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Pianist Shai Wosner masters Mozart and conductor Andrew Sewell tackles Bruckner with Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra

Shai Wosner
The Daily Page

By John W. Barker

The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra's latest program offered an interesting pairing of works from two ends of a great Viennese tradition. The orchestra performed these selections at Overture Center's Capitol Theater last night.

Piano Concerto No. 24 is one of the darker works of this kind Mozart composed for his own performance at concerts in Vienna. Its key, C minor, was conventionally used for stormy and emotional expression (think of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony). The use of theme-with-variations form for its finale is unusual, and brilliantly carried out.

This work was to have been the vehicle for guest pianist Anne-Marie McDermott. She, however, had to cancel at the last minute, which I regretted, because I have followed her career with admiration and wanted to hear her. Luckily, Israeli-born pianist Shai Wosner was able to substitute and provided solid values of his own.

Wosner has a firm and handsomely focused tone, with a notably powerful left hand. He has become famous for his Schubert and, in fact, gave a nice Schubert miniature as his encore. I had the feeling he was reining in some of his more Romantic flexibility to present a very tightly controlled Mozart performance. He displayed a genuine sense of partnership with the orchestra, opting against showy opposition.

He was particularly deft in his interplay with the woodwinds, for which Mozart filled this concerto with radiant displays. Indeed, this performance was as much a triumph for the orchestra as for the soloist, with the woodwind players at their absolute peak. And, of course, the WCO's reduced ratio of strings to winds made their contributions the more telling.

For the second half, conductor Andrew Sewell pulled a coup and presented the first Bruckner symphony that either of Madison's two major orchestras has gotten around to. John DeMain of the Madison Symphony Orchestra has been promising one of the mature Bruckner masterpieces for a while but has yet to follow through. Sewell artfully chose not one of the massive late examples but an early one, which the self-critical and unconfident composer decided to call his Symphony "No. 0," or nulte, to mark it off from the numbered sequence of nine symphonies that followed.

Anton Bruckner used to be bracketed with Gustav Mahler solely because they were both of the Viennese scene and wrote long symphonies. But they are totally different in their styles. In recent decades, the sensationalizing Mahler has been turned into a popular favorite, while the more austere Bruckner has been left behind. But Bruckner's work is a logical extension of the directions Schubert seemed to set in his "Great" C-major Symphony. Anybody who loves that work (and who cannot?) should have no trouble grasping the greatness of Bruckner.

The "Zero" Symphony shows Bruckner's first working out of the techniques he would refine subsequently, with the main features already there: classical four-movement form; the folksy landler turned into a scherzo of surging power; the finale that revisits earlier themes and endeavors to sum up the entire work; and, above all, the textural patterns of Schubertian lyricism, episodic segmentation, alternating volume levels, and pregnant silences, undergirded by solid counterpoint.

I for one am glad that Bruckner never destroyed his first two symphonic tries, for this "Zero" is a coherent and perfectly convincing score. This the audience recognized readily, and they gave the work a very enthusiastic reception. And the orchestra came through superbly. The comparatively reduced strings, though lacking the lush sonority of larger orchestras, were precise and able, while the details of woodwind writing, thus made audible, were beautifully realized. This was no downsized or bargain performance but a totally idiomatic and well-rounded one, as steered by Sewell's very knowing leadership.

Quite clearly, this stands as one of the important concerts of the season.