Taking over a grieving orchestra was a tall order, but Sewell has brought joy to players and audience alike.
A passion for conducting doesn't always develop in glamorous concert halls packed with admirers. It's often passed down from masters to fledglings on drafty stages and in rooms cluttered with music scores. That's how it happened for New Zealand-born Andrew Sewell, music director and conductor of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra.
"Before leaving New Zealand, my mentor was Italian opera conductor Juan Matteucci, who was like a father to me," Sewell says. "For two years, I was his unpaid assistant at Mercury Opera, sitting next to him from 9 in the morning until 11 at night, learning the craft. He would throw me in the deep end at a moment's notice, to give me a thick skin."
Sewell received a master of music degree with an emphasis in conducting from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor in 1990. But there's nothing like personal interaction with a master; it stays with you for life.
Though he's now in his 14th season with the WCO, those long hours with Matteucci show in the finesse with which Sewell wields the baton. It's present at Concerts on the Square, the Masterworks series at Overture Center's Capitol Theater and the annual performance of Handel's Messiah at Middleton's Blackhawk Church. That's why, last June, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra announced it had renewed Sewell's contract for another five years.
'Music you didn't know you needed to hear'
Sewell moved to Wisconsin in 2000, after triumphing over 240 conductors who applied for the position left vacant by David Lewis Crosby's death in 1998. Crosby was a popular and multitalented conductor who had led the WCO for 28 years, so Sewell had big shoes to fill.
Diedre Buckley, who has played viola for the WCO for 22 years, remembers the transition from Crosby to Sewell vividly.
"I was due to play the Concert on the Square that night when David died in his car on the way to the Square," she says. "I was getting dressed for the concert on a beautiful, clear summer evening when I heard on the local news that the concert was canceled. At first they gave no reason why. It was really shocking and a terribly sad day for the WCO."
But early on, she sensed that Sewell would work well with the orchestra.
"I remember the transition...as being fairly seamless," she says of Sewell's arrival. "It can be quite a stressful time, having a new conductor take over an orchestra, especially under the circumstances in our case.… I remember feeling we could make music with him right away, and the relationship has only grown with time."
Buckley especially enjoys Sewell's unique programming.
"Like Steve Jobs created devices you hadn't known you needed, Andrew programs music that you didn't know you needed to hear," she says.
Sewell has gained a reputation for his verve, fresh approach and sunny disposition. But he also conducts the dark pathos of classical music well. I've never forgotten his luminous reading of Schubert's transcendental Death and the Maiden during the WCO's 2008 Masterworks season.
Small-town boy, big-time ambitions
Sewell, 50, was born in the small town of Gore on New Zealand's sunny South Island, the second youngest of seven children. His family later moved to Levin, a small town on the North Island. Levin is 60 miles north of the capital of Wellington, where Sewell's parents took their children to concerts. His grandparents were Scottish and spoke Gaelic. Sewell thinks that's why he developed a fondness for Celtic music.
All of the kids received piano lessons, but for little Andrew, music was a passion. He went on to train in piano, violin and cornet. Conducting came into the picture when he played violin in a youth orchestra. He liked watching the conductor wave his arms and beat time. He was so inspired that he bought a baton and practiced conducting in front of a mirror. By age 16, he was conducting his high school choir and orchestra, and soon began lessons in the craft.
Sewell's piano teacher told him that if he wanted to be a conductor, he should study violin at the university instead of piano, since violinists are more likely to find jobs with orchestras. He took that advice and studied violin performance at the University of Auckland in New Zealand.
After graduation, he joined an orchestra and also became something of an entrepreneur. He formed a chamber orchestra and took it on tour while also studying conducting. During that time, he traveled to England to sit in on Sir Simon Rattle's rehearsals with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. In 1987 he won a young achiever's award to study abroad, and in 1988 he came to the U.S. to study with renowned conductor and teacher Gustav Meier at the University of Michigan.
Conducting takes practice, practice, practice. In a 2009 interview, Sewell said that an orchestra can eat an inexperienced conductor alive. Perhaps that's why he sought out more conducting experience after graduating from the U of M. He worked in the Detroit area as a violinist and conductor for several regional orchestras.
He also spent a year as assistant conductor of the Memphis Symphony and then landed more permanent jobs in Ohio, as resident conductor of the Toledo Symphony and then music director of the Mansfield Symphony. These days, Sewell guest-conducts across the country and abroad.
When he accepted the WCO conductorship, a goal from his youth was realized.
"As a violinist, I am particularly partial to the string orchestra and chamber orchestra repertoire, and there is enormous potential with this very flexible ensemble," he says. "As a 20-year-old living in New Zealand, my aspiration was to lead an internationally renowned chamber orchestra. That was my dream when I joined the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra."
A month after his appointment to the WCO podium, he also accepted an appointment as music director of the Wichita Symphony in Kansas, a position he held until 2010. And in 2005, he oversaw the WCO's move into the Capitol Theater.
A sociable scholar
Conducting has changed since those practice sessions with Matteucci. As an iPhone-generation conductor, Sewell has to vary his already wide-ranging repertoire and move between genres with feline flexibility. Today's young concert soloists also play a wide range of musical styles, from country to rock to hip-hop. This new generation in particular appreciates Sewell's collaborative style.
Rachel Barton Pine is a shining star on the international scene who first performed under Sewell's baton in 2001. The 39-year-old violinist plays in a heavy-metal band, a Baroque chamber-music group, and for prestigious orchestras worldwide.
"Maestro Sewell has a passion and enthusiasm for music that sets him apart," she says. "I have been fortunate enough to collaborate with him in performances of works as unusual as a concerto by the Chevalier de Meude-Monpas and as famous as the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto.… Our exchange of ideas is always rewarding, and his commitment to the music is always inspiring."
Beneath his gregarious nature, Sewell is a scholar. He says he is happiest when studying and preparing for concerts.
"I listen to recordings and new releases, check out various libraries and their music collections, and discover new pieces from the radio and used CD stores," he notes.
And he talks music with colleagues and friends like James Smith, director of orchestras at the UW and music director of Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras.
"He and I have an affinity for the same repertoire and can talk music until the cows come home," Sewell says.
"Wisconsin has become our home," Sewell says. He celebrated his U.S. citizenship in 2007, and his wife, Mary, a violinist, calls Madison "a gem of a city." After meeting in the New Zealand National Youth Orchestra in 1982, she and Sewell were married in 1984. Though she teaches private violin lessons, she also writes screenplays, having come from a family of authors.
The couple have three children, Anna, Lydia and Alistair. They spent nine years running the kids to WYSO, choir and other musical activities.
"They weren't always thrilled to give up their Saturday mornings; however, they certainly appreciate it now," Mary says.
Anna has a bachelor's degree in theater and is saving money to start a graduate program in psychology. Lydia studies violin performance in Los Angeles. Alistair, a budding stage star, sang the role of Miles in Madison Opera's The Turn of the Screw a few years ago. He is a senior at Memorial High School.
Sewell's other family is the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, an ensemble he has groomed to shape the elegant phrases of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven.
"My job is to guide and direct them, and, frankly, at times to keep out of the way," he says.
Sewell's skillful combination of guiding his musicians and stepping aside to allow them creative freedom can be heard in the WCO's easy lilt of phrase. But repertoire choices are trickier to balance. Sewell asks himself difficult questions: What does my audience want hear? What do they need to hear? What will challenge my orchestra? To find answers, he often confers with others, such as colleagues from the business side of the WCO.
Last year the orchestra welcomed new executive director Mark Cantrell into the fold. Cantrell took over the position from departing executive director Doug Gerhart, who helped with the transition.
Forging strong bonds between concert music and society used to be the composer's job, but now it's more often relegated to conductors and their executive directors. Cantrell will act as a sounding board when Sewell makes important repertoire decisions. The duo also plan to take the WCO "far and wide," especially to more communities in Wisconsin.
So what else does the conductor do when he steps off the podium? These days you might see Sewell running or cycling trails in Madison's hinterland; listening to Sting, U2 or Sibelius recordings; or memorizing the score of a Beethoven symphony. But his passion is sharing music with all of us.
"There is no place I would rather be than striding onto the stage to perform for an audience, and to deliver a performance beyond their wildest expectations," Sewell says. "That is pure joy."
Clean, fresh, intimate
Now in its 54th season, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra has 34 core musicians and plays about 25 concerts a year in Madison and beyond. The orchestra is known for its clean, fresh, intimate sound, and also for its approachability. As conductor Andrew Sewell puts it: "Music should never be elitist or stuffy."
The ensemble begins the 2014 leg of its Masterworks series with a young guest: classical guitarist Ana Vidovic (Friday, Jan. 17, Overture Center's Capitol Theater, 8 p.m.). She'll solo in Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco's Guitar Concerto No. 1, and the orchestra will star in Mozart's "Impresario Overture" and Bruckner's mighty Second Symphony.