Pianist Sisters Perform Delightfully at Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra Concert

By John W. Barker

Music director Andrew Sewell has felt a heavy commitment to contemporary music, so it was no surprise, Friday night at Overture Center’s Capitol Theater, that he opened the latest Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra concert with a composition by Milwaukee-born Michael Torke (b.1961), known as a “post-minimalist.” Archly titled “Adjustable Wrench,” the piece might better have been labeled “Variations on a Pop Rhythm.” Drawn from a pop song, this was tossed about among three small and different groups of instruments. It lasted about 12 minutes, far too long for its spare content. As it advanced, too, it revealed Torke’s unashamed indebtedness to the techniques and palette of Aaron Copland, who played such games far better in his “Music for the Theatre” (1925).

It took a long time to rearrange the stage for Schubert’s Symphony No. 8, the “Unfinished.” But it was worth the wait. Bold as it may seem for Sewell to take on workhorse staples of big orchestras, he has the measure of such scores and is able to deliver genuinely fresh perspectives on them. Thanks in large measure to this ensemble’s restoration of proper balance in favor of the winds, their wonderful parts, beautifully played by the WCO personnel, came through with handsome clarity.

The second half of the program offered not one but two guest soloists, and a pair of twins at that. These are Christina and Michelle Naughton, raised in Madison , and barely out of their teens. Their talents guarantee them brilliant careers, both as individual players and as two-piano partners.

Their vehicle was a welcome rarity, the Concerto in E major for Two Pianos and Orchestra by the teenage Felix Mendelssohn. It is the first of two such works that Mendelssohn composed in 1823-24. Its orchestral writing is generally perfunctory, not yet quite revealing his characteristic style. But the piano writing already suggests what he would later achieve in his two mature piano concertos.

What is notable, however, is the fact that Mendelssohn composed these two works as vehicles for himself and his sister, Fanny, to play together. The writing for the two pianos is charged with close affection, in a kind of conversational style, exchanging ideas and sometimes joining together on the same thoughts. Such sibling intimacy could thus be ideally realized by our two soloists, who joined their talents into a truly sisterly partnership. This, too, was a performance that needed to be seen, to allow full appreciation of the delightful interaction of the two pianists.

As if that were not enough, as an encore, the two played the socks off a set of Variations on a Theme of Paganini (yes, that one!) for Two Pianos by the 20th-century Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski.

A rousing finale. And how wonderful to have these gifted and promising sisters brought back and shown off in their home town!