A specialist in flute and piccolo, based mainly in the state of Oregon, Molly Barth is a fabulous virtuoso on the high instrument.
Rarely programmed as it is, the Third of Respighi's Suites of "Ancient Airs and Dances" was the most conventional item on the first concert of 2011 by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, presented on Friday at Overture Center's Capitol Theater.
The shortest and most elegant of the three Suites, its scoring for just strings demands suavity of playing. The WCO string section met such requirements, with power also as called for, in a very satisfying performance that raises the question of why we don't hear this lovely music more often.
The modern piccolo, or octave flute, as we know it nowadays, emerged in the later 18th century and was really defined in the 19th. The three works by Vivaldi that are called "Piccolo Concertos" were actually designated as for the flautino, apparently the sopranino recorder. The blazing, piercing sound of today's piccolo was certainly not what Vivaldi would have expected or heard. But such quibbles were overlooked in the performance of the C-major concerto by guest soloist Molly Barth.
A specialist in flute and piccolo, based mainly in the state of Oregon, Barth is a fabulous virtuoso on the high instrument, playing with technical panache while augmenting the written demands with her own embellishments. Truly "breathtaking" -- pun intended.
That was novelty enough, but nothing compared with what the second half of the program offered. In 1927 Jeanne Debost, an eminent Parisian salon hostess who also operated a ballet school for children, invited ten composers in her circle to create a ballet for her charges. Each musician, given a blade from her fan, was to contribute a movement to the totality, which came to be called "L'éventail de Jeanne" (or "Jeanne's Fan"). The composers -- who included Ravel, Ibert, Roussel, Milhaud, Poulenc, Auric and Florent Schmitt -- came through, and the work moved from private school to the Paris Opéra with great success.
The full ten-movement orchestral score is rarely heard nowadays as an entity, and its music, full of 1920s Paris sassiness, does not stand too well on its own. In giving Madison a chance to hear this, however, maestro Andrew Sewell had the happy idea of commissioning new choreography for it from the Madison Ballet.
It is, after all, music meant to be danced to, and, with Schmitt's finale omitted, the remaining nine movements were presented as a suite of dances designed by W. Earle Smith, performed on the apron in front of the orchestra. Under his title of "The Class" is represented, not a teaching session but, as it were, a run-through of different combinations of 12 dancers, in mostly classical ballet movements. All young, they were lithe and limber: not always coordinated among themselves with absolute precision, but full of spirited grace, and sustained joyfully by the WCO's zesty playing.
It was all good fun, and a most imaginative way of adding creative dimension to a conventional concert.
As a closing touch of humor, Sewell led the orchestra in an encore, Gounod's ironic "Funeral March of a Marionette," keeping watch all along for Alfred Hitchcock.