Musical Tricks and Multiple Treats from Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra
In the category of “some things never change”, one feels comfortable in ongoing expectations of Andrew Sewell and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra: engaging programming that combines the familiar with the semi-obscure and often fairly new, all delivered with a high degree of polish and passion. Friday night at the Overture Center these were on display again, but in the spirit of Halloween weekend, Sewell managed to bring us at least one trick and several treats out of the ordinary.
The “trick” came in the opening work by Wisconsin’s own Michael Torke, “Adjustable Wrench.” Now 49, Torke’s music garnered attention and performances for nearly half his life. Originally dubbed as a “post-minimalist,” Torke was already proving in this 1987 work how frustrating and limiting labels can be. Scored for fourteen players, including piano and synthesizer, “Adjustable Wrench” sends an irresistible opening motif gallivanting around the ensemble. It “sounds” like a constantly metamorphosing kind of be-bop, cocktail lounge and 1980s TV theme music blended together — which is just another example of how futile the labels can be. What it is, is Torke.
At times the effect of the piece resembles a tennis match for the ears, with the motifs and links tossed quickly and effortlessly across the ensemble. As far as any “minimalism” is concerned, in the case of this work the word is best applied to the texture itself: one’s ears seem to sense a physical space between the instrumental lines.
Sewell then turned to a masterpiece perhaps best played by a chamber orchestra, Schubert’s Symphony No. 8, “Unfinished.” There is more than enough power in players such as these to generate the moments of greatest intensity, and the emotional climaxes are made all the more telling by a chamber orchestra’s ability to create more effective soft dynamics. This in turn leads to endless possibilities of subtlety and gradation, and this is where Sewell’s reading excelled.
The second half featured a double portion of guest artists, the homecoming of twin pianists Christina and Michelle Naughton. There are far fewer works for two pianos and orchestra than for two solo pianos, but Sewell and the ladies chose a semi-neglected rarity, Mendelssohn’s Concerto for Two Pianos in E major. Written when he was 14, and performed with his own sister, the Naughtons also made it seem a family affair.
Mendelssohn’s music has been criticized at times with the generalization that it is too facile, and this would seem to be even more the case in works of relative juvenilia. It does seem to be the kind of work that can carelessly become a fluffy showpiece, and no one (or two) can play it at all with careless technique. But the Naughtons secret is, dazzling technique aside, they treat every wave of notes, each cascade of arpeggios, as though it were its own raison d’etre, and the result is music making that compels the ear to remain engaged every second.
There are moments, particularly in the outer movements, where Mendelssohn forces the performers to engage in an anything-you-can-do-I-can-do-better duel. The Naughtons treated it as some sort of private game that they gave us the privilege of observing, and while it almost seemed like a kind of musical Olympics, there was no need to keep score (of course, if they had awarded medals, they each would have been given a gold).
For any patrons there who wondered: as the audience faced the stage, Michelle was on the left, in a one-strap azure gown, and Christina on the right in a two-strap royal blue dress. After the multiple and sustained ovations, the ladies finally re-seated themselves for an unannounced encore of Lutoslawksi’s devilishly difficult “Paganini Variations.” Full of knuckle-busting tricks for the performers, it was all treats for the Capitol Theater audience.