Three masters… and then some
Since the arrival of Maestro Andrew Sewell eleven years ago, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra has grown into one of Madison’s preeminent ensembles, both musically and creatively. Even its wildly popular and generally populist Concerts on the Square – a summer social landmark that attracts tens of thousands to downtown Madison six Wednesday nights from June to August – have raised classical musical awareness and appreciation to new heights. Multiple generations have WCO and its supporting patrons to thank for making their lives a little more refined and that much richer.
But the orchestra also likes to enjoy itself, and Friday night’s Masterworks performance fell squarely in the “art for fun’s sake” category. Time for Three, the classical-cum-bluegrass string trio of prodigies from Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music proved that genres were meant to be bent and musical limitations to be broken. And violinists Zach De Pue and Nick Kendall and double bassist Ranaan Meyer did so with such inventive energy that it was fun simply watching WCO’s accomplished players trying to keep up.
Time for Three, first introduced to Concerts on the Square audiences in 2008, performed Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Jennifer Higdon’s Concerto 4-3, a 2007 work commissioned for the trio by the Philadelphia Orchestra. They followed with the American Suite, a four-movement work based on folk themes and arranged by bassist Meyer. Both works drew heavily on American melodies, familiar and not, with Higdon’s compostion capturing the sounds of her Smoky Mountain upbringing in eastern Tennessee.
Higdon’s three-movement work, very contemporary in its approach, moved from the serene and lyrical “Little River” to the fiery, almost violent “Roaring Smokies.” The bluegrass-inflected overtones were well served by the trio’s virtuosity as the players slid effortlessly and with bold strokes from mood to mood, including the emulation of natural sounds in “The Shallows,” which opened the piece. A mid-concert encore followed, with Time for Three racing through a mash-up of themes from Franz List to Fiddler on the Roof. At one point DePue and Kendall harmonized using the same violin. It was unabashed showmanship, to be sure, but a definite crowd-pleaser.
The boys were back in the second half for the American Suite, a more melodious work that ended with a rave-up of the rapid-fire fiddler’s favorite The Orange Blossom Special, which even brought second violin principal Gerald Loughney front and center to match the bowing of De Pue and Kendall stroke for stroke. Loughney stood his ground and near the end the rest of WCO’s impressive string section chimed in for a full-on orchestral rendition the likes of which Charlie Daniels would never have imagined even in his wildest dreams.
Time for Three ended its evening with a sedate, even somber rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” The unexpected choice, which demonstrated a a delicacy and restraint that was polar opposite to the previous number, proved once again that the trio likes it when there is room to musically maneuver.
WCO had opened the evening with Gustav Holst’s St. Paul’s Suite, a 1913 works for strings that weaves together a variety of English folk melodies. From the lively “Jig” that opened the four-movement work to the closing “Finale” that sampled familiar melodies “Dargason” and even “Greensleeves,” the suite was alive and evocative of a gentler time and more melodic style.
The evening also included Darius Milhaud’s Le Boeuf sur le troit (The Ox on the Roof), a pastiche of musical styles threaded with a recurring rondo that provided an ongoing – and sometimes tiring – unity to the 16-minute composition. Milhaud was inspired to compose the piece during a 1919 sojourn to South America and thought it would make good accompaniment to a silent Charlie Chaplin comedy. That it might, but Friday it only served to bridge the night of another exceptional WCO performance.