Plenty of Bang for the Buck…and More

Sewell and WCO end the indoor season with a triple helping of Beethoven

Rarely have I been more torn about which event to attend than last Friday night—and they both took place in the same building! While the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra was concluding its Masterworks Series in the Capitol Theater, organist Greg Zelek was giving a solo recital in Overture Hall. Zelek is finishing his first year as curator of the mighty instrument and its many uses, and I have yet to fully experience the young phenom’s artistry.

But Andrew Sewell had lined up an all-Beethoven program, and two things tipped the scales of decision: the soloist in the Piano Concerto No. 3 would be John O’Conor (pictured above, courtesy of WCO). He wowed us a couple of seasons ago with a John Field concerto, and I already knew I would miss his solo recital on Saturday night at Farley Pianos Salon Piano Series. The second reason was that the concluding work was the mighty and ubiquitous Symphony No. 5, and I was terribly curious as to how it would come across via Sewell’s sleek ensemble.

The opener also promised to be a treat, the Overture to King Stephen, Op. 117. The opus number is misleading, as the work was composed in 1811 but published more than a decade later. I’ve always found the piece to be one of the quirkiest and downright humorous works Beethoven penned, although there’s no real programmatic reason to expect to smile. Nevertheless, Sewell navigated his sprightly band through a bubbly and energetic reading.

The Piano Concerto No. 3 delivered all we hoped for: O’Conor’s masterful touch and classic sensibility, married to just the right touch of burgeoning romanticism in the composition (it shares the key of C Minor with the Fifth Symphony, a tonal choice always significant in Beethoven). The slow movement is one of the most ravishing Beethoven ever conceived, and we did get a tradeoff often experienced when we hear Sewell’s smaller ensemble compared to the way it is usually heard  via a large symphony orchestra. More than once there is a sequence in the Largo where the lower strings have a descending sequence slowly unfolding against the rest of the orchestra, a passage that never fails to evince a sigh from yours truly. When heard with a full complement of cellos and basses, it is irresistible, and the power of a full string section cannot be matched by the five lower strings heard Friday night. Now to be fair, this is not one of Sewell’s questionable programming choices, usurping a work that clearly was composed for a big group—and again, there is the other side of the coin: We get many moments of  experiencing inner details usually buried in a symphony orchestra.

For his part, O’Conor matched the magic of the lyricism, and certainly brought a crisp energy for the finale. For his encore (in response to a quick and sustained standing ovation), he treated us to an unfussy, let-the-music-speak-for-itself reading of the slow movement of Beethoven’s “Pathetique” Sonata. If you have yet to experience O’Conor’s superb pianism, I urge you to seek him out on CD or online.

Now when it comes to Beethoven’s warhorse Symphony No. 5, it is almost impossible to shake the expectation of roof-rattling power as delivered by most large orchestras. This is particularly true when one’s recording of choice for over 40 years has been the still—thrilling reading by Carlos Kleiber with the Vienna Philharmonic. Of course, the solution is simple: Don’t bring those expectations!

In that famous opening movement with its so-called “fate” motif, Sewell was clean and clear in his handling of those first utterances, with their unevenly held long notes. It seemed, at least at the first appearance of the second theme, that the tempo increased noticeably; otherwise the Allegro con brio was a very satisfying beginning.

And then things got better. The Andante con moto did indeed unfold “with motion,” with climaxes perhaps even more powerful than we had heard in the first movement. The ghostly scherzo was quick, but not breathless, and the famous passage for the cellos and basses (for the latter the finger-buster is a standard audition passage) was all the neater for being performed with fewer players. The transition to the finale was well-gauged, and said finale emerged in all its blazing glory.

Now we count the days to Concerts on the Square…and look forward to the next Masterworks Series beginning in January 2019. It consists of five concerts perhaps more attuned to a practical approach to matching repertoire to the reduced ensemble—but with no lack of creativity from maestro Sewell. But that’s a topic for later…

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