It's just as well one can't quantify concert seasons from year to year, but it has to be said that the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra might have just polished off their best one yet last Friday night at the Capitol Theater. Yours truly has missed more events on their Masterworks series the last couple of seasons than I'd care to admit, but I went five for five this year. Based on the last three alone, one could make a strong case that the ensemble has never played at a higher level.
It never hurts to bring in a soloist of the highest caliber, and we certainly enjoyed that this past Friday at the "Masterworks V" concert. Pianist John O'Conor has long been viewed as one of the greatest pianists of our time, and his expressive touch has lost nothing of the perfection that first launched him to fame over 40 years ago.
All the elements were in place: Maestro Andrew Sewell was up to his usual programming tricks, opening with the generally overlooked Symphony No. 1 of Weber. The composer himself disparaged the work later in life by saying that the first movement was too "free form," and indeed both of the first two movements are flabby in the formal sense. Happily they still bubble over with engaging material, and the then-20-year-old composer hits his stride in the scherzo and finale. The WCO hit theirs from the opening bars.
O'Conor was to grace us with a musical doubleheader as it were, the first go-round one of his specialties, the Piano Concerto No. 1 of John Field. O'Conor's countrymen of the late 18th century are most famous for essentially creating the form of the nocturne, only to see Chopin soon eclipse Field's delicate efforts. But the composers share something in common in their concertos: Neither man was particularly stimulating in his use of full orchestra, nor suited to larger forms such as concertos. Again, it was the first movement that suffered most in this respect, and if there was one quibble on the night, it was the orchestra's touch of extra enthusiasm in the dynamics, which early on nearly covered up O'Conor's more measured approach. The slow movement though gave us some musical moonlight and evoked a music-box quality toward the end, while the finale was both the most beautiful and the most fun.
Sewell led off the second half with a great choice, the Suite No. 1 for small orchestra by Stravinsky. This is the quirky, playful, tongue-in-cheek Stravinsky, not the enfant terrible of "The Rite of Spring," et al. It appeared (and sounded) as though the ensemble of 31 players had as much fun as the audience.
O'Conor returned to cap the evening and the season with a crown jewel, the Piano Concerto No. 21 of Mozart. Today referred to as "Elvira Madigan" for the slow movement's appearance in a 1960s film of that name, it has always been one of the composer's greatest achievements, and will forever be so by any name (or none at all). But few performances will rival what we heard Friday—O'Conor's touch revealing a bewildering number of degrees, technique so clean as to redefine the word "pristine" and a partnership with an orchestra that if anything was inspired to even greater heights by the guest artist. Sewell and soloist adopted what seemed to be the purists' quicker than usual tempo for the famous slow movement, but there was no sense of hurry to the music, just a natural flow that could sigh without distorting Mozart's classicism. In the outer movements O'Conor supplied his own cadenzas, so tasteful and integrally woven into the structure as to make one wonder if they weren't some newly discovered passages that Mozart jotted down for his own use.
Only avaricious listeners would demand an encore from a man who had already played two concertos, but it is likely O'Conor had already planned to grace us with the only thing that could have made the night more complete: a reading of a Field nocturne, this one No. 6 in F major. There is nothing better than seeing superlative technique placed in the service of creative passion—and no better way to bid farewell to wonderful season. That is what we received. Now, how many weeks until Concerts on the Square?
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