The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra's Friday evening concert at Overture Center, the second "Masterworks" performance of the 2014-15 season, was cunningly planned. Each half opened with unfamiliar, maybe off-putting music, followed by works of familiar composers.
The familiars were Bach and Mendelssohn, and the orchestra was accompanied by Russian-born pianist Ilya Yakushev as soloist. Yakushev belongs to the new generation of pianists out to prove that each can play faster than anyone else. The choice of a Bach piano concerto (No. 1 in D minor) was counterproductive to begin with: Bach's originals in this form were chamber works, and the replacement of the harpsichord with the modern grand piano -- loud and percussive -- always represents a mismatch. While the middle movement was slow and dull, the wing movements were delivered at reckless speeds.
In Mendelssohn's Piano Concerto No. 1 in G minor, Yakushev did manage some delicacy in its slow movements. But, again, the flanking movements were played at outrageous speeds. Yakushev has technique to burn, and despite his rapidity manages all the notes, but he melts them into a superficial blur without clarity of detail. His was, by far, the most destructively brutal performance I have ever heard of this elegant Mendelssohn work. In a Chopin encore, the pianist demonstrated more moodiness than sensitivity.
Fortunately, the other two works on the program were less distressing in choice and delivery. Paul Lewis is a contemporary British composer best known at home through his music for movies and television. His English Suite is a quite pleasant four-movement work. However, its substance is rather thin, placing it behind its models: classics by Vaughan Williams and Holst, not to mention Britten.
On the other hand, music director Andrew Sewell did the audience a genuine service by programming the Chamber Symphony No. 2 of Arnold Schönberg to open the concert's second half. Now, Schönberg's very name is still enough to frighten away many listeners who can't stand so-called "modern music." If anything, this particular work demonstrates just how connected this supposed "radical" really was to traditions all around him. Schönberg had a lifelong admiration for, understanding of and sympathy with the music of Brahms. Thus, the first of the two movements of Schönberg's relatively brief score looks back to the sonorities of the earlier master's two orchestral Serenades. The second movement draws upon the coloristic palette of Richard Strauss.
Sewell rightly called this work a "concerto for orchestra," and the players dug into it with disciplined enthusiasm.