Ending its "Masterworks" season at the Capitol Theater last Friday, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra played three lively works off the beaten path.
Transforming his personnel from classical chamber orchestra into grand dance band, conductor Andrew Sewell opened with Darius Milhaud's "La Création du Monde," a jazz-inspired ballet score depicting an African fertility legend of the earth's creation. Alternatively bluesy and sassy, the composer's assimilation of jazz techniques after visiting Harlem nightclubs in 1922 now sounds quaintly dated. Still, it reminds us that "serious" European musicians took an interest in American jazz well before "serious" American composers did. I thought Sewell approached the piece somewhat too cautiously and strictly to realize its full exuberance, but he and his crew made a worthy effort in a charming period piece.
Shostakovich's "Piano Concerto No. 1" is No Country for Old Pianists. The composer wrote it in 1933, at age 27, as a vehicle for himself to show he was still a precocious enfant terrible in Soviet music. Shostakovich pitted the soloist against a mere string orchestra, plus a lonely trumpet. The latter impersonates a bullying party-crasher intermittently heckling the soloist. A troublesome moment aside, Frank Hanson brought that role off handsomely. Still, amid a lot of showy piano fireworks, the music often has a kind of chamber-ensemble quality, in a kaleidoscope of satirical, lyrical, brash and sentimental qualities.
The guest soloist was American powerhouse Anne-Marie McDermott, who mixed virtuosity with personal charm in total artistic command of the exciting score. As encore, she played the opening movement of Bach's "English Suite No. 2" - rushing the piece, but certainly dazzling the audience.
The finale was Bizet's delightful teenage "Symphony in C." A student work (which he hopefully labeled his "No. 1"), it was based on studies of the late- and post-Classical masters, but he modeled it on a symphony by his teacher, Gounod, and brilliantly outstripped it. Today's ears may detect more anticipations of the "L'Arlesienne" music than of "Carmen." But Sewell's proven sympathy for the symphonies of Haydn served him well in capturing this score's retrospective character. I felt his tempo for the first movement was a tad fast; and at times the WCO's string complement seemed a little small for proper balances. But what a joy was the wind playing, especially in the slow movement!
In sum, a treat.