WCO guest violinist Chee-Yun dazzles

Capital Times

Classical concert pieces are rarely reviewed in sequential order unless there's a reason for it. Maestro Andrew Sewell, artistic director of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, saw fit to create just such a reason at Friday's WCO performance at Overture Center's Capitol Theater, and the audience was better for it.

In most cases, classical performances start with a short, throw-away piece to warm up the crowd and allow late-arrivers to find their seats before the start of the second, usually major work. Sewell employed a similar technique Friday, but made a point of explaining the musical strategy behind starting with Prelude and Scherzo, Op. 11 by Dmitri Shostakovich.

"The prelude is an elegy, really, but the scherzo should bring you to the edge of your seat and set you up for the piece that follows," Sewell told a crowd of nearly 900.

The Prelude, written in remembrance of Shostakovich's friend, poet Volodya Kurchavov, was a dark, brooding number framed by sonorous bass chords and some lovely moments performed by concert master and first violin Suzanne Beia. The Scherzo that followed was indeed different, a gallop by WCO's string sections that bordered on the macabre in tone and timbre. The dark elements found in both halves would flower in the truly remarkable performance to follow.

Guest artist Chee-Yun led the WCO's full ensemble through Sergei Prokofiev's Violin Concerto No. 2 in G Minor with precision, style and superb technique. Armed with her vintage violin, the slight musician gave a remarkably full performance that allowed the composer's vision to shine vividly through the performance.

The three-movement work, written in 1935 during some of dictator Joseph Stalin's darkest days, contained the familiar dissonance found in Russian compositions during that period. Those characteristics were balanced with some equally lovely, albeit melancholy stanzas with a distinct post-modernist flavor. Chee-Yun's performance shone, from her rapid bowing during the Allegro Moderato to the bright vibrant voice she brought to her instrument during the subsequent Andante assai and Allegro, ben marcato movements. She played with a brilliant tonal quality that shone above the orchestra, but never appeared out of step.

The audience greeted her performance warmly, although chose not to rise to its feet, a growing and welcomed trend among formerly indiscreet fans. In this case, a standing ovation may have been deserved. Nevertheless, Chee-Yun rewarded the crowd with an unexpected encore of Fritz Kreisler's Scherzo, a showy and highly accessible piece that showcased the violinist's speed, skill and articulation. Admittedly, Kreisler's work was more accessible, and greeted even more warmly.

Sewell knew part one would be a hard act to follow, and wisely chose to change directions, filling the program's second half with Beethoven's Symphony No. 4 in B-flat Major. The 31-minute work, composed in 1806 in the midst of the composer's creation of his famous Fifth Symphony, is a hallmark of Beethoven's classical period before he began leaning toward what ultimately would become the Romantic period of music.

The four-movement symphony emphasizes structure and style, putting it in an entirely different league that either of the evening's previous pieces. For some it may have been a disappointingly sedate follow to the evening's first half. What the composition did better than most is to showcase WCO's richness of tone and perfection in delivery. Sewell brought a sprightliness to the work, which gave it a spark and luminescence uncharacteristic of much of the Beethoven performed today.

If it's possible to breath new life into the venerable old master, Sewell and his orchestra succeeded in doing just that.