Escaping the usual January blizzard, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra's first concert of this year was largely French in content, fitting the nationality of its soloist, Claude Delangle. His instrument is the saxophone, normally a semi-alien to classical repertoire.
To be sure, there are a few works written for it by established masters, from which Delangle chose two. First was Jacques Ibert's glib "Concertino da Camera," its bluesy central movement framed by two busy ones - superficial, but well crafted.
Claude Debussy's "Rhapsody for Alto Saxophone" was written on a commission he took only for the fee. He put off fulfilling it as long as he could (lamenting to friends that he must think of something "for that aquatic instrument") and left it unorchestrated at his death. Ironically, he managed to exploit the instrument's dreamy, smoky qualities better than most composers more committed to it.
Scarcity of original scores for saxophone requires bolstering with transcriptions. Switching from alto to soprano saxophone, Delangle closed the formal program with two short effusions deriving from the seemingly inescapable tango-tweaker, Astor Piazzolla. He then offered four encores. Two were pop pieces, and one another Piazzolla item. But his first was a simplified, soloized adaptation of Ravel's "Pavane for a Dead Princess." Delangle silenced whatever cavils that sort of musical banditry might prompt with absolutely gorgeous playing. Here, as through the program, he displayed an absolute mastery of tone color and virtuosic technique, making one wish he could direct his great musicianship to an instrument with a larger and more genuine literature.
For those of us who care about the WCO itself, there were two treats. The concert opened with Gabriel Fauré's "Dolly" Suite, six elegant piano miniatures orchestrated by Henri Rabaud. Under maestro Andrew Sewell, it was played with cool but gentle refinement.
Opening the second half was Debussy's "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun." For Sewell and his band to tackle so familiar a warhorse, usually the fare of sumptuous symphony orchestras, was both ambitious and brave. A complement of only 20 string players reduced the customary sheen, but allowed recognition of the greater importance of the wind scoring, superbly realized by our WCO blowers. With the coloristic balance thus shifted, the work came off with the poetry of novel clarity, a genuine triumph.