Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra opens its indoor season Friday

Andrew Sewell arranges 16th year of Masterworks Series
Andrew Sewell conducts the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra. (Photo by Ingrid Laas)

It is possible that the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra has been heard by more people in the greater Madison area than any other performing group thanks to the many summer seasons of “Concerts on the Square.”

But for many aficionados, the real WCO season begins Friday, Jan. 24, at 7:30 p.m. in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center for the Arts. That is when music director Andrew Sewell, now in his 20th season with the orchestra, will conduct the first of five programs in the Masterworks Series.

Sewell has often been cited by local critics for his imaginative programming, and his opening concert this season is no exception. The pairing of perhaps the most popular of Mozart’s “Piano Concertos No. 21” (often referred to as the “Elvira Madigan” concerto) with Mendelssohn’s popular “Symphony No. 4” (or the “Italian Symphony”) is a no-brainer. It is the addition of Donald Fraser’s 2018 “Sinfonietta” that draws one’s curiosity.

“I met Donald Fraser shortly after his wife, Bridget Fraser, was appointed executive director of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony some 10-plus years ago,” Sewell explains. “I knew he was a composer and have exchanged scores and CDs with him over the years. He is a delightful gentleman with a wicked sense of humor.”

Sewell continues: “I said I would perform one of his works with the WCO at the first opportunity. The ‘Sinfonietta’ is a work for strings, and as one of the early English composition teachers stated, any composer worth their mettle should have a work for string orchestra under their belt, if they are any good.”

Sewell is also known for establishing an easy rapport with each guest soloist who performs with the WCO. Sewell and his guest at Friday’s concert already had a track record, however. The invitation to pianist Orion Weiss was a result of maestro Sewell’s other gig as music director of the San Luis Obispo Symphony.

“In my first season with the San Luis Obispo Symphony, Orion Weiss had already been hired as a soloist and we performed this same piece [Mozart’s “Piano Concerto No. 21”] together” Sewell says. “I was delighted to make his acquaintance and we really hit it off. I was so enthralled by his outstanding musicianship and performance, I just had to invite him to do the same piece in Madison.”

Each summer crowds of 20,000-plus people flock to each Concert on the Square. Why then isn’t the Capitol Theater standing room only for WCO’s Masterworks concerts?

“First of all it isn’t free. It costs to attend a concert indoors, so there is a compromise for starters,” Sewell explains.

“Nonetheless, the opportunity to hear the orchestra in an acoustically superior environment is why folks should come to the Capitol Theater and hear the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra in it’s home,” he says.

Greg Hettmansberger writes about opera, jazz and classical music for madisonmagazine.com.