The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra opened this season's "Masterworks" concerts at the Capitol Theater on Friday with truly delightful variety.
First up was Anton Arensky's beautiful "Variations on a Theme of Tchaikovsky," one of my favorite works for string orchestra. Arensky took as his theme the song called "Legend" (Op. 54, No. 5, on Jesus' childhood prediction of his Crown of Thorns) that Tchaikovsky composed in 1884 and then adapted for chorus in 1889. Arensky's variations are full of imagination while respecting the original's quasi-liturgical character. Andrew Sewell's pacing was just a bit slower and more thoughtful than that of many other conductors, and the WCO strings responded with a confident and polished warmth testifying anew to their high standards of late.
The guest soloist was return visitor Janina Fialkowska, who chose not a big splashy vehicle but a tight, brisk and glittering one: Ravel's "Piano Concerto in G." Her playing was as remarkable for elegance as for efficiency. The two outer movements are famous (if not infamous) for their delight in assimilating American jazz style, while the middle movement is a nocturne of Mozartean delicacy. The piano plays almost constantly, and Fialkowska's tidy elegance sometimes allowed her to be drowned during the orchestra's more boisterous moments. Through it all, though, Fialkowska's consistent clarity reminded one that behind Ravel's "modern" qualities was the background of his admiration for France's 18th-century harpsichord masters. (Indeed, will someone someday play this concerto on the harpsichord, just for the fun of it?)
Mozart's "Symphony No. 39" might seem small fare for the entire second half of the concert. But Sewell strictly observed all the repeats, giving it properly spacious scope. And, again, his pacing was more broad and leisurely than is usually given this work - too easily considered the lightweight among Mozart's miraculous three final symphonies. There were moments when Beethoven seemed to be lurking in the wings. Such moments partly resulted from the WCO's restoration of the ensemble balances normal in Mozart's day but lost in the heavy string domination in today's big orchestras. Thus, the nine wind parts (plus timpani) could stand out boldly over the modest contingent of 20 string players. Sewell, whose devotion to the work was suggested by his conducting it without score, accordingly revealed new depths and scale to this wondrous symphony, while the players (all, but notably the winds) did themselves proud.