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
7 Comments

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.

 


Classical music: The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra opens its new season Friday night with an appealing and typical mix of a young guest soloist, a standard masterpiece and unusual repertoire.

September 28, 2015
7 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

This coming Friday night, Oct. 2, at 8 p.m. in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below) opens its new indoor season.

WCO lobby

Now in his 15th year with the WCO, music director and conductor Andrew Sewell (below) continues to demonstrate his knack for creating appealing programs that are masterful in the way they combine the expected and the unpredictable.

andrewsewell

This opening concert, like so many others, features a mix of a young or up-and-coming soloist, standard masterpieces and unusual repertoire. Tickets are $15 to $80.

A New Zealander who is now an American citizen, Sewell has programmed “Landfall in Unknown Seas” by his fellow Kiwi, composer Douglas Lilburn. The work was written in 1940 by Douglas Lilburn to mark the centenary of New Zealand. Sewell personally knew Lilburn during his formative training.

Douglas Lilburn 2

The work is for strings with a text that is read aloud by a narrator, who in this case will be actor James Ridge (below) of American Players Theatre in Spring Green.

James Ridge

Then comes the standard concerto with the non-standard soloist. It is the glorious Violin Concerto by Ludwig van Beethoven with the boyish-looking 25-year-old American violinist Ben Beilman (below), who has won critical acclaim as well as major prizes and awards, and who plays a violin built in 2004. He has been praised for his virtuosic technique and his strong, beautiful tone.

His honors include winning the Montreal International Violin Competition at age 20, with a searing performance of the Violin Concerto by Jean Sibelius;  receiving an Avery Fisher Career Grant; and being invited to perform with the prestigious Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center in New York City. (You can hear him in a profile of Beilman in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

For more information about Beilman (below), including a sound and video sample, and about the performance with a link to tickets, go to:

http://benjaminbeilman.instantencore.com/web/bio.aspx

Ben Beilman portrait

and to:

http://www.wcoconcerts.org/performances/masterworks-i-1/

Benjamin Beilman close up playing

Rounding out the program is the Symphony No. 2 by Camille Saint-Saens (1835-1921, below), a rarely heard work that is overshadowed by the Symphony No. 3, the “Organ” Symphony. Few people know that Saint-Saens was one of the great musical prodigies of all time, on a par with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Felix Mendelssohn.

camille saint-saens younger

Recent scholarship suggests that Saint-Saens was a closeted gay man. For more about the life and personality of Saint-Saens, check out this site:

http://gayinfluence.blogspot.com/2011/08/charles-camille-saint-saens-1835-1921.html

A revival of the orchestral works and chamber music by Saint-Saens has been under way in recent years.

 


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