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Friday, January 30, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 24.0° F  Partly Cloudy
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Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra outshines the 5 Browns in season opener
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The 5 Browns played <i>The Edge of the World for Five Pianos and Orchestra</i>, a five-movement work composer Nico Muhly wrote for them.
The 5 Browns played The Edge of the World for Five Pianos and Orchestra, a five-movement work composer Nico Muhly wrote for them.

For its season opener at Overture Center's Capitol Theater, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra brought us not one guest soloist but five -- the two brothers and three sisters who make up the 5 Browns.

The 5 Browns trained as a fivesome and have been performing as a group for 10 years, walking the line between musical team and circus novelty act. How much of a future they have as an ensemble is hardly certain, given the lack of literature for piano quintets, and it remains to be seen if any of them can develop solo careers once the sibling novelty act wears out.

The five-movement piece the siblings brought to this performance highlighted the difficulties of their concert role, and of the kind of new repertoire they might hope to inspire -- original works composed for them, not just arrangements. Called The Edge of the World for Five Pianos and Orchestra, it was composed by Nico Muhly, a friend and classmate from the Juilliard School. While the orchestra provided occasionally colorful but mostly suspended background, the five players did little but pound out rhythmic exchanges, which seemed more like sound effects than music (one hint of a hymn tune aside). In short, this was gimmick music for a novelty act, hardly presaging great new works to come.

Fortunately, there was more substance in Mozart's Concerto for Three Pianos and Orchestra. Rarely performed in public, it is a light, fun piece that is too often shrugged off by those who focus on the composer's sublime output of single-piano concertos. It is thoroughly pleasing music that deserves to be heard. A live performance allows one to see and hear the interaction among the three players - and determine just who is playing what. The two brothers and one of the sisters were the soloists, in music that is not notably demanding but to which they brought amiable grace and commitment.

Unfortunately, they blew it by offering an encore in which all five of them joined in a trashy five-piano arrangement of Mozart's "Rondo alla turca" from a one-piano sonata.

While the second half of the program belonged to the five siblings, the first half was the orchestra's province. Here, as so often, maestro Andrew Sewell showed enterprise. He opened the program with Mozart's overture to an early opera, "Il re pastore," a delicious piece of Italianate exuberance that should be performed more often.

Also deserving more attention is Mendelssohn's Symphony No. 1, which is actually his 13th symphony but his first fully orchestral one. Written at age 15, it shows the young genius learning rapidly from Haydn and Beethoven and gaining mastery of orchestral textures. In performing it, Mendelssohn himself developed the habit of replacing its third movement with an expansion of the scherzo from his famous String Octet. The original fits much better, and Sewell was wise to retain it. It has some particularly beguiling writing for two clarinets in the trio section, and, indeed, the wonderful wind writing throughout was played beautifully and given fine nuancing by the conductor.

So then, this concert was a mixed bag: a first half filled with fresh and delightful music, and a second half dominated by a forgettable novelty act.

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