The 2013-14 season opener by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra at Overture Center's Capitol Theater on Friday, Oct. 11 was another demonstration of what conductor Andrew Sewell has made of his group, and of what concerts he can work up with it.
There were two novelties for the first half of the program. First was a youthful piece by Benjamin Britten, one of this year's centennial birthday boys. His brief fantasy (really, a kind of concertino) for solo piano, string quartet and string orchestra, The Young Apollo, was composed in 1939 on commission from the Canadian Broadcasting Company, during a stay in the U.S. Whatever its mythological evocations, it is simply an essay in piano-versus-string sonorities, built out of motives and chordal sonorities rather than notable thematic material. It's a typical example, even this early in Britten's career, of his characteristic cleverness rather than inspiration. But it was played to a fare-thee-well.
The evenings's featured soloist was pianist Bryan Wallick, another of those enterprising guests who spares us the usual warhorses and brings us something fresh and unfamiliar. Camille Saint-Saëns is still too readily dismissed for his facile productivity, even though his works prove full of delightful surprises. Of his five piano concertos, we are likely to hear only the Second or the Fourth with any frequency, but this is unfair to the Fifth. It is known as the "Egyptian," in view of the place the composer was visiting when he wrote it in 1896, in celebrating his 50th anniversary as a concert pianist.
Whether or not one can identify authentic "Egyptian" material in the piece, it is a jewel box of surprises. Amid all the showy virtuosity, great tunes suddenly pop out of nowhere, and the composer's delight is not so much to develop his material as to play with it, have fun with it. This work really ought to be heard more often. Wallick pulled off the virtuoso fireworks with ease, but also with a sense of Gallic elegance. As an encore, he presented Franz Liszt's paraphrase on the Quartet from Verdi's Rigoletto, plainly as a vehicle to remind us of his capacities for showy brilliance.
The program's second part brought us Sewell's latest foray into the symphonies of Beethoven, with the mighty Fifth. One might wonder about his wisdom in taking his ensemble into repertoire now firmly identified with big orchestras. Yet it must be remembered that his forces really do approximate the size and scale (though not the dismal inadequacies) of the orchestras with which the composer had to work in his day. In point of fact, it is not that the music has morphed naturally into big-orchestra sound; it is rather our latter-day tastes and expectations that have led us to accept as mandatory such sound (louder volume, and more string players with more vibrato).
I must say that Sewell succeeded. His "gang of 40" sounded fully up to the challenge he gave them. I can't recall hearing the string band play with such tight and focused discipline, against the battery of winds. Indeed, the very few, very tiny playing fluffs I heard came from the winds themselves.
Sewell's secret was all-out commitment. There were subtleties here and there in dynamic nuances and phrasings, but he simply plowed forward with a propulsive intensity that was galvanizing for the group. The "smaller" size of his forces brought a clarity of texture that only furthered his high-energy achievement. Case proven!
I must, however, make two small comments about the printed program. It surely should have listed Beth Wilson for her inspired work as piano soloist in the Britten. And I wonder why the program seemed to ignore the presence of a fourth movement in the Beethoven. Just because the Scherzo third is reprised doesn't mean that the spectacular conclusion was not a movement in its own right.