For its 50th anniversary concert, Saturday night in Overture Center's Capitol Theater, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra presented three works of the twentieth century, and one not.
Aaron Copland's rarely heard "Three Latin American Sketches" (1959) are rather less coherent than his well-known "El salón Mexico" (1932-36), but they show the composer again assimilating Latin dance rhythms while still sounding quintessentially like himself. Music director Andrew Sewell's band was rhythmically precise, though just a tad rough at moments.
Igor Stravinsky's ballet Pulcinella (1920), with a commedia dell'arte scenario, was based on 18th-century music mostly ascribed (incorrectly, we now know) to Pergolesi. The suite Stravinsky drew from the ballet, while one of many examples of the composer's eerie assumptions of the mask of an earlier composer, is a delightful confection. Its cunning award of prominent moments to almost every player in the scoring was met brilliantly by the WCO winds -- as well as the double basses.
That was the musical highlight of the program. The second half, however, shifted to big-name soloists brought to favor the box office. Sir James Galway is the Pavarotti of the flute: a gifted musician who has hyped himself into A Celebrity. He brought along his flautist wife, Lady Jeanne Galway.
Bach's "Brandenburg Concerto No. 4" was written for violin, two recorders, string ripieno and continuo. Playing their modern instruments, the Galways treated the piece as a concerto for two flutes, effectively overwhelming Suzanne Beia, the orchestra's principal violinist, otherwise most able in the other solo part. Too large a string band drowned out the harpsichord continuo. This was a totally unidiomatic and misrepresenting performance of what is really chamber music.
Galway is the current exponent of an extroverted style of flute playing that emphasizes volume over finesse and results in blasting and screeching in the top register. One must nevertheless give him credit for choosing the less-often-heard "Flute Concerto" by Jacques Ibert (1934) as his solo vehicle. Somewhat shallow, but an amiable work with often witty or lovely music, it poses a terrific challenge to the soloist, and Galway clearly was a match for its technical demands.
In the epilogue, Galway turned on his fabled Irish charm in tastelessly chosen encores -- an insufficiently explained two-flute arrangement of Mozart's Turkish rondo for piano, and the last movement of Bach's "Suite No. 2", framing two Irish tunes ("Danny Boy", of course) -- all doled out as standup comedy.
So, he sold tickets and got laughs. But such a landmark as this important ensemble's 50th anniversary deserved better.