Closing the Season with a World Premiere

Sewell, WCO and soloists end indoor season with Cabaniss’s Double Rainbow

 

We are happily accustomed to the stimulating programming of Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra music director Andrew Sewell, but the occasion of a world premiere is always an added treat. In the case of Friday night’s final Masterworks concert in the Capitol Theater, the new work came from a composer entirely new to yours truly.

Thomas Cabaniss has his roots in South Carolina, but has been active in the New York City area for some time now. While composing extensively in numerous genres, his work at and for the Juilliard School, the New York Philharmonic and Carnegie Hall is highly impressive.

Double Rainbow is a concerto for two pianos and chamber orchestra, and upon first hearing, the composition probably would not benefit from being expanded to a larger symphony orchestra. It is cast in three movements, and in the program note Cabaniss tells us that the inspiration came from an incident his family experienced some twenty years ago in Hawaii: following a lightning-less thunderstorm, a double rainbow appeared, and when the composer’s sister was ready to snap a photo, a dolphin leaped completely out of the water. The sight left the family speechless, and Cabaniss says it is this search for a “perfect moment” that drives the work.

The soloists (or at least one of them) was more familiar to many in the audience; Jessica Chow is a Madison Memorial HS alumna. Now she is Jessica Chow Shinn, and along with her spouse, Michael Shinn, founded the pianoSonoma festival and is on the faculty at Juilliard (pictured above, courtesy of pianoSonoma). They both have the “usual” list of professional accomplishments and then some: Jessica is a published chemistry presenter, and Michael is an Ironman triathlete and marathon runner.

Well, the chemistry part came in handy, but there was no need for marathon-like stamina Friday night. Cabaniss’s Double Rainbow is succinct (almost to a fault in the finale). The first two movements find the orchestra mostly in a subsidiary role, while the two pianists dominate, dialogue-style. The opening “Surfaces” finds a simple conversation from the pianists quickly growing into bright, ringing, open sounds from pianos and orchestra. One notable trait of the entire work was the palette of percussion; in addition to a timpani player, one other player is kept busy with many other pitched and non-pitched percussion instruments.

“Disturbances” opens with an uneasy sonic foundation of low brass and strings, over which a wistful clarinet solo hovers. Later there were some wonderful rhythmic effects, before a quieter sequence returned. It was at this point that I began to notice (and wish) that Cabaniss had done more with some contrast or “fighting” between the piano parts. In a way it seemed as though the piece was conceived for a single player, and the second piano (and pianist) were there of necessity.

The brief closing movement is “Revelation (of the Double Rainbow).” Arpeggios and trills in the pianos set an arresting shimmering opening, and solo trumpet plays a line that seems to emerge and shine like…well, a rainbow. The material that follows is often striking, but left relatively undeveloped. There is an early climax, and then a swift unwinding to a quiet close. In short, I wanted more. At a first hearing, Cabaniss’s style is pleasant and inviting, rarely dissonant for any length of time, and he has a fine ear for instrumental color. I’ll search out some more of his music, and soon.

As it turned out, we all had one more brief sample. Jessica joined Michael at one piano, and they played “Love Song,” from Cabaniss’s suite for piano, four-hands, “Tiny Bits of Outrageous Love,” which the couple premiered. Yes, it was a tiny (exquisite) bit of writing, so I’m glad to know there are six more little bits to savor.

The evening began with a lovingly nuanced reading of Ravel’s “Le Tombeau de Couperin.” Programmed in part since it was written 100 hundred years ago, and there have been numerous markings of that centennial anniversary of America’s entry into World War I—and Ravel dedicated each movement to a fallen comrade(s) in that war. Despite the grim circumstances surrounding the work’s creation, it is of course one of the most refreshing and tender suites (by the way, if you’re not familiar with the original six-movement suite for solo piano, track it down). Not surprisingly, Sewell had no apparent difficulty in highlighting his ensemble’s special sensitivities. The woodwinds have plenty to contribute, and principal oboist Laura Mediska led the way with wonderful blend and phrasing.

The second half was devoted to the Symphony No. 2 of Schumann. One unexpected oddity emerged from the performance. Sewell of course has not hesitated to program works that few would say are too large for chamber orchestras, including Beethoven’s famous Symphony No. 9 and two symphonies of Bruckner. While there have been a few more strings added for those works, the collected forces remained far fewer than one would encounter from a full symphony orchestra. But on those occasions, I found Sewell’s experiments successful at least to the point that they were worth a go (and then some, particularly in the case of the Bruckner). But Friday night was the first time I heard the WCO tackle one of these “bigger” works and found myself wishing for more string players. I quickly realized the critical difference lay in Schumann’s writing; he is famous (as was Brahms) for generally thick, darker sounds. No matter how carefully Sewell and his players worked to balance the forces, there were moments particularly in the outer movements, where the strings could not balance the winds. Of course, from the perspective of beauty of sound, everyone was still hitting bulls’ eyes.

The third movement, Adagio espressivo, took my breath away decades ago when I first heard it, and principal clarinetist Nancy Mackenzie’s solos (and the string sections’ replies) were all one could hope for.

And that closes the Masterworks season…and in a scheduling experiment, the WCO will not return for a Masterworks concert until January 2018. Yes, there will still be five programs, one per month beginning then. For the fall we will have to be content with Messiah and the Nutcracker. You’ll have to excuse me now…I need to start on my shopping list to fill my picnic basket for Concerts on the Square. Hope to see you there!

 

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