The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra takes The Ear over the rainbow and turns in an impressive season-closing concert that leaves him looking forward to the next season | May 3, 2017

By Jacob Stockinger

To The Ear, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below) just keeps getting better and better, each concert building on the last one.

Take the final concert of this season last Friday night in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center.

It proved typical WCO fare in the quality of the soloists and orchestra players and in the variety of the program.

WCO music director Andrew Sewell (below) continues to mold his group into the tightest of ensembles. You know you are hearing precision when the rests and silences become as important to the music as the sound. And when you are listening, you feel how relaxing it is to rule out worrying about raggedness.

Here’s a rundown:

The concert opened with a tried-and-true masterpiece, the “Le Tombeau de Couperin” by Maurice Ravel (below). Each of the five dance movements pays homage to a friend of Ravel who fell in World War I, the centennial of which, the gracious Sewell explained, is being marked this year. The Ear likes such tie-ins. (The Ear also loves the original piano version, which has a sixth movement, a fabulous toccata conclusion.)

The Symphony No. 2 in C Major by Romantic master Robert Schumann is not The Ear’s favorite Schumann symphony – that would be No. 4 – and The Ear thinks that Schumann’s orchestral writing is generally not up to his piano writing, his chamber music or his songs.

Indeed, long-form music was not Schumann’s strength, as his many miniature movements in his longer suites and his fragmentary esthetic attest. Perhaps it had to do with his mental illness; perhaps it was just his preference and temperament, much as was the case with his contemporary Chopin, who also preferred the miniature to the epic.

Still, the work proved enjoyable and moving, especially in the vivacious and energetic Scherzo that was executed so precisely and then in the poignant slow movement, which was beautifully shaped with the romantic yearning that Schumann (seen below, with his wife Clara Wieck Schumann) was peerless at expressing. (You can hear the third movement, conducted by Leonard Bernstein, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

And once again, the smaller size of the chamber orchestra — versus a full symphony orchestra — created transparency. Listeners got to hear inner voices and the interplay of parts in all sections of the orchestra that they might otherwise miss.

But the piece that everyone came to hear was the finale: The world premiere of a Two-Piano Concerto by American composer Thomas Cabaniss (below top). The WCO commissioned the piece with help from two local patrons (Jun and Sandy Lee) and the soloists, Michael Shinn and Jessica Chow Shinn (below bottom), who have ties to Madison.

The work and its three movements – “Surfaces,” “Disturbances” and “Revelation” — did not disappoint and received a rapturous reception from the large audience, which demanded and received a piano-four hands encore.

The concerto struck The Ear as perfectly fitting its title, “Double Rainbow.” You heard elements of Maurice Ravel and John Adams. But you did NOT hear the typical standout solo playing of, say, a piano concerto by Beethoven or Brahms, Rachmaninoff or Prokofiev.

This was a much more atmospheric ensemble work that shimmered and glittered, much like a rainbow. It almost seemed in many places similar to a Baroque concerto grosso, with the piano incorporated into the orchestral texture rather than standing out against it.

That is not to say the concerto, more mood than melody, wasn’t impressive. The score seemed very difficult, even virtuosic, and it certainly had moments that allowed the two soloists to show off their first-rate, Juilliard-trained chops.

Will this new concerto join other two-piano staples, such as the famous two-piano concertos by Poulenc and Mozart? It would take more hearings to be sure, but The Ear suspects not. It will surely get repeated hearings, especially from the Shinns, without becoming a go-to default piece in the two-piano repertoire. But he could well be wrong.

In any case, one would be hard put to find a better summary of the WCO approach to music-making than this outstanding concert that combined the old and the new, that mixed works from the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries and performed them with technical precision and moving interpretation.

Bravos to all.

And all the more reason to look forward, after the WCO’s six summer outdoor Concerts on the Square from June 28 to Aug. 2, to the next indoors Masterworks season, both of which you can find here:


  1. I enjoyed the piano concerto and felt it to be compelling enough to warrant another performance.


    Comment by Larry Wells — May 3, 2017 @ 11:00 am

    • The WCO and its musical director should also be commended for commissioning a new work and promoting it AND presenting an exciting program that is not full of war horse pieces. Would that that spirit were found elsewhere in the classical music world in Madison!


      Comment by FFlambeau — May 3, 2017 @ 7:55 pm

  2. How sad that the reviewer’s standard for music for piano (4 hands) is just the Poulenc and Mozart staples.

    There’s a nice CD out by the Piano Duo Venti Dita (featuring pianists Marvin Rosen and Jennifer Castellano) that is completely full of such music and it features works by Mortin Feldman and Alan Hovhaness including his Child in the Garden Op. 168 (after which the album is named) and his Psalm and Fugue Op. 40a. Hovhaness is outstanding with fugues and counterpoint.

    I cannot speak to the new “Rainbow” work but it should be given a chance, rather than dismissed. All music was once “new” even Poulenc and Mozart.


    Comment by FFlambeau — May 3, 2017 @ 5:55 am

  3. Maestro Sewell is from New Zealand and 25 April (near the date of this performance) is a special day in the memories of both Australians and New Zealanders. It marks Anzac Day, a day of remembrance for their war dead but especially for one major World War I battle.

    This was a major battle in World War I in which Allied forces (mostly Australians and New Zealanders) were foolishly put into battle trying to force the Dardanelles held by Turkey’s Ataturk at Gallipoli in an effort to take Istanbul. It was yet another disastrous campaign planned by Winston Churchill (great leader, lousy strategist)(one of FDR’s biographers has an entry in which he indicates that Churchill repeatedly sent FDR war plans and FDR routinely and wisely filed them away with a chuckle in his “circular basket”). The forces were mostly non-British and the Aussies and New Zealanders (and of course, the Irish) took the brunt of losses: Australia with about 9,000 deaths and New Zealand with about 2,700 (New Zealand had and still has a much smaller population, of course). Their per capita losses were far greater than the British or the French. On both sides, casualties were over 200,000.

    Anzac Day is a public holiday in New Zealand.

    So the choice of the Ravel was an especially good one.


    Comment by FFlambeau — May 3, 2017 @ 3:06 am

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