The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra opened its first concert of the new season with a piece by the contemporary American composer Michael Daugherty titled "Strut." Intended as a kind of homage to Paul Robeson, it is short but complicated piece of rhythmic fantasy for string orchestra. It might be characterized as, say, "Bartók in Harlem" -- a tricky work that challenged the WCO string players.
The main business of the evening was Vivaldi's "The Four Seasons," the first four of his dozen violin concertos published as his Op. 8. I can remember when this cycle was unknown until the initial recordings were made in the late 1940s. Now, of course, the set is a warhorse, much in popular demand, and has almost obliterated general awareness of all Vivaldi's other concertos.
The guest soloist was to have been Alexander Sitkovetsky, but in his sudden indisposition he was replaced by the young American violinist Linda Wang. What Sitkovetsky would have done with the assignment we will never know. Wang bravely took up the occasion as a chance to show off her stunning technique, but little else. The performance in all was precise but hard and steely. Wang seemed concerned only with dazzling, rather missing opportunities for varying nuances and colors in response to Vivaldi's remarkable descriptive intentions. The orchestra strings, however, at least demonstrated anew their finely polished ensemble.
Happier results fortunately came in the second half, with Beethoven's Eighth Symphony. The composer sometimes conceived his symphonies in contrasting pairs: thus, the gentle Fourth against the volcanic Fifth, and likewise the relaxed Eighth against the monumental Seventh. Indeed, it almost seems that in his penultimate symphony, Beethoven was looking back with some nostalgia to his grounding in the symphonies of Haydn. Beethoven still peppers the score with a lot of his brusque humor, but there is also a quality of hearty geniality that echoes his great predecessor and teacher.
Music director Andrew Sewell has repeatedly demonstrated a special affinity for Haydn's symphonies in the past, so it was not surprising that he could convey such a retrospective quality in Beethoven's writing. And especially since, with the WCO's more compact string band, the winds could speak forth with a properly Haydnesque brilliance. In all, an alert and aptly molded performance, played with comfortable panache by the orchestra.
The WCO is off to another lively season, showing itself in fine fettle.