May must be the month for Beethoven. The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra closed its season with an all-Beethoven program. And next weekend, The Madison Symphony Orchestra performs the composer’s Ninth Symphony.
The WCO began on May 1 at the Overture Center’s Capitol Theater with a comparative novelty that still merits hearing from time to time: the first of the three overtures that Beethoven wrote for different productions of his only opera, under its original title of “Leonore.” It is less ambitious in structure than its grander successors, but the WCO realized it warmly.
The guest soloist was the rapidly rising young American pianist Bryan Wallick, playing Beethoven’s Concerto No. 5, the “Emperor.” This is usually delivered in a commanding and powerhouse style, and, indeed, Maestro Andrew Sewell and the orchestra gave him every encouragement to reach grandiosity. But Wallick promptly showed, in the first movement, a pattern of beginning heroically but then pulling back as soon as possible into delicate understatement. That approach was quite apt in the thoughtful middle movement, which he treated as soulful repose. Then the pianist returned to the alternation of epic and poetic in the final movement.
In a sense, this approach created an inconsistency, but it was clearly an effort to escape the stereotyping of this work by suggesting a range of expression beyond the conventional. I had the good fortune to speak with Wallick after the concert and he indicated that a chamber orchestra affords him the opportunity for projecting such a range. I found this performance one of the most thoughtful and interesting I have ever encountered of the work.
In an encore, a prelude in E-flat by Rachmaninoff, Wallick again showed his instinct for finding delicacy amid all the bravura writing.
Finally, WCO performed Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 in A. This is a rich score, full of exciting ideas. Sewell dug into it with special gusto, from the ebullient first movement on. In the sublime second movement, despite the limit of only 20 players, the string section again demonstrated its high level of confidence and tonal beauty. The last two movements were exhilarating, as Sewell led his forces by moving his entire body with almost demonic energy (and no score).