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Friday, October 24, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 50.0° F  Fog/Mist
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Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra ends its 2013-14 season with a display of pianist Stewart Goodyear's improvisational prowess
Goodyear displayed his virtuosity by blazing through the final pages of Beethoven's 'Appassionata' Sonata as an encore.

The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra concluded its 2013-14 season with some novel combinations at Overture Hall's Capitol Theater on Friday.

There was, of course, the inevitable guest soloist, this time the young Canadian pianist Stewart Goodyear. He is a powerhouse, no doubt about it, and he showed off this fact in three ways -- most notably in a concerto of his own.

In days of yore, it was common for great soloists to bring along their own compositions as their showpieces. That is rare today. Goodyear composed his piece in 2010 for use in a Door County festival, and then revised it recently. It seems to be influenced by Gershwin and Ravel, and above all, jazz and Caribbean flavors derived from the Jamaican background of his family.

Of its three movements, I found the middle one most evocative and original. His command of orchestral writing is surprisingly fluent, and the orchestra, in fact, supplies most of the thematic material, against which the solo almost continually chatters. It is a highly personal work, one other pianists are not likely to pick up and make their own, but it makes for a spicy and sassy entertainment.

After that, Goodyear displayed his virtuosity by blazing through the final pages of Beethoven's "Appassionata" Sonata as an encore. But, before all of that, Goodyear made his first appearance in a work of real novelty, rarely heard in concert because of its very unconventional requirements for the performers. This is Beethoven's Choral Fantasy, which was designed to climax a very crowded concert the composer organized in Vienna in 1808. In begins with a piano improvisation, leads to orchestral variations, and concludes with a choral finale. Goodyear showed sympathy for the improvisational skill he and Beethoven share.

The choral forces were drawn from three separate organizations, the WCO's own chorus, the Festival Choir of Madison and the UW's Madrigal Singers. Passages for soloists were sung by a semi-chorus, and the entire group gave real heft to the choral dimensions of the score. The singers were allowed a moment of their own glory in the piece that opened the program, Mozart's precious little gem, the Ave verum corpus, K. 618, one of his last choral works.

For the second half of the program, conductor Andrew Sewell continued his progress through Beethoven's symphonies with the Third, known as the "Eroica." This is a work very familiar from "big orchestra" performances, but it was refreshing to hear Beethoven's textures and colors given restored perspective in the lean and clean balances of an orchestra with 43 players, only 19 of them on strings. For the work's first performance in 1804, Beethoven used no more than 28 musicians, with a stipulation of four first violins, four seconds, two cellos and two double basses. The WCO's numbers were generous by that standard.

Fortunately, this reestablished sense of balance was matched by Sewell's artfully phrased and handsomely nuanced leadership. It was the best, I think, of his Beethoven conducting so far. (How fascinating to hear the first movement flow with proto-waltz verve!) The spatial opposition of the first and second violins on the Capitol Theater's stage was particularly apt, and the orchestra gave a performance that was both illuminating and thoroughly satisfying.

Mentioned in the program notes was an interesting detail: We were given examples Beethoven's repeated use of two melodies that haunted him throughout his career. A dance tune he used in a set of contra dances was expanded with variations in his Prometheus ballet score, given a piano treatment (the "Eroica Variations"), and, most impressively, presented in the magnificent finale to his Third Symphony. And a melody Beethoven first used in a set of songs for voice and piano became the main theme of the Choral Fantasy -- a fun piece, really -- and ended up as the triumphant "Ode to Joy" in the finale of his Ninth Symphony.

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