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Saturday, January 31, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 24.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
The Daily
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Violinist Karina Canellakis and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra bring Michael McLean's wonderful Elements out of the shadows
Karina Canellakis scintillated in Elements.

The new Masterworks concert by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra at Overture Center's Capitol Theater offered two familiar works and one novel surprise.

Let's fork our way from the end forward. It was a joy to see conductor Andrew Sewell's attention to one of Haydn's great "London" Symphonies, and as the proud climax to a program rather than as a superficially treated curtain-raiser. With his great sympathy for Haydn's style, Sewell could again address music we take for granted and make it fresh all over again.

The famous "Clock" Symphony, No. 101, was given vitality and insightful nuance in Sewell's artful attention to phrasing and instrumental fine points. In the too-familiar second movement, with the constriction of its "ticking clock" rhythms, Sewell achieved clever inflections within a cunningly stiff overall pacing, to create an individual character piece of unusual vividness. He wisely took the first-movement repeat. And the spatial opposition of first and second violins -- one section on the left side of the stage and the other on the right -- again served particularly well.

All too familiar, too, is Mendelssohn's E-minor Violin Concerto. For this the soloist was the young American violinist and conductor Karina Canellakis. With technique to burn, she offered a somewhat lean, even nasal tone, lacking some of the rich warmth we have come to expect in a work of this vintage. Though her spirit was contagious, she delivered a performance that seemed to me not yet fully integrated or digested. In the first movement, she tended to rush non-lyrical passages, and her cadenza was mannered. With somewhat sweeter tone, she turned the second movement into a wonderful arch of melody that was genuinely eloquent. But she was back to rushing again in the finale, as if to show off her virtuosic command.

I hope Canellakis' approach to this work will mature with experience. I also hope she will wean herself from the Joshua Bell-style downward stooping (at least without his upward swooping) in which she constantly indulges as she plays. The Mendelssohn performance was, however, only the latter part of what was more than an hour of her uninterrupted solo playing. For she appeared first in another concerto, the revelation of the program.

Composer Michael McLean's Elements is a four-movement quasi-concerto for violin and string orchestra. Its movements evoke, in succession, earth, fire, air and water. And it is, no doubt about it, a virtuosic workout for the soloist. Canellakis seemed to relish the challenges and met them with wonderful aplomb (and without the handicap of music the audience already knows).

Though the elemental evocations are quite evident, one could almost forget about them in view of the quite knowing musical construction of the work. It is, in fact, cast in approximations of the traditional four movements of the classic symphony. "Earth” is a very serious piece of counterpoint, interweaving the solo line with a rich web of polyphony. "Fire" is clearly a scherzo, if a kind of speedy and melodious waltz. "Air" is a sensuous and songful slow movement. An inexplicably inserted rumba is at the center of a kind of dance-rondo-finale, "Water," but it works amazingly well.

Where has this McLean work been? It is one more of those pieces the insatiable Sewell is able to pull out of the shadows. It is not just a throwaway novelty but a score of substance that deserves to circulate. Also, it is ideal for a small orchestra, presumably of expert string players and with a terrific soloist.

By the way, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra strings did themselves proud in their role, and all hands were admirable as the winds joined in for the rest of the concert. It was not a perfect program, to my tastes, but it was a very stimulating and ear-opening one.

[Editor's note: This review has been corrected to attribute Elements to the Michael McLean who teaches at the Colburn School in L.A.]

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