This Friday in Overture Center's Capitol Theater, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra will showcase works by two of classical music's edgiest composers: Mozart's sublime Piano Concerto No. 24 in C Minor, K. 491, and Anton Bruckner's controversial Symphony in D Minor (Nullte). Both works unveiled new sounds, forms and expressions when they were introduced.
"Mozart was always trying out different things, always pushing the boundaries," says WCO conductor Andrew Sewell. "By the time he wrote the concerto, he was at a very high level of composition and working at phenomenal speed. He was composing The Marriage of Figaro at the same time, so he had that going around in his head as well."
In K. 491, Mozart goes beyond the concerto boundaries of his day. He calls for an unusually large orchestra, puts the orchestra on equal footing with the piano, and uses the mercurial key of C minor, which even the stormy Beethoven used sparingly. Its three movements are unusually personal, as if he were writing a musical diary.
"The concerto is beautifully conceived," Sewell says. "It's good for the soul and gets you back to the basics."
Israeli-born pianist Shai Wosner will perform K. 491 in the place of previously scheduled guest soloist Anne-Marie McDermott. Virtuosic and intellectual, the 36-year-old artist has focused on Schubert at recent appearances, but his devotion to Mozart is well documented. In 2010, the Chicago Tribune called his rendition of the composer's D minor piano concerto "vivid," "perceptive" and "elegant." Wosner last performed with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra in 2010, when he performed Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto.
About 80 years after Mozart completed K. 491, Bruckner moved to Vienna and tried to get his D minor symphony performed for the first time. But after reading through the score, conductor Felix Otto Dessoff said he couldn't find the main theme. Bruckner was offended and put the symphony away. Thinking it unworthy, he didn't assign it a number, so it was referred to as "die nullte" (number naught) or "number 0."
But Sewell praises it: "I listened to the Bruckner symphonies and decided that I wanted to do number 0. It's beautiful and moves in shades of colors shaped by subtleties in the harmonies. It grows on you."
Since its premiere in 1924, this work has come under fire for its unusual, organ-like orchestration, lack of conventional symphonic form, and unorthodox use of dissonance. Sewell, however, sees a learning opportunity.
"It's an early work that falls between Bruckner's first and second symphonies, and we can hear his gestation as a symphonist," he says. "The first movement begins with a march. The second movement treats the orchestra like a chamber orchestra and sounds like Mahler. The third movement is strong, and the fourth uses a typical Beethoven formula as well as fugue and counterpoint."
I like the element of surprise in Nullte. Just when you think you know where Bruckner is going, he transports you to a new galaxy of musical possibilities.