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Sunday, December 21, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 35.0° F  Overcast
The Daily
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Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra dazzles in a concert featuring Bruckner's Second Symphony and Croatian guitarist Ana Vidovic
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Ana Vidovic's skill is undeniable.

The sold-out Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra concert at Overture Center's Capitol Theater on Friday represents a study in contrasts.

The overture Mozart lavished on the trivial farce The Impresario is a guaranteed delight as a curtain-raiser. Conductor Andrew Sewell was able to inject some unusual and clever nuances of his own into its brief span. As the inevitable soloist we were given Ana Vidovic, a Croatian-born guitarist. A quite lovely woman, she is clearly a very talented and skilled musician. Given the vehicles she might have selected, she was responsible in choosing a respectable one, the Guitar Concerto No. 1 Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco composed for the great player Andres Segovia. It is a simple (not simplistic) and tuneful score that backs the soloist with a modest chamber orchestra.

I can recall hearing Segovia himself play this work years ago. He did not need amplification, which is the current misguided fashion. The composer built in discreet balances and clear spaces for the instrument to be heard, not requiring any miking for a good player. At the Capitol Theater, the booming, over-resonant, hyped-up sound of the amplified guitar seemed out of place against the natural sounds of the WCO. Even in the inaudibly identified encore -- shucks, she could have shouted it into her microphones! -- her solo sound was puffed up electronically. Her playing is really beautiful, and she should not have to cheapen it with such misplaced "enhancement."

All that amiable pleasantry over with, the concert moved into the real substance after the intermission: Anton Bruckner's Symphony No. 2. As he did last season with Bruckner's early Symphony in D minor ("No. 0"), Sewell showed his enterprise in breaking through the scandalous neglect, over many decades, of this composer's magnificent music in Madison.

Even in the Second Symphony, Bruckner was already finding his voice, one of powerful architectural design and rhetorical reasoning, the culmination of Austrian symphonic writing that began with Beethoven and went on through Schubert, Bruckner's logical antecedent. Nowadays, Bruckner's symphonies are played by large orchestras, but a case can be made that, early in his career, the composer was also accustomed to working with smaller ensembles. Using only 20 string players, the WCO did sound a bit lacking in strength. But it is revealing to hear the wind parts more clearly. Above all, the members of all sections outdid themselves with powerhouse playing, showing commitment, strength and sonority.

Sewell, a master of Austrian Classical symphonic writing, had the full measure of Bruckner's style. He threw body as well as soul into the Second Symphony, illuminating each of the four movements with careful shaping of structures and eloquent conveyance of musical arguments. There is a passage in the slow movement so beautiful that it always lifts me out of my chair, and Sewell brought off that particular elevation. But if anything struck me in particular, it was his superbly supple drawing out of the scherzo's "trio" middle section.

One thing I noticed from the start of the program was the separation of the second violins on the right side of the stage, with the firsts on the left. This is the first time I can recall seeing Sewell do this, and he clearly relished bringing out the seconds' distinct role at key points, particularly in the Bruckner. I think this placement is the preferable one, and I hope this venture bodes well for subsequent WCO practice.

In sum, with the Bruckner, this was an absolutely magnificent evening of music making, one that showed the WCO at its absolute peak. Notably, it was this performance, not the guitar concerto, that won a standing ovation from the audience.

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