The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra began its Masterworks season last October with the light elegance of Resphigi, Mendelssohn and Mozart, but it will wind down the season on Friday, April 23, with a heftier program of Schubert, Strauss and Hummel, a name that rarely appears on concert programs.
When we spoke last week, Andrew Sewell, music director and conductor of the WCO, was preparing for a concert tour with the Syracuse Symphony and also studying Franz Schubert's Ninth Symphony in C Major (the "Great"), the closing piece for Friday's WCO concert.
"The Schubert is large and expressive," says Sewell. "Its length [about 55 minutes] is a milestone."
The first movement andante begins with an unadorned melody for horn that Schubert transforms into dance, drama, light and shadow. Despite its length, Schubert works quickly. Keys change instantly. Song becomes dance in a heartbeat. Schubert wrote the symphony just before his death in 1828. It blends Classical sentiment with Romantic passion and overflows with bittersweet songs.
The concerto for the evening is one of the nicest surprises of the season. Johann Nepomuk Hummel's "Piano Concerto in A Minor," Op. 85 has not been performed nearly enough since the composer's death in 1837. Young Canadian pianist Stewart Goodyear takes on the titanic job of playing through the concerto's finger-tangling passagework.
"Hummel was a rock star in his generation, the Jimi Hendrix of the piano," says Goodyear. "His only serious opponent was Beethoven. Technically, the concerto rivals Rachmaninoff's Third Piano Concerto even though it was written in 1816. There are incredible running thirds and octaves, but it's not flash. Everything has a melodic base, and it's very operatic."
While this is a Classical concerto, it crosses into Romantic territory, and Goodyear follows the advice of cellist Pablo Casals: "One should play Mozart like Chopin and Chopin like Mozart."
The concert opener is the string sextet from Richard Strauss' last opera, Capriccio. It's sweet, lyrical and intricate. Melodies slink beneath the music's surface to create webs of harmony. Capriccio is an opera about opera in which a countess must answer the question: What is more important, the words or the music? Strauss, a master of ambiguity, presents opera as both sublime and trivial, just as the sextet sounds both carefree and complex. The countess makes her decision, not by telling us outright, but by humming a lovely melody as she goes off to dinner.
Sewell says the season has been a journey of discovery of music outside the conventional canon as he celebrates his 10th anniversary with the WCO. Over these years he also conducted the Wichita Symphony Orchestra, but on April 11 he had his final concert with the group. Stepping down from Wichita's podium will give him a looser schedule, more family time and freedom to take on guest conducting.