WCO opens with “three Bs”: Buoyant, Brilliant, Beautiful

WCO opens with “three Bs”: Buoyant, Brilliant, Beautiful
Ben Beilman

When we talk about the “three Bs” in music it usually refers to Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. As Andrew Sewell opens his fifteenth season as music director of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, we know better than that he would program so conservatively. No, the opening of the WCO season Friday night at the Overture Center’s Capitol Theatre was, as Maestro Sewell put it himself from the stage, a mix of the “unfamiliar, less familiar and very familiar.” But the performance can be said to have added up to “three Bs”: buoyant, brilliant and beautiful.

One could get more specific with this alphabetic conceit, and say that the burning memory of the night came from three other “Bs”: the interpretation of Beethoven by Ben Beilman. Timing alone would have it that Beilman has a new local connection, (aside from the fact that he has ties to Madison from his parents and grandparents) he became brother-in-law to Madison Symphony principal clarinetist Joseph Morris, when Beilman’s sister wed.

Coincidences aside, Beilman deserved the full house that greeted him for the second half of the concert: later this season he will be heard with the Philadelphia Orchestra, and appear at Carnegie Hall. In other words, we’re lucky to get him while we can.

Beethoven’s sole Violin Concerto is of course an acknowledged masterpiece—although with some guilt, I confess never to have had great affection for it. On my personal list of favorite violin concertos it has never ranked higher than about fifth, (sacrilege, I know!) But for at least one performance, that changed. The combination of only about thirty players under Sewell’s sensitive guidance and Beilman’s fresh approach kept many, if not of most of us in the hall, on the edge of our seats.

Beilman eschewed an aggressive response to the orchestra’s long introduction, instead flirting with the passion in the music, rising for a moment to a full-throated response, then feinting in and out of the expressive shadows, all the while glibly negotiating the technique as his reputation indicated he would. Beilman’s was a carefully built interpretation, built with the perspective that this is an epic musical landscape (probably the longest of the most famous violin concertos).

When it came to the first movement cadenza, we were in for a real surprise: No fewer than twenty or more composers and performers have left us their cadenzas, but Beilman adapted the one Beethoven wrote when he transcribed the work for piano and orchestra. With its prominent timpani obbligato and Beilman’s whimsical and sometimes exaggerated expressiveness, there were moments that gave us another “b”—a touch bizarre.

Indeed, at least one longtime observer of the classical scene, admittedly older and wiser than this scribe, opined that Beilman “has talent to burn, but he needs to grow up.” I could imagine myself having had such a reaction at some point earlier in life, but now I look at Beilman and think, “he’s twenty-five and looks fifteen—let him play!” After all, Beethoven’s concerto has easily survived more than two centuries of everything from hackneyed traversals to willful abandon; it can take plenty more creativity over the next century or so.

Certainly the audience did not hesitate to engage in long and vociferous ovations following the boisterous finale. Suddenly Beilman was ready for an unannounced encore, a “Largo” from a Bach suite is the best guess. This was simplicity made radiant, and as the final tone faded, Beilman’s bow hovered imperceptibly above the strings; the audience as one held their applause as well as their breath, soaking in every last moment before breaking the spell. Their attention was rewarded again, this time with a Gavotte from the Partita No. 3 also of J.S. Bach. The entire experience adds to the gratitude we feel to know that Beilman is scheduled to be in the recording studio soon.

The first half of the evening was pure Sewell programming-wise, and pure playing from a suaver than ever WCO. First was fellow New Zealander Douglas Lilburn’s “Landfall in Unknown Seas.” Sewell explained that Lilburn is essentially the Aaron Copland of New Zealand. The 1942 “Landfall” was commissioned by the New Zealand government to commemorate the tricentennial of the land being reached by Abel Tasman; simultaneously they commissioned a poem from Allen Curnow. The four movements, for string orchestra, have sections of the poem read following each of the first three movements, and we had none other than James Ridge of American Players Theater do the honors. The work is a true gem that undoubtedly we would never have heard save for Sewell’s fabulous choice.

Lilburn was definitely the unfamiliar, and the other work of the night was not only the “less familiar,” but nearly as unheard as the Lilburn: the Symphony No. 2 of Saint-Saens. This is a youthful work, the twenty-four-year old composer decades away from his next (and final) symphony, the “Organ” Symphony which DeMain and the MSO have given us twice in ten years. Which is a reminder that this season marks the tenth for WCO in the Capitol Theater—and for all the cherished tradition of Concerts on the Square, there is possibly no greater musical marriage in Madison than the WCO on the Capitol Theater stage. If Friday night’s concert is any indication (as well as the previous weekend’s MSO opening), Madison’s music lovers may be on the verge of enjoying the best indoor season yet.