Belated but joyful was the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra's first full Masterworks concert of the season on Saturday, January 24. Transcending ongoing contract negotiations, the strike that scotched the first concert last October has been suspended so that the scheduled concerts remaining can be given. Appropriately, high spirits were evident, expressed in a program in which two avian delights framed an exciting local solo debut.
Guest cellist Amit Peled is an Israeli-American giant in many ways. His 6'5" frame requires him to use an extra-long endpeg and to bow almost diagonally. But from his instrument he draws strong sonorities and compelling tone. His remarkable dynamic range and refined nuances, sometimes seem carried a little to extremes, but are nevertheless astounding to hear. A natural showman, Peled funneled his exuberance into a bracing performance of Haydn's virtuosic "Cello Concerto No. 1 in C". For an encore, he displayed a mystical, soulful gentleness in a piece by Ernst Bloch.
Beginning the program was the "Cantus Arcticus: Concerto Birds and Orchestra" by the dean of current Finnish composers, Einojuhani Rautavaara. There are precedents for using recordings of wild life in concert music -- birds in Respighi's "Pines of Rome" and leviathans in Hovhaness's "And God Created Great Whales", among others. In his turn, Rautavaara went whole-hog, embedding the sounds of Arctic birds on tape continuously into his score's three movements. Intriguing, but, pace naturalists: did we really need the birds at all? Simple, direct, and very lovely, Rautavaara's music could stand on its own, without the imposed sound effects, I thought. Still, praise to maestro Andrew Sewell for giving us this novel experience.
Ending things was Ottorino Respighi's "Gli uccelli", or "The Birds". Though most famous for his "Roman triptych" of orchestral blockbusters, reflecting his study with Rimsky-Korsakoff, Respighi also had an antiquarian side to him and loved to draw upon music of earlier centuries in his "lighter" works. Among several scores in which he adapted instrumental pieces of the seventeenth and eighteenth century into charming suites for chamber orchestra, "The Birds" is particularly charming and witty, with special opportunities to shine given to the wind players (and celesta, and solo violin). Such opportunities were met with precision and tonal brilliance by the WCO players, guided by Sewell's delectably inflected leadership.
As its own encore, the orchestra revelled in the first movement of "Haydn's Toy Symphony", actually composed by Leopold Mozart.
Oh WCO, it's so good to have you back!