New Year—But “Old” Tricks from Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra

Sewell, Vidovic, WCO instruct and delight all night long

If Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra music director Andrew Sewell adopted any New Year’s resolutions, it had to be simply “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” The ensemble’s first program of 2017, last Friday night at the Capitol Theater, gave ample evidence that both Sewell’s programming, and the orchestra’s execution continue to attain heights that do our metropolis proud.

January 27 marking the occasion of Mozart’s 261st birthday, it was only fitting that the night open with a work of his; true to form, Sewell made a less than obvious choice: Symphony No. 30, K. 202. Despite the relatively high number of the piece, it is among the last of genius’s youthful symphonies, being tossed off when he was all of eighteen years old. It is full of high spirits and subtle musical humor, but again reveals a sense of perfection and command of craftsmanship that always permeate Mozart’s output. Major highlights included the second movement Andantino, where the strings alone carried the argument, the WCO players producing a warmth and sheen that can only be appreciated in a venue such as this (yes, that’s another not-so-subtle hint to readers who have only heard this group at Concerts on the Square; get yourselves indoors and hear the group at its very best!).

The central Trio section of the ensuing Menuetto featured a string quartet within the orchestra, but the balance and blend of the trumpets and other winds in the outer sections of the movement were equally impressive.

Certainly the draw for many in the almost-full house was the return of guitarist Ana Vidovic (pictured above, courtesy of WCO), last heard here in 2014. The vehicle for illustrating her mastery of the instrument was nothing less than the most often performed, and therefore most likely popular guitar concerto of them all, the Concierto de Aranjuez of Joaquin Rodrigo. As is standard in these settings, Vidovic performed with a microphone just in front of her; the balances were fine, and it allowed the orchestra freedom to fully indulge in the big moments of the work. At times it seemed they attacked the piquant dissonances Rodrigo was so fond of as if one were throwing buckets of paint against  a wall.

The famous slow movement not only received a reading of focused passion and purity of line, but we were all given the gift of an audience that collectively was as quiet as I can recall in some time. It remained only for the perky exchanges of the finale to complete a fully satisfying reading. Then Ms. Vidovic gave us the added treat of her quiet artistry unadorned, in a playing of the “Cavatina” by Stanley Myers (probably best known for its use in the film The Deerhunter).

The second half marked Sewell’s ongoing fascination with taking the late, LARGE symphonies of Anton Bruckner and experimenting with an orchestra no larger than half what is usually considered standard for these works. A few years ago Sewell first tried this with the so-called Symphony No. 0, an early work by the Austrian. Then the argument could be made that the work itself is rarely heard, and so comparisons to performances by large orchestras were hard, if not impossible, to come by. But this Third Symphony…this is playing with fire, as the piece is among the most performed of Bruckner’s nine completed symphonies.

I’ll admit I was skeptical as soon as the stage revealed that there would still be only twenty string players for Bruckner, just as there had been for Rodrigo (typically 55-60 would be used). This hardy regiment was matched against twenty more players, including eleven brasses and timpani. But Sewell had an ace in the hole: He was using the original 1874 edition of the piece; one is far more likely to hear the 1877 revision—one that I once owned on a George Szell/Cleveland Orechestra vinyl LP that I virtually played to death.

In no time (which is saying something, as the four movements total nearly an hour) it was clear that the major themes remained, but many details were different. More importantly, one rarely felt a lack of string section power, and as happened a few years ago, the details that emerge by hearing inner lines no longer buried under the sheer weight of a large orchestra emerged with sometimes startling clarity.

There were times when it was just flat-out fun to see the brass players arrayed in a line across the back of the stage (five horns, three trumpets, two trombones and one bass trombone), and it was particularly impressive to hear their collective power show no signs of flagging in the finale. That was the movement, by the way, that had the greatest differences in material and treatment compared to the revised version. In short (which is never the case with Bruckner!), it was a wonderful lesson in programming and execution. It should also be mentioned that there were more substitute players, particularly in the wind section, than usual, thanks to the Phantom of the Opera being in town. Credit all the players, and maestro Sewell with another winning night.

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