Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra Stronger Than Ever

Sewell’s group tackles the usual varied program


Between the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra changing their five-concert Masterworks series to a January-May schedule, and my own conflicts earlier this year, attending Friday night’s concert at the Capitol Theater meant that I had not heard Andrew Sewell and his wonderful chamber orchestra for nearly a year. The overall impression was of a sound bigger and richer than I expected. Then again, I had much the same impression last Sunday with the Madison Symphony’s performance of Elgar—and I had not heard them since December 1. Easily a dozen players or so play in both groups, and one theory began to emerge: much of the personnel of each orchestra have been together now for a substantial number of years (particularly in the principal positions). Perhaps it’s just a matter of long-term growth.

One couldn’t have been distracted too long by half-baked theories Friday night, as the playing was arresting from the start. The concert opened with something of a reversal; Sewell is well known for adventurous moves such as performing massive Bruckner symphonies with an orchestra roughly half the size the works are usually played by. In this case, he took the Orchestral Suite No. 4 of J.S. Bach, and played it on the modern instruments. He is no pioneer in this; after all, Leopold Stokowski was notorious for his souped-up symphonic forays into Baroque material. And I for one still tend to favor the modern sound. Sewell didn’t skimp on the personnel either, with three trumpets and three oboes, and even included the harpsichord, which was heard to good effect from John Chappell Stowe.

The major draw of repertoire curiosity lay, however, in the solo vehicle, the Piano Concerto No. 2 of Edward MacDowell. The composer worked on the cusp of late 19th– early 20th-century composers struggling to assimilate, and eventually break free of, European 19th-century Romanticism. Derivative at times though the work might be (and it was composed when MacDowell was only 24), it is a compelling piece that deserves MUCH more attention than it has had to date.

The soloist as well was a welcome revelation, Alexandre Dossin (pictured above, courtesy WCO). Brazilian by birth, he spent most of his twenties in Russia. Now he is both an American citizen and professor at the University of Oregon. The work is fresh, with a mostly slow opening movement, delivered with rich and deep sounds from the WCO strings. Dossin answered in kind, and cadenza brought Grieg to mind. The second movement brimmed with spryness and sparkle. The finale, again opening with an extended slow introduction (really, we couldn’t get enough of the woodwind playing this night, led frequently by clarinetist Nancy Mackenzie), and then swept up the audience to the point where three curtain calls were required. Dossin gave us the favor of not only announcing his encore clearly (“October” from The Seasons by Tchaikovsky), but also selected a delicate and winsome work that contrasted wonderfully with the preceding bravura.

The second half of the night was given over to the Symphony No. 3 of Schumann, the “Rhenish.” Again, all sections delivered superior sound, blend and intonation, but particular mention must be given to principal horn player Linda Kimball. The instrument has been infamous down through the centuries for how treacherously a note can “crack,” but Kimball delivered solos that could not have sounded more free and confident. But many special moments could have still been marred if not for the equally persuasive playing of her colleagues, Mike Szczys, Bill Muir and Ingrid Mullane.

Sewell and his troops have two dates remaining, April 20 and May 11. I for one will check my schedule a little more closely…

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