A Warm January Night from Sewell and WCO

Just the thought of being able to hear the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra in the Capitol Theater last Friday night was enough to warm one inside and out. Not surprisingly, Andrew Sewell and his admirable ensemble managed to raise the thermostat several more degrees.

The formula remains the same: Mix and match with intriguing repertoire, including choosing a musical road less taken even when the composer is a standard choice, and add a soloist who matches technique with artistic insight of the highest order.

From the first notes of Mozart’s Overture to Cosi fan tutte we were reassured that there was no rust to knock off from whatever holiday break the musicians might have had. The woodwinds were amiably conversational, the strings warm and focused.

The group expanded to about forty players with a hefty addition of brass for the Piano Concerto, FP. 146 of Poulenc. The composer played the world premiere with the commissioning group, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, but it is not too far-fetched to believe that Adam Neiman outperformed him Friday night. Neiman was here in 2008 (and recorded some early Mozart concertos with the WCO at that time), but his artistry was new to these ears. If anything, Neiman was the star in a work that, while probably too neglected, does not quite engage as consistently as other works of Poulenc. There were a couple of moments in the first movement where the orchestra overpowered Neiman’s pristine technique—virtually the only flaws of the evening.

Instead of one large concerto with an encore or two, the audience was in for a concerto doubleheader, and the Shostakovich Piano Concerto No. 2 was a winner start to finish. Even though about eight players, mostly brass, were no longer required, the overall sound of the orchestra was more powerful, but now the balances between soloist and ensemble were well gauged. Best of all, everyone was on the same wavelength in realizing the Soviet composer’s wry humor and bracing energy. The central movement was a real surprise: Brooding strings led to a limpid piano melody that puts one more in the world of Ravel, of all places! Neiman’s impressive roster of recent and imminent releases beckons, as does his channel on YouTube. We urge you to explore Neiman’s stunning accomplishments.

Post intermission Sewell and company gave us half a great symphony, namely the Symphony No. 6 of Schubert. The first two movements reveal a twenty-year old composer about to reach new heights of mastery…but the scherzo and finale find the young man still capable of pedestrian themes and flaccid repetition. Happily the orchestra treated every page as if it were top shelf; frankly one cannot recall the consistency of blend and balance with and within all the instrumental sections any better than was heard on this occasion. And let us not forget one salient point: this auditor at least would rather hear this work (I’m not sure I’d ever heard it live before), than yet another reading of something like Schubert’s more often programmed symphonies. It also reminds us that we are less than a week away from the UW-Madison School of Music’s third annual “Schubertiade,” a chance to explore an abundance of great chamber and piano pieces and songs.

Bottom line: Sewell and the WCO will be back in less than four weeks for the next installment of their Masterworks series, with Bach, Nielsen, Respighi and Haydn on tap. I remain a bit perplexed that this group draws 20,000+ to the Square several times a summer (ok, I get the part about free music, warm weather and metropolitan camaraderie), but if only 5% of a Concerts on the Square audience bought tickets for the indoor season, the Capitol Theater would be full. Just sayin’…

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One thought on “A Warm January Night from Sewell and WCO

  1. Excellent point regarding venue. I’ve only attended one of the Concerts on the Square programs and the leadoffs were some rock group from Montreal which didn’t interest me so I left before the Chamber Orchestra started. I’ve yet to attend any of their indoor concerts but Poulenc and Shostakovitch are 2 of my favorites. We did the former’s Two Piano Concerto & recorded the latter’s Symphony No. 5 when I was in college in Eau Claire. Keep up the good work.

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