The last time I heard the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra was under the shadow of the Capitol dome. Needless to say, it was considerably warmer last July. Pianist Shai Wosner returned to collaborate with Andrew Sewell and his hardy band, and managed to raise the temperature at the Capitol Theater in a demonstration of exceptional taste and control.
The piano concertos of Haydn have understandably suffered by comparison to those of his incomparable contemporary, Mozart. The latter left twenty-seven for us to ponder and enjoy, and at least a half-dozen of them can be labeled masterpieces. Haydn's catalogue lists eleven—and only three of those are of unquestioned authenticity. But Shai Wosner teamed with the WCO in No. 4 and No. 11 and reminded us that Andrew Sewell is not the only one who delights in performing treasures less often heard.
One does not get the tug of war between soloist and orchestra that became the bread and butter of large-scale concertos, nor the sublimely transporting melodies that are characteristic of Mozart's greatest contributions. But under Wosner's impeccable fingers at the command of a supremely musical mind, one can take a classical journey down a road less traveled, without ever wishing for what we are not getting.
Perhaps the works would be more often heard if more pianists could do what Wosner does—but then, that is what continues to set him apart from the "run of the mill" competition star. Wosner's ability to control and express just in the dynamic range from mezzoforte to pianissimo puts many a bigger name to shame, and can really only be experienced live, and in a hall no less intimate than the Capitol Theater.
The finale of Haydn's Piano Concerto in D Major, Hob. XVIII:11, is based on a Croation tune, and we get both a whiff of Hungarian style and the Turkish Janissary sounds so popular at the time in Vienna. That may be part of the reason that Wosner selected the "Hungarian Melody" of Schubert as an exquisite encore … and the fact that the second half of the concert was devoted to Schubert's Symphony No. 2. As with so much of Schubert, the miniature was a virtual song without words, and again Wosner made the keyboard sing as few pianists can.
Wosner's career has already reached heights that many a professional would happily settle for, but it seems unlikely that it is anywhere near the crest of what he will achieve. Madison has been lucky to have him grace our venues more than once, and we can only hope that he continues to make an occasional appearance.
As for the WCO and their maestro, who was unofficially celebrating his fifteenth anniversary as its music director, the evening opened with twenty string players returning to another off-the-beaten-path composer visited a few programs ago, Vittorio Giannini. The "Prelude and Fugue for String Orchestra" is a 1955 work not unlike Samuel Barber in places, but with a wicked fugue in quintuple meter that the players hurdled with disarming ease. Ok, it looked like they were working at it, but they tossed it off with authority.
And even in the choice of Schubert symphony, Sewell revealed again his penchant for the less obvious choice. This is an 1815 opus, which places it after Beethoven's first seven symphonies, but while Schubert wrote his at the age of eighteen, it already shows his genuine right to follow in the great man's footsteps. With an orchestra of thirty-two players, the WCO combined sonic beauty with robust wind contributions in the outer movements. But, much as Wosner had done in Haydn, it was the understated sections that earned conductor and orchestra a special measure of glory.
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