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Thursday, October 30, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 34.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra flirts with bluegrass
Mountain sounds
Time for Three's technique defies explanation.
Time for Three's technique defies explanation.

Conductor Andrew Sewell and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra have a genre-bending experience in store this weekend in Overture Center's Capitol Theater. The bluegrass-inspired music of composer Jennifer Higdon will highlight the sounds of grassroots America, while Gustav Holst and Darius Milhaud weigh in for England and France with blithe 20th-century fare.

Higdon's "Concerto 4-3" was premiered by the Philadelphia Orchestra in 2008 and dedicated to the WCO's guest artists, Time for Three, a trio consisting of Zachary DePue (violin), Nicolas Kendall (violin) and Ranaan Meyer (double bass). In 2008, the group played before an enthusiastic crowd at Concerts on the Square. It tosses off some amazing bow techniques that defy explanation.

Higdon won the Pulitzer Prize last year and is one of few composers who make a living from commissions. She grew up in East Tennessee during the 1970s, and her concerto's three movements, "The Shallows," "Little River" and "Roaring Smokies," are a classical-bluegrass hybrid.

"I was in the Smoky Mountains at a craft fair when I first heard bluegrass," she says. "I loved its rhythm and liveliness. It's an unorthodox style of playing. For instance, I've seen bluegrass musicians play violins that hang at their sides. Because I'm classically trained, bluegrass is challenging to write, and I often have to stop and ask myself, 'What is bluegrass?'"

"Concerto 4-3" features violins and double bass, an unusual combination for bluegrass, which usually uses mandolin, banjo or guitar. Time for Three has the hard job of switching instantaneously between straitlaced classical and mountain bluegrass.

"'Concerto 4-3' is guaranteed to be fun," says Higdon.

 Another American work on the program is "The American Suite," a collaborative effort between Time for Three's Meyer and composer John B. Hedges. This compilation of American folk songs will take us back to Stephen Foster's time.

Holst is often associated with the mysteries of the universe because of his popular work The Planets. In his earthly life, he was music director at St. Paul's Girls' School in England for nearly 30 years. Holst's "St. Paul's Suite" from 1912 and has a youthful glow, from the opening jig to the finale that laces "Greensleeves" through a toe-tapping dance.

 Milhaud's "Le Boeuf sur le Toit" (The Ox on the Roof) will warm up the evening with Brazilian tangos, sambas and maxixes. The piece cycles through several musical keys and has a tangy dissonance that adds sarcasm to the sunny mix.

Most of the compositions in this concert will make us want to dance. And when classical music cavorts with old-time mountain music, things just might get downright foot-stomping.

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