The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra again proves that it’s not just for summer pops listening anymore as it opens its winter season to the full house its deserves. | October 14, 2014

By Jacob Stockinger

Can it really be that the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra –- The Little Orchestra That Could -– is finally getting the long overdue recognition and larger audiences that it deserves? One hopes so, and it certainly seems so.

Last Friday night on the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra opened its new winter season to a full and enthusiastic house.

WCO lobby

So perhaps the tide is indeed turning and the WCO will not continue to be hamstrung by its own success, by which I mean its historic role and pops repertoire in the always popular summertime Concerts on the Square. The WCO should be taken more seriously by the area’s classical fans.

Friday saw a full house – but not necessarily a sold-out house since the WCO generously offers tickets to students and others in need -– which was what they deserve, and have deserved, for a longtime.

The ensemble’s playing proved nothing short of terrific, and the soloists – violinist Rachel Barton Pine and violist Matthew Lipman – proved nothing short of spectacular.

Here are the points that The Ear took away.

1. The music of the famous 18th-century composers Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (below top) and Franz Joseph Haydn (below bottom) can by now seem so safe and so predictable. The Classical-era style is that well established. So it is high praise to the WCO ‘s longtime music director and conductor Andrew Sewell, who his starting his 15th season, that these most established of Classical composers again seemed vital and even, at times, daring and radical. No music box Mozart from the WCO!

Mozart old 1782
Haydn

Sewell’s readings of both composers is not timid in any way, but robust and energetic. Not that Sewell (below) sacrifices the elegance and balanced proportion that we expect to hear in Classical compositions. But he also brings an approach that features up-beat tempi, sharply accented beats, long phrases and an emphasis on dissonant harmonies that helped listeners see how such staple Classical composers were innovative revolutionaries in their day and helped pave the way to modernity.

andrewsewell

Really, at one point during Haydn’s late Symphony No. 96 “The Miracle” The Ear could look down the road of music history and see not only Ludwig van Beethoven and Franz Schubert coming, but even Gustav Mahler (below), with his use of peasant dances, harmonic suspensions and dissonances, and a kind of tightly knit theme-and-variations method of composing and adding to the music’s momentum.

Gustav Mahler big

2. The WCO knows how to book outstanding and exciting soloists. Chicago violinist Rachel Barton Pine (below), playing a violin once chosen by Johannes Brahms himself, showed superb tone and musicianship with just the right splash of head-turning virtuosity. But she can sing too, and she held the audience in her hand when she played the famous quiet Lullaby by Brahms as an encore.

One very discerning listener whom The Ear knows thought that Barton Pine’s stellar rendition of Camille Saint-Saens’ showpiece “Introduction and Rondo capriccioso” was the best version of the several he had heard in three performances over the past several months. It helped, I think, that you could watch the playing as well as hear the piece. As the composer Igor Stravinsky used to advise: Listen with your eyes.

Rachel Barton Pine

Similarly the violist Matthew Lipman (below), who was making his WCO debut, did a terrific job. He may look about 16, but he plays like a seasoned veteran with confidence and fine tone.

matthew lipman violajpg

The two string players excelled in the Double Concerto for Violin and Viola by Benjamin Britten -– but more about that performance and work later. Yet what really brought the string duo a prolonged standing ovation was their encore: the famous solo Passacaglia for Violin and Viola by George Frideric Handel, as arranged by Johan Halvorsen. (You can hear a version of this great violin and viola piece, with Itzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zukerman, in a YouTube video at the bottom.) What fun it was to hear it live!

3. The hybrid programming proved typical of Andrew Sewell, who likes to combine the familiar with the unknown. So  Mozart’s popular Overture to the opera “The Marriage of Figaro” and the well-known late Haydn symphony were balanced out by the rarely programmed Violin Concerto No. 5 by the mid-19th century Romantic Belgian composer Henri Vieuxtemps (below), a competent but, to The Ear’s ears, not a particularly inspired composition. I think I can wait another decade or two before hearing a repeat performance.

henri vieuxtemps

The Double Concerto for Violin and Viola by the young Benjamin Britten is another matter. I need to hear it again, and that will not be easy since it is not often programmed or recorded.

But the hallmarks of mature Britten (below) all seemed there, if not yet seamlessly assembled. The music sounded modern but accessible, clearly not academic. This was real music, not what The Ear calls R&D Music — Research and Development Music — that is designed more to make a point or win tenure than to please the ear or touch the heart.

Benjamin Britten

In all, it was a delightful night of music-making, and if you are not going to the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, you are only cheating yourself of great pleasure and great performances.

Reviews, of course, are by nature subjective. So here is another one you can compare this review to:

It is a review by the highly respected John W. Barker (below) for Isthmus:

http://www.isthmus.com/daily/article.php?article=43770&sid=c9ccfe0ad418291bab1d31cde0181d49

John-Barker

 

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