Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra Season Opens with Balancing Act

Maestro Sewell does his usual thing; Ilya Kaler does some extraordinary things

The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra returned to their beautiful “winter” home last Friday night at the Capitol Theater, and for a couple of hours everything seemed right with the world. Music director Andrew Sewell did his usual spot-on job of programming, sandwiching Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto between “properly” sized symphonies of Boyce and Schubert.

The quote marks are used, because Sewell continues to program rather un-chamber sized works such as the Tchaikovsky—and he always manages to illuminate the “big” works in telling ways. But on this occasion he had considerable help from a Russian virtuoso who combined old school technical dazzle with a genuine desire to collaborate.

Ilya Kaler (pictured above, courtesy WCO) is the only violinist to have won gold medals in three competitions (the Paganini, Sibelius and Tchaikovsky in 1981, ’85 and ’86 respectively), so of course there was never going to be any question as to whether he would wow us in this work. But the difference was that Kaler let the “wow” moments unfold naturally—but took every opportunity to explore subtleties of phrasing and dynamics that simply don’t happen when this warhorse is performed with an orchestra (and in hall) at least twice as large.

In Sewell and the WCO, Kaler found the perfect partners, and there were moments in all three movements that were a revelation. With just 34 players, Kaler could match the orchestra in softer dynamics, and the reduced scale allowed Sewell to navigate nuanced exchanges that simply don’t even get tried in the usual reading of this piece, no matter how spectacular the results. It was fascinating: When Sewell has programmed something even “bigger,” such as Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto, we always appreciate the transparency that comes from the WCO reading, but on this occasion we reaped that benefit in addition to a series of expressive moments that we never suspected in this classic.

It didn’t hurt that the WCO sounded as polished as ever (again, a plea to those who have only heard them at “Concerts on the Square”—you really don’t know the beauties you are missing by hearing the group in this jewel of a hall). Particularly appealing were the woodwinds, which displayed a rich boldness in the opening of the slow movement. Principal clarinetist Nancy Mackenzie is still spinning her luscious sounds, but now she is joined by new players Laura Medisky at principal oboe, Christina Feigel on bassoon, and a new assistant principal clarinetist, Bernie Parish. Add returning principal flutist Elizabeth Marshall in the mix, and the result was as expressively blended as can be imagined.

As for Kaler, he did what many artists of true understanding do when it comes to encore time; one could hardly top the flashiness of the scintillating moments of the concerto, so his encore was an unadorned gavotte from one of J.S. Bach’s unaccompanied violin sonatas. Sometimes less is more, particularly when the component is so complimentary to what has gone before.

Sewell and company opened the evening with the Handel-inspired Symphony No. 5 of William Boyce, tidy and festive and the perfect appetizer. Post-intermission we were graced with one of the less-often heard Schubert symphonies, the so-called “Tragic,” No. 4. The WCO has adopted a new and earlier starting time of 7:30, and it appeared everyone got the memo; the hall was well-filled on time. If only we didn’t have to wait until 2017 for the next of the group’s Masterworks series (but of course they’ll help fill our holiday season with Messiah, Nutcracker and a Holiday Pops event).

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