In past years, weather has made for a run of blizzard-cursed January concerts for the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra. But, undeterred by the weather this time, the ensemble offered a real treat of a program last night at the Overture Center's Capitol Theater.
The opening item posed some problems. It is now clear that Bach's "orchestral" suites were not meant for an orchestra in the modern sense but for a tiny chamber group. Moreover, the flashy parts for trumpets and timpani were not the composer's own but were added by his son, Carl Philipp Emanuel. Even with these drawbacks, conductor Andrew Sewell made a valid venture out of the piece. I do wish he had allowed Trevor Stephenson's harpsichord role to be more audible (at least more audible than it was to me where I sat). Otherwise, in accord with new standards of "authenticity," Sewell had his string players suppress their vibrato, and he had first-desk violinist Suzanne Beia play solo and embellished repeats in the second movement of the notorious Air. Her playing was beautiful, and his tempos and phrasings were intelligent and artistic. So it worked.
The guest soloist, young British violinist Tasmin Little, is a rapidly rising star of concerts and recordings, and it was our fortune that she visited us at this stage of her career. She brought us two treasures. One was the Introit for Solo Violin and Small Orchestra by Gerard Finzi. Originally conceived as a movement in a larger work never completed, it is typical of this underrated British composer's genial and endearing style. A gentle, delicately beautiful lyric effusion, it was given a loving rendition by the soloist, who is a champion of English music, but also by Sewell, who has been a local advocate for this composer. (So when will we hear Finzi's splendid Cello Concerto?)
Little's other gift was Prokofiev's Second Violin Concerto. Augustin Hadelich gave us a superb performance of this very work a little more than a year ago, with the Madison Symphony Orchestra. This time, the work was cast in a different light. Aided by the WCO's smaller-scaled ensemble, Little avoided the boldness and bravura, and devoted herself to what struck me as a kind of "Classical" (in the Mozart sense) conception of the work, carefully structured and emphatically lyrical. Her tone is not big and aggressive, and she is blessedly free of accompanying athletics (à la Joshua Bell). With technique to burn, she concentrates on careful articulation and a truly beautiful elegance of playing. Appealing also was her obvious manner of collegial involvement with the conductor and the orchestra players. Hers is a warmly human personality, and her artistry is truly refined. Her performance really moved me.
For the closing part of the concert, Sewell gave us the second of the two symphonies composed by Charles Gounod. Symphonies? By Gounod? That opera guy? Yes, and rather appealing ones that do not deserve their neglect. Dating from 1855, this one was written in a French setting where few composers bothered with the form as grand opera was more profitable. Lacking much in the way of a local stylistic context, Gounod fell back on influences of Haydn and even Beethoven (I think of the latter's Second Symphony to some degree), while the world of waltzes and even Offenbach seems to peek out at times. Not a "great" symphony, but genuinely enjoyable and, at times, imaginative music that is worth hearing.
Sewell has once again demonstrated his enterprise in seeking out unfairly neglected novelties for us. In sum, this was a really enjoyable concert.