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Monday, July 28, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 73.0° F  Mostly Cloudy


With Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, pianist Shai Wosner plays elegant Beethoven concerto

Wosner brought a kind of cool objectivity, rather than an underlying passion.
Wosner brought a kind of cool objectivity, rather than an underlying passion.
Credit:Marco Borggreve
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For the closing Masterworks concert by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra this season, music director Andrew Sewell began with an unprogrammed opener, a song-based movement from a suite for strings by British choral conductor and composer John Rutter. Sewell then led the WCO strings in a piece called "Orawa" by contemporary Polish composer Wojciech Kilar. Based on folk playing in the Tatra Mountains of southern Poland, it is a minimalist massaging of a rhythmic figure -- exciting, but hardly substantial.

The rest of the program was devoted to Beethoven. The guest-solo work planned was Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto. I had been looking forward to its performance by a pianist I admire very much, Anne Marie McDermott. But she had been obliged to cancel her appearance, and in her place, to play the scheduled work, came the young Israeli-born pianist Shai Wosner.

The Fourth Concerto might be called the thoughtful one among Beethoven's five. Clearly a thoughtful musician himself, Wosner seemed to be trying hard to make a coherent entity out of the potentially conflicting elements of the score. Overall, he brought to the work a kind of cool objectivity, rather than an underlying passion. He could not quite reconcile the more "heroic" passages to the ones of quiet subtlety. He made a poignant but understated drama of the dialogic slow movement, but could be quite assertive in rapid passage work and especially in the demanding cadenzas. There was a certain Mozartean elegance to the performance, and I found myself imagining I was listening to Mozart play Beethoven's bold "Emperor" Concerto.

Wosner is obviously still developing his thoughts on this work, and he suggested as much by playing, as an encore, a brief improvisation of his own, taking off from Beethoven's ideas. For the second half, Sewell again tackled a work usually identified with the standard repertoire of big orchestras: Beethoven's Seventh Symphony. With his secure grounding in the symphonic traditions of Haydn, Sewell could approach this Beethoven work as the exciting and innovating trail-blazer it must have seemed in its 1813 premiere. His confidence was underlined as he conducted from memory, without a score, and became more and more engaged bodily in the music, like a man transfixed.

He was aided, above all, by his orchestra's restoration of the kind of balances prevailing in the composer's day, allowing the wind parts to reveal details usually muffled by the enlarged string sections of today's big orchestras. Further, he seems to have persuaded the string players, especially the violins, to limit their vibrato, which gave their sound greater transparency. Not quite a period-instrument performance, but one that had genuine authenticity, it really emphasized how Beethoven was straining the Classical orchestra to its limits.

With two more Beethoven symphonies to come next season, plus one late Haydn example, we can look forward to more such illuminating perspective. This season's closer thus prepares us for the treats to come next time around.

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