The stage pulsed with energy when the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra played its Masterworks concert in the Capitol Theater last Friday. The political drama of 20th-century Russia took center stage with Shostakovich's "Prelude and Scherzo" and Prokofiev's "Violin Concerto No. 2." Then Beethoven kicked up his heels in the "Fourth Symphony," his breather between the monumental Third and Fifth. When young Korean violinist Chee-Yun walked on stage with her Stradivarius and an air of friendly confidence, I thought this would be a very special night for the Prokofiev. I wasn't disappointed.
Prokofiev began the second violin concerto in 1935, not long after he returned to Russia after a self-imposed 15-year exile. Before he left Russia at the start of the Revolution, he had a reputation as the founder of a piano-playing style that bulldozed over the delicate arpeggios of the Romantics. He was Russia's bad boy of modernism, but by the time the concerto was written, he had calmed down - a little.
The concerto's second movement andante is nostalgic, and conductor Andrew Sewell and Chee-Yun made the most it. Sewell chose a slow andante, giving Chee-Yun a chance to flaunt her sweet, effortless tone to the fullest. Her melody soared over recurring triplets, reminiscent of a slow dance from the '50s. The contrapuntal writing style kept soloist and orchestra busy, but for all of its busyness, there is frugality as Prokofiev draws the most out of each theme. Chee-Yun flexed her technical skills in the third movement when driving rhythms replaced lilting melodies.
After three curtain calls, Chee-Yun played a scherzo by Fritz Kreisler, with the same singing leaps Prokofiev demanded of her. She was unfazed, with not a hair out of place, as if she could have played all night.
Unlike Prokofiev, Shostakovich stayed in Russia, living much of his life in fear of the Stalin régime. He was 19 when he composed "Prelude and Scherzo" in 1925. Modal shifts fill the prelude's slow tempo with restlessness, but in the middle there is a melody that sails over the shifting landscape like a shooting star. Concertmaster Suzanne Beia gave it her all. The scherzo kept us on the edge of our seats. It's a frenzied fugue that goes so fast you're not sure what hit you when it's over. It deserves a second or third listening to catch up with the layered themes and pouncing off-beats contained in sane borders of basic four time.
The WCO players were in top form for this very challenging program. I was particularly impressed with the horns and winds, which got quite a workout during the Prokofiev and Beethoven. Sewell changed his conducting style - more crouching, more turning and stronger downbeats. He conducted with such energy that part of his baton flew off during Beethoven's Fourth. But he kept going, and the band played on.