Friday night in Overture Center's Capitol Theater, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra devoted its March 16 concert to a "Celtic Celebration," a designation covering three of the four programmed works. Otherwise viewed, it offered two very familiar pieces framing two quite rare ones.
The first rarity was the vehicle for the guest soloist, the UW's remarkable Christopher Taylor. No warhorse for him, but the Piano Concerto No. 4 by pianist and composer John Field (1782-1837). Field is too easily dismissed as a forgettable precursor of Chopin, but he was a resourceful composer who does not deserve the neglect he has suffered. This concerto, one of seven composed between 1799 and 1822 (all during Beethoven's lifetime), may be no grand masterpiece. But it is a melodious and well constructed affair, allowing fine display by the soloist. Taylor is to be thanked for his initiative in bringing to our attention a score quite worth hearing at least occasionally, especially when so artfully performed.
The other rarity brought music of composer Sir Granville Bantock (1868-1946). I have long considered him, along with Arnold Bax and Frank Bridge one of the "three B's" of post-Elgar British composers who had extraordinary skills but little to say. Maybe that's my problem. But his "Celtic Symphony" (1940) proved likewise to be something worth rescuing from general neglect. Based on a folksong from the Hebrides Islands, it is a striking study in the sonorities of a multi-divided string orchestra, reinforced (somewhat self-indulgently) by no less than six harps -- not very coherently constructed, but very pleasing to listen to. This is exactly the sort of worthwhile novelty that music director Andrew Sewell does so well in bringing to us in the WCO concerts.
The two framing works were indeed well-known ones. To open, Mendelssohn's wondrous "Hebrides" overture (also known as "Fingal's Cave" after traditions of a Celtic bard). To close, Mozart's Symphony No. 35, the "Haffner.
Both of these pieces received the beneficial treatment of the WCO's redress of balances, giving the winds more than usual freedom from the tyranny of the normal big-orchestra string dominance. I did at times wish for a little more string heft in the richly scored Mendelssohn, but Sewell's beautiful shaping triumphed in a performance of refreshing lucidity. Sewell's expert way with music of the Classic Era composers is well-established by now, and it was simply a joy to follow his vividly pointed, knowingly inflected interpretation, delivered with bracing agility by the orchestra.
This was a consistently wonderful concert, in the best WCO tradition. For good measure (and in time for St. Patrick's Day), the Celtic focus was reaffirmed with Percy Grainger's witty and adroit adaptation of the Irish song "Molly on the Shore" as an encore.