The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and soloist Ben Beilman deliver the best Beethoven Violin Concerto that The Ear has ever heard live | October 8, 2015

By Jacob Stockinger

Many people see the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below) as competitors.

WCO lobby

But that’s not how The Ear sees them.

The Ear sees symphony orchestras and chamber orchestras not as competitors but as complements.

The two can serve as role models for each other. A symphony orchestra can aim to achieve the transparency and clarity of the smaller group; the chamber orchestra can aim to achieve the richness and bigger sound of the larger ensemble.

Almost two weeks ago, that is exactly what the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below) and conductor John DeMain did with the “Leonore” Overture No. 3 by Ludwig van Beethoven, the Clarinet Concerto by Aaron Copland and especially the big, loud and brassy Ethel Merman-like Symphony No. 4 by Peter Ilych Tchaikovsky.

Here is how The Ear heard that performance:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2015/10/01/classical-music-heres-why-the-opening-concert-of-the-madison-symphony-orchestra-proved-a-stunning-success/

John DeMain and MSO from the stage Greg Anderson

So how did the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra do in meeting the challenge?

In a word — superbly.

The WCO did so last Friday night in the Overture Center’s Capitol Theater under its longtime music director Andrew Sewell.

The program started with one of those welcome rarities that Sewell has a knack for unearthing. This time the native New Zealander played the piece “Landfall in Unknown Seas” by Douglas Lilburn (below), whom Sewell described as the Kiwi Copland.

Well, maybe, though The Ear finds Aaron Copland’s music more interesting and emotionally moving than the clearly modern but tonal and accessible music by Lilburn, whose centennial is this year.

douglas lilburn

The piece — written to commemorate the tricentennial of the discovery of New Zealand — was hobbled with one of those puffily pretentious and over-the-top occasional celebratory poems, which was recited by actor James Ridge (below) of American Players Theatre in Spring Green. It treated navigation and discovery as metaphors of something much bigger than the discovery of New Zealand.

All in all, it proved an interesting but not arresting piece, a curiosity worth hearing but not repeating.

 

James Ridge

Then came the rarely played Symphony No. 2 in A minor by Camille Saint-Saens. It is a kind of Late Romantic pastiche that reminds one of the “Classical” Symphony by Sergei Prokofiev. One could hear strains of earlier composers such as Robert Schumann and Felix Mendelssohn in this charming work that once again is worth hearing but maybe not repeating or at least not soon.

To be fair, critic John W. Barker disagreed in his review for Isthmus:

http://www.isthmus.com/arts/stage/wisconsin-chamber-orchestra-opens-2015-season/

In both cases, Sewell (below) and the various sections of the WCO brought not only the kind of transparency or clarity that one expects from the WCO but also a robustness that made the orchestra seem bigger than it looked.

AndrewSewellnew

Yet it was in the second half where the WCO really showed its stuff.

The piece was the formidable Violin Concerto by Ludwig van Beethoven.

The soloist was the 25-year-old Benjamin Beilman (below), making his Madison debut.

Benjamin Beilman close up playing

Together, Beilman and Sewell delivered what is the finest and most exciting live performance of the famous and famously difficult concerto that The Ear has ever heard. It possessed intimacy as well as heroics. (You can hear Itzhak Perlman and Daniel Barenboim conducting the Berlin Philharmonic in the last movement in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

Sewell shaded the piece and brought both chamber orchestra transparency and symphony orchestra heft to the work. He also emphasized Beethoven’s mastery of counterpoint, a legacy from his days as a student of Franz Joseph Haydn. This time the often thorny Beethoven score seemed smoother and more decipherable.

Beilman, for his part, is already a master of the kind of small details that make a huge difference. He is also not afraid to play softly.

Beethoven (below) was a master crafter but not a great melody writer, and often the opening movement can often seem little more than a patchwork of scales and runs, chords and arpeggios.

beethoven BW grim

But not this time. Beilman made this often flat-sounding violin part exciting with the subtleties he brought to it. He found hidden melodies and camouflaged suggestions of a theme, all delivered with a great tone from his modern 2004 violin.

One unusual touch was the cadenzas. Beethoven didn’t write any for the violin. When he transcribed this work for the piano he composed piano cadenzas. And those were the basis of what Beilman, the top winner of the Montreal International Violin Competition and the recipient of an Avery Fisher Career Grant, used for his exciting cadenzas.

Tempi mattered too. This long, dense concerto moved right along, and when it was done, the performance drew an immediate standing ovation from the audience of 900 or so.

And here’s the thing: At no point did the chamber orchestra seem to lack the horsepower needed to drive this big and iconic piece of music. Sewell and Beilman were well matched in projecting a big, rich sound and intense interpretation that engaged and excited you from beginning to end.

The audience even drew two encores from Beilman, both solo pieces by Johann Sebastian Bach (below), the ultimate test of a violinist. One was the songful slow movement from the Solo Sonata in C Major; the other was the lively Gavotte from the Solo Partita in E Major that almost seems a mirror image of the last movement of the Beethoven concerto.(ATTENTION ALL SOLOISTS: Please announce your encores!)

Bach1

The first Bach movement, by the way, was also the piece that Beilman played at the wedding this summer where his sister married Joe Morris, the gifted principal clarinet of the Madison Symphony Orchestra who so stood out in the Copland concerto two weeks ago.

Plus, Beilman’s parents and grandparents hail from Madison.

So young Benjamin Beilman has roots in and ties to Madison.

Could that mean he will return soon?

The Ear sure hopes so.

 

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7 Comments »

  1. “But it is a big, loud and brassy work except for the pizzicato movement.”

    Well, so what?

    Sure, the orchestra has evolved and gotten bigger than the days of Haydn. Brass has become more important in almost every composer. And is Tchaikovsky’s #4th much different (in being “brassy”) than anything that Wagner wrote, or Bruckner, or Verdi for instance? Would you also describe them as Ethel Merman-like?

    Comment by fflambeau — October 8, 2015 @ 10:14 pm

    • I might for the fun of it.
      Lighten up.
      Not everything is deadly serious.
      Why do you get so hung up on one description that isn’t even intended to be a serious criticism but instead a fun read?

      Comment by welltemperedear — October 8, 2015 @ 10:22 pm

  2. How certain are you of the encore pieces? I do not have a very good musical memory, but I thought that the second encore was the Gavotte en rondo (3rd movement) of Bach’s Partita No. 3 in E major (BWV 1006), not the Prelude (1st movement). And so I emailed the WCO folks, and their librarian, Carl Wilder, agreed with me on that one, plus suggested that the first encore was the Siciliana (3rd movement) of the Sonata No. 1 in G minor (BWV 1001) – although to be fair, Mr. Wilder was not certain of the first encore either.

    Comment by justcurious — October 8, 2015 @ 11:26 am

    • Thank you just curious, for reading and replying.
      I was pretty sure of the first piece because Benjamin Beilman also played it on The Midday program of Wisconsin Public Radio and explained how he performed it at his sister’s wedding.

      But I am less sure of the second encore, so I will go with that you and the librarian say and correct the text.

      Whatever is right or wrong, the confusion underscores the need for soloists to announce encores.

      Best wishes,
      The Ear

      Comment by welltemperedear — October 8, 2015 @ 11:32 am

      • Agreed on the point about announcing encores! And I might add, letting the staff know, too, so that they can tell listeners or even post the information after the show.

        Comment by justcurious — October 8, 2015 @ 12:10 pm

  3. Nice column.

    But “Ethel Merman-like” Tchaikovsky #4? Wow, that really hurts.

    I know one very early reviewer called it “‘A Sleigh Ride Through Siberia'” and another wrote that “The composer’s twaddle disturbed my mood. The confusion in brass and the abuse of the kettledrums drove me away!”

    But those are only reviewers (usually wrong, in my opinion). But at least one (Hans Keller) got it correct: “one of the most towering symphonic structures in our whole literature.”

    Over many years, it has become beloved by audiences world-wide and it is also one of the most recorded of all symphonies.

    Comment by fflambeau — October 8, 2015 @ 1:19 am

    • I also love that symphony. But it is a big, loud and brassy work except for the pizzicato movement. No insult was intended, just a fun description.

      Comment by welltemperedear — October 8, 2015 @ 6:53 am


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