCBwaWFubyBjb25jZXJ0byB3aX…

    welltemperedear posted: “By Jacob Stockinger Is this a case of saving the best for last (or next to last) ? Probably not, as most performing groups want to put their best foot forward all season long. But now there can be no doubting that the smaller David took on the bi”

    Comment by jeffreypotter — March 25, 2013 @ 8:08 am

    • Hi Jeffrey,
      Thank you for letting me know.
      This is the first word of it.
      I will forward your comment to WordPress and see what they can do.
      I hope they can help.
      I also use a Mac and see nothing like what you see, though maybe the UW email system has something to do with it. A security wall or something?
      Is anyone else having the same problem?
      I apologize for it and am sorry.
      I will do my best to correct it.
      Please hang on, if you can.

      Comment by welltemperedear — March 25, 2013 @ 8:38 am

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