Why do orchestras require a guest soloist for every concert? The presumption must be that an outsider's name, famous or not, will sell more tickets - even when our two fine orchestras can satisfy us marvelously with no outside help.
The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra proved that point last Friday at the Capitol Theater by one simple solution: drawing on the excellent players in its own ranks for solo stints. This was done in a program of Baroque works.
To be sure, liberties were taken. Much time was devoted to orchestral excerpts from two of Henry Purcell's London theater scores, "The Fairy Queen" and "The Gordian Knot Untied." These were given in latter-day arrangements, mostly Gustav Holst's heavily expanded and Elgarized rescoring. And a peppy "Concerto in D" by Giuseppe Tartini was apparently one of those display pieces that have been hijacked from their original solo assignment (presumably violin) and revised for trumpet. Oh well, at least it was a chance to enjoy the agility and artistry of Frank Hansen, the group's principal trumpet.
The concert opened with the "Orchestral Suite No. 1" by J.S. Bach, perhaps the most French of his four surviving works in this form. Its subtle varieties of texture were nicely conveyed. The two oboes and bassoon were particularly enchanting. Conductor Andrew Sewell also set solo string players off from the full ensemble in echoing or contrasting passages. His shaping of lines was quite elegant, though achieved with perhaps some sacrifice of the lift and impulsiveness that could have imparted extra zest.
I also thought the bass line was made a bit too heavy. That problem seemed particularly acute in much of the Purcell material, where metrical bass pulses often lacked inflection and generated rather leaden heaviness.
By far the best performance of the program came when Sewell graciously left the stage and allowed his string players (plus harpsichord) to display their disciplined comradeship on their own in Arcangelo Corelli's "Concerto grosso in D," Op. 6, No. 4. With leading violinists Suzanne Beia and Leanne League, plus first cellist Karl Lavine, as the "concertino," and harpsichordist Martha Stiehl adding lovely embellishments (in the Adagio), the players demonstrated the current high level of the WCO's string ensemble. Spirit, sheen, flashiness, delicacy, all where appropriate, created one of those performances that make time stand still and then linger on in memory.
Whatever quibbles, a fine display of WCO self-sufficiency.