The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Next season the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra will expand to two performances of its winter Masterworks concerts by adding a Saturday night concert in Brookfield, near Milwaukee

May 21, 2019
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IF YOU LIKE A CERTAIN BLOG POST, PLEASE SPREAD THE WORD. FORWARD A LINK TO IT OR, SHARE or TAG IT (not just “Like” it) ON FACEBOOK. Performers can use the extra exposure to draw potential audience members to an event.

By Jacob Stockinger

Next season will mark the 20th anniversary of Andrew Sewell (below top) coming to Madison to serve as the music director and principal conductor of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below bottom).

It is hard to imagine a better Bravo! or anniversary gift for the maestro – who has said he wants the WCO to become a chamber orchestra, as its name implies, for the entire state of Wisconsin — than what will in fact take place: the WCO will expand its winter Masterworks concerts to two performances by adding a Saturday night performance at 7:30 p.m. in the Sharon Lynne Wilson Center for the Arts (below) in Brookfield, a suburb of Milwaukee. (Sewell is also the music director of the San Luis Obispo Symphony in California.)

Madison performances of Masterworks will continue to take place at 7:30 p.m. on Friday night in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center.

You can find out more about the Masterworks programs for next season by going to the WCO home website:

https://wisconsinchamberorchestra.org/performance-listing/category/masterworks

There you will find the usual eclectic mix of new guest artists and new or neglected composers and repertoire that has marked Sewell’s tenure and brought him critical acclaim.

Pianist Orion Weiss will perform the popular  Piano Concerto No. 21 in C Major, K. 467 – “Elvira Madigan” – by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; violinists Giora Schmidt and Eric Silberger will perform concertos by Dmitri Kabalevsky and Niccolo Paganini, respectively; harpist Yolanda Kondonassis will perform a concerto by Argentinian Alberto Ginastera; and Andrew Balio (below), principal trumpet of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, will return to Madison where he grew up and perform a 1948 trumpet concerto by Italian composer Andre Tomasi.

Early music and new music to be featured includes works by: Donald Fraser (an acclaimed English conductor, composer and arranger, below) who now lives in Illinois, and often comes to Madison); Joseph Martin Kraus, known as the “Swedish Mozart”; Norwegian composer Johann Svensen; and three English composers (always favorites of Sewell who was born and educated in New Zealand) who are John Marsh, James Macmillan and York Bowen. (In the YouTube video at the bottom you can hear the English Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Kenneth Woods — a native Madisonian who will return next season to conduct the Madison Symphony Orchestra — recording the Scherzo movement from Donald Fraser’s “Sinfonietta,” the same work that the WCO will perform.) 

Works by Franz Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, Felix Mendelssohn and Sergei Prokofiev also figure prominently, including Mozart’s Symphony No. 41 “Jupiter” and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 “Pastoral” in honor of the composer’s 250th birthday in 2020.

Also on the website, you will find the upcoming season of Wednesday night Concerts on the Square for this summer (June 26-July 31) plus the dates and themes – although no guest artists or works — for 2020 (June 24-July 29).

Go to: https://wisconsinchamberorchestra.org/performances

You can also find information for next season about the WCO performing George Frideric Handel’s “Messiah,” Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s ballet “The Nutcracker” with the Madison Ballet; the Young Artist Concerto Competition; the free Family Series; and the community Super Strings program for elementary students.

To receive a brochure with information about all these events and about how to get tickets — an “early bird” discount on subscription tickets runs through May 31– call (608) 257-0638 or go to: https://wisconsinchamberorchestra.org


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Classical music: Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra music director and conductor Andrew Sewell launches his own website

January 13, 2019
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IF YOU LIKE A CERTAIN BLOG POST, PLEASE SPREAD THE WORD. FORWARD A LINK TO IT OR, SHARE or TAG IT (not just “Like” it) ON FACEBOOK. Performers can use the extra exposure to draw potential audience members to an event.

By Jacob Stockinger

Just two weeks before he mounts the podium on Friday, Jan. 25, for the first Masterworks Concert by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra this season, maestro Andrew Sewell (below) has launched his own website.

Sewell, who was born in New Zealand and became a naturalized American citizen, is the music director and conductor of the WCO, and is also now in his second season as music director and conductor of the San Luis Obispo Symphony in California. Plus, he has many guest appearances, from London to Hong Kong, and numerous awards to his credit. (You can hear an interview with Sewell in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The homepage of his new website, which features becoming black-and-white photos of Sewell, looks deceptively simple to navigate.

But there is much more than is apparent at first to learn there.

Under BIO you can read about his life in detail and also listen and watch archival videos of him conducting the Wichita and the San Luis Obispo orchestras in major works by Haydn, Beethoven, Berlioz and Brahms, along with critical praise for his performances and programming.

Under SCHEDULE, you see concert dates and soloists but no programs — at first. But if you click on the yellow words for PURCHASE TICKETS and either MASTERWORKS or CONCERT, you will be directed to full information about all the concerts by both of the orchestras he heads.

And by clicking on GALLERY you will find a generous montage of color photos, both serious and playful, of the friendly and talented Sewell at work and at ease.

Here is a link to the website:

https://www.andrewsewell.net/?fbclid=IwAR3zaRVX5psZMfYQNBW2XKIj6AvgY5fiVMQXZw-yOALDQDmZTvBElX6U3us

The Ear finds this a useful and appealing tool to learn more about a Madison maestro whose achievements have consistently stood out for almost 20 years and have altered the landscape of local music-making for the better.

The handsome new website is a job well done, and is well worth your time to check out, bookmark and use regularly.

Bravo, maestro!


Classical music: The Middleton Community Orchestra excels in deeply satisfying performances of works by Copland and Dvorak. On Sunday, you can hear FREE band and choral music at the UW

October 14, 2017
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ALERT: On tomorrow, Sunday, Oct. 15, there is FREE band music and choral music at the UW-Madison. The University Bands perform at 1 p.m. and the Choral Collage performs at 7:30 p.m., both in Mills Hall. Sorry, but The Ear has received no word on programs — no composers, no pieces, no conductors, no performers — and you won’t find that information even on the School of Music’s website. 

By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, a review written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker. Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who hosts an early music show once a month on Sunday morning on WORT FM 89.9 FM. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.

By John W. Barker

The opening concert of the mostly amateur Middleton Community Orchestra (below, in a photo by William Ballhorn) on Wednesday night was a deeply satisfying one.

The opener was Aaron Copland’s Quiet City, based on his incidental music for a 1939 play. The piece is less a work of music than of atmosphere, and deeply related to Copland’s own experiences growing up in New York City. To convey contrasting outlooks, Copland features a trumpet and an English horn as solo instruments.

These parts were played with confidence and feeling by MCO players Jessica Jensen and Valree Casey (below top and bottom, respectively, in photo by Brian Ruppert). The reduced string orchestra provided a smooth carpeting.

The main work was the Symphony No. 6 in D Major by Antonin Dvorak (below). Cruelly overshadowed in podium and audience tastes, this score has been badly neglected, but justly belongs with the composer’s last three symphonies as a worthy peer. (The Madison Symphony Orchestra did perform it a few seasons back.)

As I listened to the work, I recalled the comment that the early Dvorak supporter, Johannes Brahms, commented to colleagues as he got to know the Czech composer’s music, to the effect that “This kid has more ideas than all the rest of us put together.”

Dvorak’s outpouring of ideas, and his capacity for putting them to good use, is simply astounding. I particularly marveled at such qualities as I listened to the slow movement (which you can hear in the YouTube video at the bottom), with its beautiful manipulation of the simplest of basic material. I emerged from the performance feeling joy at being a member of the same species as the creator of this wonderful work.

One could certainly overlook some moments of rough ensemble here and there. Clearly, the players had come to love this music and give it their all. Indeed, the distinguished conductor Edo de Waart, who just retired as music director of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra to become the music director of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra) joined the orchestra in one rehearsal (below, in a photo by Brian Ruppert), leaving the players not only delighted with him but that much more enchanted by the music.

The large audience caught the orchestra’s commitment and responded with an enthusiastic standing ovation.

One thought did occur to me. The acoustics of Middleton’s Performing Arts Center (below) have usually seemed to me quite admirable. This time, however, they struck me as rather dry, without some resonance and reverberation that would have added greater warmth of tone to the playing.

No matter, though. This was a performance I will long remember; and I have the greatest admiration for maestro Steve Kurr (below), both for his courage in taking on this challenging and under-appreciated masterpiece and for his clearly profound understanding of it.


Classical music: Famed opera diva Kiri Te Kanawa says she will not be singing in public anymore

September 15, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

It happened a year ago.

But since then Dame Kiri Te Kanawa (below), the celebrated soprano and opera diva, has kept her insight to herself: She would not sing again in any kind of public performance.

She is 73, so the news is not surprising.

But it is disappointing.

Much as The Ear admires superstar soprano Renée Fleming, he preferred Te Kanawa’s tone, phrasing and vibrato. He particularly liked her voice in operas and other music  by Mozart, Puccini and Richard Strauss. (You can hear her in her prime singing the aria “O mio babbino caro” by Puccini in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

But whatever your preference, seeing such a career come to an end is a sad milestone, however inevitable.

Perhaps the best story about the New Zealand artist’s retirement that The Ear has seen came in The Guardian. Here is a link:

https://www.theguardian.com/music/2017/sep/13/kiri-te-kanawa-quits-public-performance-after-five-decade-career

And here is a column about retirement in various fields, including professional sports, that praises Te Kanawa’s decision and timing:

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/sep/13/kiri-te-kanawa-bowed-out


Classical music: Tonight is that start of six weekly Concerts on the Square with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and guest artists under conductor Andrew Sewell. Here’s what you need to know

June 28, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

Tonight marks the first of this summer’s Concerts on the Square, performed by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below) and guest artists under the baton of music director Andrew Sewell.

The FREE community event was first proposed by famed “American Girl” dolls creator, businesswoman and philanthropist Pleasant Rowland decades ago when she worked downtown and lamented how abandoned the Capitol Square got after dark. This is the 34th season of the popular Concerts on the Square. Each concert now draws tens of thousands of listeners.

The concerts will take place on the King Street corner of the Capitol Square. They run from 7 to 9 p.m. on six consecutive Wednesdays (rain dates are Thursdays). But of course people gather hours earlier to socialize and picnic.

Although pop,rock, folk and film music is often featured, tonight’s program is mostly classical – composers are Leonard Bernstein, Louis Moreau Gottschalk and Otto Nicolai — and performing will  be this year’s winner of the WCO teenage concerto competition. She is violinist Emily Hauer (below) and she hails from Appleton, Wisconsin, where she has studied at the Lawrence University Conservatory of Music.

Here is a link to all you need to know about tonight, from the programs and a performer’s detailed biography to vendor menus, the way to volunteer and the ground rules for concert etiquette:

https://wisconsinchamberorchestra.org/performances/concerts-on-the-square-1-2/

You can see and hear a sampler of Concerts on the Square in the YouTube video at the bottom.

For future planning, here is a link to all six concerts with similar information:

https://wisconsinchamberorchestra.org/performance-listing/category/concerts-on-the-square

Should you want to know more about WCO maestro Andrew Sewell (below),  music director since 2000 — and who has also just been named the music director of the San Luis Obispo Symphony in California — here are some profiles and interviews that make for good reading while you wait for the music to start.

Here is an excellent profile done by Sandy Tabachnik in 2014 for Isthmus:

http://isthmus.com/music/andrew-sewell-the-malleable-maestro-of-the-wisconsin-chamber-orchestra/

And here is some background about the New Zealand-born Sewell, who became an American citizen 10 years ago, along with links to other news stories about his latest appointment:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/tag/sewell/

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2017/06/16/classical-music-maestro-andrew-sewell-has-been-named-the-new-music-director-of-the-san-luis-obispo-symphony-in-california-while-retaining-his-longtime-post-as-music-director-of-the-wisconsin-chamber/

And from the “Only Strings” blog of Paul Baker, who hosts a show of the same name on WSUM 91.7 FM, the student-run radio station at the UW-Madison, here is an interview with ever-gracious Sewell:

https://onlystringswsum.wordpress.com/author/pbaker/page/3/


Classical music: Maestro Andrew Sewell has been named the new music director of the San Luis Obispo Symphony in California while retaining his longtime post as music director of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra

June 16, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra‘s longtime music director Andrew Sewell (below) has been named the new music director of the San Luis Obispo Symphony in California.

The news comes in between the end of a critically acclaimed and very successful Masterworks season in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center and the start of the upcoming and always popular summer Concerts on the Square on Wednesday evenings from June 29 through Aug. 2.

Sewell, who was born and trained in New Zealand, has been an American citizen for the past 10 years. He led the Wichita Symphony Orchestra for 10 years and the Mansfield Symphony Orchestra in Ohio, and he also guest conducts in Hong Kong and many other cities in the U.S. and abroad.

Asked if the move means there will be guest conductors for the WCO, Sewell told The Ear:

“I will be conducting all concerts this year. The schedules for both orchestras work surprisingly well together.

“The situation is not unlike the first 10 years of my tenure in Madison when I was music director of the Wichita Symphony concurrently with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra. I’ll share my time between both communities.” 

For more about Sewell’s impressive and extensive background, go to:

https://wisconsinchamberorchestra.org/about/andrew-sewell/

Here is a statement from the WCO:

“When Maestro Sewell raises his baton at Concerts on the Square this month, he will also be embarking on a new position as music director of the San Luis Obispo Symphony. (At bottom, he seen conducting the San Luis Obispo Symphony.)

“Fans of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra need not worry, though, as he will retain his position and residence here in Madison. 

“We’re very proud of Andrew and what he has accomplished here in Madison, around the nation and abroad” said Mark Cantrell, CEO of the WCO. “This appointment reinforces what we already know about Andrew, that he is an exciting and impressive director and musician.

“We’re fortunate to retain him here as music director, and we look forward to many more years of him behind the baton with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra. We wish him the best of luck in San Luis Obispo.”

For more about this story, use the following links:

Here is a WCO posting about the news:

Global Search Yields Symphony’s Ninth Conductor

And here is a newspaper story with many details about Sewell and his plans for the new position, including where he will live, as well as his plans for sharing repertoire and guest soloists:

SLO Symphony has a new director


Classical music: Globe-trotting conductor Edo de Waart bids farewell to Madison and the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra this Sunday afternoon at the Wisconsin Union Theater with music by Mozart, Bloch and Elgar

May 17, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

Music director and conductor Edo de Waart is coming to the end of his widely praised eight-year tenure at the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, after which he will become a conductor laureate of the MSO.

The busy and energetic 75-year-old de Waart (below, in a photo by Jesse Willems) started  his career as a assistant principal oboist of the Concertgebouw and rose to become an acclaimed symphony and opera conductor. Currently, he is also the music director of the Royal Flemish Philharmonic and the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. In the past, he held major posts in Hong Kong, San Francisco, St. Paul, Minneapolis, Santa Fe, New York, Houston, Sydney, Rotterdam and Amsterdam among many others.

For more on de Waart, go to his Wikipedia entry:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edo_de_Waart

Unless they go to Milwaukee on the following weekend — Friday, Saturday and Sunday, May 26-28 — to hear de Waart conduct Gustav Mahler’s mammoth Symphony No. 3 as his final farewell, listeners in the Madison area will likely have their last chance to hear the formidable de Waart and the accomplished Milwaukee players (below, with concertmaster Frank Almond on the left) this coming Sunday afternoon.

At 2:30 p.m. in Shannon Hall at the Wisconsin Union Theater, de Waart and the MSO will perform the Overture to the opera “Don Giovanni,” K. 527, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; Ernest Bloch’s “Schlomo: A Hebraic Rhapsody” with MSO principal cellist Susan Babini (below); and Sir Edward Elgar’s Symphony No. 1, Op. 55.

There will also be a free pre-concert lecture at 1:30 p.m. by Randal Swiggum.

Tickets run from $15 to $49. For more information, including ticket prices and purchasing outlets, audiovisual links and links to reviews and background stories, go to:

https://union.wisc.edu/events-and-activities/event-calendar/event/milwaukee-symphony-orchestra/

The Ear has always been impressed not only with the quality of de Waart’s conducting, but also with his choice of soloists and his creative approach to programming. He has fond memories of other performances in Madison by the MSO, which used to tour here regularly.

The distinguished de Waart, a native of the Netherlands, has enjoyed critical acclaim in his international career across Europe, Asia and North America. For a while, this acclaimed world-class musician who has made so many award-winning recordings and performed so many guest stints around the world, was even a neighbor who lived in Middleton, a suburb of Madison, where his wife is from.

Plus, de Waart has a fine philosophy of making music and leading an orchestra, as you can hear in the YouTube video below that was made when he first took over the reins of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra:


Classical music: Conductor Andrew Sewell reveals how he keeps Handel’s “Messiah” fresh. He will perform it on Friday and Sunday nights with the Wisconsin Chamber orchestra, soloists, the WCO Chorus and the Festival Choir of Madison

December 7, 2015
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By Jacob Stockinger

The weekend will see two seasonal performances of the iconic oratorio “Messiah” by George Frideric Handel.

Conductor Andrew Sewell – who will also be busy leading performances of the Madison Ballet’s production of “The Nutcracker” this weekend — will again lead the combined forces of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra along with the WCO Chorus and the Festival Choir of Madison.

WCO Messiah stage and banners

There will also be four guest soloists:

Soprano Sarah Lawrence:

Sarah Lawrence photo

Mezzo-soprano Jamie Van Eyck:

Jamie Van Eyck photo 2015

Tenor Calland Metts:

Callend Metts photo

Returning bass Peter Van de Graaff, who is also the host of overnight music on Wisconsin Public Radio:

WCO Messiah bass Peter Van de Graaff

The two performances will be in different locations and have different ticket prices:

The first performance is this Friday night, Dec. 11, at 7 p.m. at the Blackhawk Church, at 9620 Brader Way, in Middleton.

The second performance is on this Sunday night, Dec. 13, at 7 p.m. at the Westbrook Church, at 1100 Highway 83, in Hartland, about an hour from Madison and near Milwaukee. It is about 1-2 hours from Madison.

For more information, here are two links:

http://www.wcoconcerts.org/performances/messiah-at-blackhawk-church/

http://www.wcoconcerts.org/performances/messiah-at-westbrook-church-hartland-wi/

Andrew Sewell recently talked via email to The Ear about “Messiah”:

andrewsewell

What keeps “Messiah” by George Frideric Handel so perennially popular with the public, especially at holiday time? In your mind, does it have to do more with the music or the text? And is it as popular with the performers as with the audiences?

I think the meaning of the text, the recounting of the story of the life of Christ particularly in the first part, which is always recounted at Christmas, makes this work so enduring. It gives people pause to stop and think.

It has become a tradition, not unlike the Nine Lessons and Carols, although one can perform it at any time.

It is both the text and the genius of Handel to set the text so beautifully to music. Especially when you realize he was not a native English speaker, yet wrote it for an English-speaking audience.

Back in the day when I was a violinist, we would perform the full “Messiah” (all 3 hours and 15 minutes) twice on two successive days. Yes, it became hard work after a while, just the sheer physicality of holding your instrument up with very few breaks. However, the score never became old, and there is always something new to be found whether a different soloist, or the way the choir is prepared.

WCO Messiah Cover 2

How many times have you conducted “Messiah”? As a conductor, how do you keep it fresh for yourself and not boring or predictable? How do you find new things to say or new ways to say them?

Well this is our seventh season since performing it at Blackhawk Church, and before then we performed it twice a year for the “sing-out” Messiah from 2000 to 2008. I have conducted it also in Syracuse. So, I’ve conducted it probably around 30 times.

I think it’s the same with any piece of great music that is often repeated year after year: you find ways to keep it fresh. Perhaps you try new things — new articulations, different repeats, adding or subtracting movements, using different “cuts” since we have the challenge of bringing a 3 hour and 15 minute work in under 2-1/2 hours.

WCO Messiah full orchestra and two choirs

How have your conception of the work and your performances of it evolved over the years?

I have found that the tradition in the United States was different to the one I had been accustomed to in New Zealand. Again, I found that for the most part, for local performances of “Messiah,” church choir directors usually cut it down to be about 2 to 2-1/2 hours in length.

I had never heard of the Christmas portion or the Easter portion before moving to the United States. My experience had always been to play the work in its entirety — merely a different tradition.

Nowadays, I enjoy including as many choruses and arias as we have time for, that both challenge the chorus and make sense of the text in some chronological capacity. And of course, there are those arias you cannot omit -– “The Trumpet Shall Sound,” for instance.

WCO Messiah WCO Chorus and Festival Choir 1

What would you like the public to know about Handel and “Messiah” that they may not already know or need to be reminded of?

That it ostensibly started out life as a secular work in a secular environment; and that, over the years, it has become to be considered more as a sacred work and performed in a church. In either venue it is okay and a great masterpiece, whatever your religious or non-religious affiliations may be.

WCO Messiah taking bows

Is there something else you would like to say?

I think as you pay attention to the ebb and flow of the arias and choruses, they should tell a compelling story that reaches its climax in the most positive way. It is a story of great redemption for humanity and is what Handel achieves with his setting of “Worthy Is the Lamb” and the “Amen.” (You can hear the glorious “Amen” in the YouTube video below.)

 


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
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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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