If there must be a guitarist as guest soloist, just as well it be the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra's latest choice, Cuban-born Manuel Barrueco - clearly one of today's leading masters of his instrument. Still, his pair of offerings were quite uneven last Friday at the Capitol Theater.
Antonio Vivaldi never wrote a note for the guitar, and what Barrueco played over Vivaldi's name, properly a chamber-scale "Concerto for Two Violins and Continuo," is a modern adaptation into a "Concerto for Guitar and String Orchestra." (And no harpsichord for filling out the continuo, either.) The guitar is very different from the lute. The more so when hyped up by amplification into artificial overbalance with the already inflated string band. Worse yet, Barrueco strummed through it with a perfunctory flatness that gave this travesty no compensatory insights. There are fine and genuine early guitar concertos by such as Ferdinando Carulli and Mauro Giuliani; why do today's guitarists bother with such hijacked Vivaldi?
As his second contribution, Barrueco brought a lively and colorful piece by Puerto Rican composer Roberto Sierra. Called "Folias," it is a concerto-like set of variations on the "La Folía" formula treated by innumerable composers of the 17th and 18th century. Requiring an orchestra of winds and strings, it recalls the 20th-century Spaniard Joaquín Rodrigo's adaptations of earlier music. Here Barrueco was more involved and even excited, though still relying crudely on his amplification.
Opening the program was an interesting novelty, the "Cantabile for String Orchestra" by Latvian composer Peteris Vasks. The piece alternates simple chordal passages with recurrent segments of aleatory ("chance") playing, in which the musicians individually play prescribed motives at random. Such experimentation works just so far, of course. But rather than being provocative, the results on this scale were pleasantly soothing and dreamlike.
Conductor Andrew Sewell has repeatedly shown great affinity for the symphonies of Haydn, and he was obviously happy and at home conducting the "Symphony No. 49." Composed in 1768, known as "La Passione" for its intended evocation of Christ's Passion, this symphony comes from Haydn's so-called Storm and Stress period. Sewell drew deep eloquence from the contemplative, elegiac opening movement, and etched the varying intensities of the other three with forceful elegance. The WCO played with handsomely polished, even burnished tone.
Such a performance, rather than the ephemera of transient guest soloists, is what can make WCO concerts so satisfying and memorable.