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Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra: Two Great Halves Equal One Spectacular Evening

Shai Wosner
Madison Magazine

By Greg Hettmansberger

When you go to a concert and come away with the feeling that either half of the performance would have been worth the price of admission, you know it’s been a very special evening. Such was the case Friday night when Andrew Sewell conducted the latest installment of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra’s Masterworks Series at the Capitol Theater.

The first order of business was the change of soloist: it was an unfortunate case of déjà vu for fans of pianist Anne-Marie McDermott, who was forced to cancel due to a family emergency. The good news was that, just as happened a couple of seasons ago, Shai Wosner was available to replace her, and was prepared to perform the same work, Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24.

I missed Wosner’s pinch-hit pianism two years ago—but having heard him this time, I’m likely to go out of my way to experience his liquid keyboard mastery again. The Israeli-born, New York-based musician is firmly established as a pianist of surpassing gifts in everything from Mozart to contemporary composers, but in a performance that sounded as though he had been preparing for his own scheduled appearance for months, no one would mind if he became a Mozart specialist.

Here is some context for any readers who have these sounds as a reference point: his Mozart reminded me of the tender clarity of Alicia de Larrocha, or more recently, the gentle lyricism of Mitsuko Uchida. I was fortunate to be seated in the balcony, keyboard side, and in a first-movement passage of arpeggios that used nearly three-fourths of the keyboard up and down, Wosner unleashed as connected a stream of sounds as can be imagined on the instrument. He makes one forget that the piano by nature is a percussion instrument, a thing of hammers and steel strings.

His own cadenza was a model of thoughtful structure and balanced virtuosity, and Sewell and the WCO played with a chamber music intimacy that did not diminish the drama of this C-minor masterpiece. The near-capacity audience seemed to beg for an encore with three sustained curtain calls, and Wosner finally obliged with a haunting minor gem, a “Hungarian Melody” of Schubert.

Justly celebrated by critics and audiences alike for his penchant for consistently unearthing unusual programming choices, Sewell hit another bull’s-eye with the early Bruckner work commonly referred to as “Symphony No. 0.” It was actually composed after his Symphony No. 1, but never revised or published—and not destroyed, as Bruckner had many of his early works. He marked it “Nullte,” and while he may have proclaimed it “null,” it is certainly not void.

It is worth noting that, while there have been whispers for a year or more that the Madison Symphony was planning to program some Bruckner, Sewell beat them to it—and did it right. After all, the typical Bruckner symphony demands large forces, and the later symphonies can run to an hour or so. But the “Nullte” worked beautifully with an ensemble of about forty, and it was thrilling to hear a WCO brass section of five horns, two trumpets and three trombones.

Better still were the contrasts, e.g. an extended brass fanfare answered by chamber-like strings, or the familiar Bruckner “motor rhythms” with suspended woodwind notes hanging in the air waiting to flesh out a chord. It was as if Sewell had invited us into a musical laboratory, a kind of sonic x-ray of Bruckner in some embryonic stage. But again, this is not an unfinished work, just an unpolished one, and Sewell and his charges seemed to genuinely relish all the special moments, ultimately making the case that this is a work worth hearing from an orchestra of any size.