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Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and soprano Susanna Phillips enchant with Mozart arias to conclude the 2012-13 season
Phillips has a clear and lovely voice of great projection power.
Phillips has a clear and lovely voice of great projection power.

The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra closed its 2012-13 season with a splendid finale in Overture Center's Capitol Theater last night. The guest soloist was rising British soprano Susanna Phillips.

A handsome woman, Phillips is endowed with a clear and lovely voice of great projection power. It's a voice that can slip into stridency, but for the very careful control she can exert. Words are often lost in the soprano range, and her diction was not always calculated to counter that risk. (Translations of her sung texts were circulated, but in the darkness, they were extremely difficult to use during the performance.) I found that her practice of sharing comments before each selection was just too much effort to cozy up to the audience and added no information or insights.

Her appearances came on either side of the intermission. First, she sang five of the many "Songs of the Auvergne," folk ditties from a rustic region of France, gathered and given colorful orchestral settings by a native, Joseph Canteloube, in the 1920s and '30s. She obviously loves these pieces and sang them with great relish.

Then, in music of more substance for the audience and more challenge for her talents, she sang two Mozart selections. First was one of Donna Anna's arias in the opera Don Giovanni, and the other was a concert aria, written to order for singer and friend Josefa Duek, "Bella mia fiamma"/"Resta, oh cara." In these, Phillips' artistry was more properly confirmed.

As so often is the case in concerts, however, the important stuff happens when the guest soloist is off the stage. Conductor Andrew Sewell put himself and his players through a dazzling display of what they can do, specifically in a clever diptych of symphonies that framed the program.

Most listeners know the Haydn of the 12 so-called "London" Symphonies, his final legacy in the form. But a preceding group of six, known as the "Paris" Symphonies, are worthy of devotion. Sewell chose No. 83 in G minor, popularly known as "The Hen" for the clucking sound of the second theme in the first movement. (In the printed program, this work was assigned to Mozart, in a rather generous mistake.) Sewell has always shown a particular affinity and affection for Haydn's symphonies, and he demonstrated this once more in a wonderfully alert and spirited rendition. It brought out fully the composer's inventive style of writing, his witty exploitation of instrumental colors, and his clever manipulation of wide contrasts in volume level. The slow movement in particular was given a loving treatment that was deeply moving.

Against this, Sewell concluded with Beethoven's Second Symphony. This is Beethoven's most exuberant symphony, and Sewell brought out the composer's debts to Haydn as well as his advances beyond Haydn's symphonic idiom. New wine in old bottles, if you will: the young, exploding genius filling the form and stretching past it with exciting new ideas and possibilities. The inspirational highlight was the larghetto slow movement, in which the most sensual melody Beethoven ever wrote was spun out luxuriantly. Sewell physically threw himself into this work, especially its final movement, with a veritable choreography of body involvement, as if physically extracting the music from his players.

Sewell has been steadily reclaiming the music of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven from its long "big-orchestra" captivity, with its smothering of expanded strings. Once that overwhelming quality, so often taken for granted, has been removed, we are allowed to hear the wind writing in more proper balance -- and what wonderful writing it can be. (Sewell has also reined in, though by no means eliminated, string vibrato so the total sound has more clarity.)

Both symphonies were given vital, exciting performances, providing further evidence of Andrew Sewell's real stature as a conductor.

What a bang-up way to end the season!

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