Although it is gearing up for summer Concerts on the Square, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra has played its final indoor event of the season, welcoming soloist John O’Conor, one of the most admirable pianists of our time.
The April 22 concert at the Capitol Theater opened with Symphony No. 1, one of only two symphonies composed by Carl Maria von Weber when he was in his 20s. The piece was clearly based on Haydn, with only hints of Beethoven’s influence. Though one hears whisps of Weber’s unique wind scoring, and even vocal style, Weber’s material just was not designed for symphonic development and elaboration. Rightly, the composer went on to create operas, chamber works and concertos. Still, it was stimulating to hear this rare work for perspective on his development.
Opening the second half was another novelty, one of two short suites for small orchestra that Igor Stravinsky worked up from tiny piano pieces — teasing tidbits from the composer’s World War I years.
Another novelty was brought by the Irish-born O’Conor, who has championed the piano works of his compatriot, John Field (1782-1837). A leading pianist of his day, Field is acknowledged as an influential forerunner of Chopin. As an encore, O’Conor played one of Field’s Nocturnes that clearly anticipated Chopin.
One of O’Conor’s two vehicles was the first (1796) of Field’s seven piano concertos. The piano writing is full of sparkle and wit, but Field again anticipated Chopin, and in giving almost all the work to the soloist, the orchestra has little important to do while he is playing. Still, it’s an amiable work, with an attractive, slow movement elaborating on a Scottish song of the day. Again, WCO provides a welcome chance to hear this music, so rarely given exposure on concert programs these days.
Finally, we were treated to the masterpiece, Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 in C. Full of swagger, exuberance, and (in its middle movement) bewitching tenderness, this work vividly demonstrates how a soloist is able to interact artfully with the orchestra in a concerto.
O’Conor is not a barnstormer of a player; nor is he known for showy egotism. It was a pleasure to hear his honest and beautiful presentation of the music — a fine opportunity to enjoy his grace, precision and utter commitment.