In his work with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, music director Andrew Sewell has shown a fine sympathy for the music of Mozart and Haydn, but also of Beethoven. His lucid performances of a number of Beethoven's symphonies over the last few seasons have been helped by the more appropriate balances a smaller ensemble allows.
Still, since Beethoven's Ninth Symphony has become so identified with symbolic grandeur, annexed into the province of large symphony orchestras, I was wondering if Sewell could fuse the power of such scale with the clarity of reduced string forces on his terms.
Generally, he succeeded quite handsomely in the climactic final concert of the WCO's current season, performed Friday night in Overture Center's Capitol Theater. True, he augmented his string band by a few added members. And he marshaled a substantial chorus of 59 singers. His tempos throughout never dragged, and the skipping of some repeats served the purposes of propulsiveness.
Despite a little rough string playing in the first movement, that triumph of dramatic sonata form was forged into a powerful D-minor statement. I did find the scherzo second movement too stiff and rigid to capture its sardonic energy. But the soulful adagio third movement flowed with eloquent, uplifting beauty. Here, in particular, the restoration of proper balance between winds and reduced strings was quite telling, allowing especially the remarkable woodwind parts to fulfill their important role that normal, big-orchestra sonorities normally overwhelm.
The choral finale, based on the poet Schiller's "Ode to Joy," is impossible to bring off to perfection, given its extraordinary vocal demands. The orchestra functioned splendidly, but both solo and choral diction was weak, and the solo quartet took a little time early on to coordinate strictly with the conductor. Still, the enthusiasm of all hands was clear, and ultimately worked up Beethoven's message of joy and brotherhood with irresistible conviction.
The program opener, too easily overshadowed, was the cantata "Dies Natalis" ("Day of Birth") by the British composer Gerald Finzi. This understated and underappreciated master of vocal delicacy used poetry of the 17th-century writer Thomas Traherne, who explored reactions to being born into this world. The texts are wordy and full of subtle imagery, which Finzi did not always bring out with total clarity, and which the thin diction of tenor Robert Bracey could not convey, despite his handsome vocal sound. But the glory of the work is the serenely beautiful and richly crafted accompaniment for string orchestra, and this Sewell and his slightly fuller string forces realized superbly.
The verbal effect of the performance was perhaps partly undermined by Capitol Theater routines. The audience needs a complex text such as this at hand. The program booklet did, indeed, contain it in full, but the house lights were reduced so low for the performance that reading and following was impossible. Don't planners talk to each other about such things?