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Friday, August 22, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 81.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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Serenade in the snow
Rachel Barton Pine fiddles through a blizzard

The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra's annual concert-date blizzard, avoided in January, caught up at Overture's Capitol Theater on Friday. But those who braved it were well rewarded.

The guest soloist, Chicago's virtuoso violin­ist Rachel Barton Pine, proved a graciously understated visitor. The first of two solo pieces with orchestra was the gently pastoral ode "The Lark Ascending," by Ralph Vaughan Williams. Inspired by modal folksong traditions, it is music that makes you happy to be English. Her technical facility unquestionable, Pine beguiled us with truly tender sweetness.

Her other solo was the brief "Fratres," by the now-fashionable Estonian Arvo Pärt, who might be considered the pious person's minimalist. Pine neatly managed its florid solo role over chantlike formulas in the string-orchestral background. For an unaccompanied encore, she saluted conductor Andrew Sewell's newly minted American citizenship with her own treatment, à la Paganini, of our national anthem.

Opening the concert was Haydn's "Symphony No. 95." As I have opined before, Sewell apparently has a special feeling for this composer's symphonies. No. 95 is the only minor-key one among the final "Salomon" dozen composed for London, a kind of stepchild of the series. In most hands it is a dark affair. Sewell emphasized instead its robust sound, finding many points for inflection: the first movement unusually brisk, the Menuet given almost waltz-like lilt, and the Finale accorded - in today's vocabulary - a real surge. Praise to first cellist Karl Lavine for his dashing solo moments.

As concert closer, Sewell and his now-seasoned 26 string players tackled a notable challenge, Tchaikovsky's popular "Serenade for Strings," usually performed by larger string bands that stress lush sonorities and heavy sentimentality. Sewell aimed instead at lean textures and crisp ensemble brilliance, delineating the composer's superlative part writing with unusual clarity. The "Elegy" third movement in particular had the lucidity of a string quartet, while the shaping of lines evoked the interaction of a quartet of opera characters. The Finale - artfully designed to reconnect with the opening movement - combined Russian nationalism with Mozartean grace just as Tchaikovsky surely intended. In short, the best performance of the work I think I have ever heard, live or recorded.

A program-booklet insert rightly honored the recently deceased Gordon C. Wright, who launched the WCO as the Madison Summer Symphony some 45 years ago. How proud he would be now.

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