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Season Preview: An Interview with Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra’s Andrew Sewell

October 7, 2011

Few things are as enjoyable for us as attending a Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra concert. We find that more often than not, we are transported to a different time and place, where only the music exists and communicates in a way that is unique to the chords, themes and movements of classical music. The summertime Concerts on the Square featuring the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra is one of Madison’s rich traditions. But sometimes, with the warm weather (or threatening thunderstorm), the glasses of wine and the gathering of friends, the music can get lost in all the activity. No, the best place to see the Chamber Orchestra is in the dark confines of the Capitol Theater at the Overture Center. So it is with much anticipation and delight that we welcome the arrival of the 2011-12 Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra Masterworks Season on Friday , Oct. 7.

Friday night’s concert opens with Elgar’s “Serenade for Strings in E Minor, Opus 20” followed by guest pianist Ilya Yakushev, from St. Petersburg, Russia playing Prokofiev’s “Piano Concerto Number 1 in D-flat Major” and, one of our favorite pieces, Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” Yakushev is a world-renowned pianist who has played solo performances at the Bechstein Center in Berlin, the Musikverein in Vienna and with the San Francisco Symphony.

We had the opportunity to talk with Maestro Sewell about the upcoming season:

What are the highlights of this season’s Masterworks?
AS: Masterworks #1. “A Concert of Firsts” refers to each piece on the program being an important milestone in some way. Elgar’s “Serenade for Strings” was his first published work and has remained in the standard repertory, Prokofiev’s “Piano Concerto No.1” from 1911—his first piano concerto; Copland’s “Music for the Theater,” a not-often-performed work, that shows a different side to the young Copland, when he incorporated jazz elements into his music for the first time in 1925, and fresh home from his time abroad in Europe. And of course, Gershwin’s trail-blazing “Rhapsody in Blue” from 1924.

We have great artists [this season]. Cellist Amit Peled returns on  Jan. 13 to perform Boccherini’s “Cello Concerto in B flat” and Israeli composer Kopytman’s “Kaddish.” Also on that program, NZ composer, Douglas Lilburn’s “Diversions for Strings.” He is well known in New Zealand for his overtures and three symphonies. We conclude with Haydn’s Symphony 100 ‘The Military,” so-called because of the second movement percussion parts.

On Feb. 24, violinist Alexander Sitkovetsky, will perform Beethoven’s Violin concerto, along with Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 6.” We are opening with a short narrated piece by Benjamin Britten – the “End Sequence to the Night Train” with James Ridge, from APT as narrator. Alexander is a phenomenal talent from London, and this performance will repeated at the historic Ringling Theater in Baraboo, on Feb. 25.

The day before St Patrick’s Day, March 16, we give a nod to the Irish tradition in programming the Piano Concerto No.4 by Irish composer John Field. He wrote seven such concertos, and is often referred to as the Irish Chopin. He was a pupil of Clementi. Granville Bantock’s rich Celtic Symphony for six harps and strings is included on this program along with Mozart’s Symphony No. 35 the “Haffner,” and we open with Mendelssohn’s The Hebrides Overture, famous for its musical imagery portraying a journey he took to Fingal’s Cave in the Hebrides, near Scotland.

We conclude the indoor season with Beethoven’s mighty Symphony No. 9 The Choral, with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra chorus combining with the Festival Choir of Madison, and four soloists. In the first half is Gerald Finzi’s hauntingly beautiful string work, Dies Natalis,(Day of Birth)  with tenor soloist, Robert Bracey.  Five movements based upon texts by Thomas Traherne.

How are the musical pieces chosen?
AS: I keep a mental list as well as a written one, of pieces I would like to do, and also what I consider good repertoire for chamber orchestra, which includes many early classical pieces and a large quantity of early twentieth century works.  Of course, it’s always on the ticket to perform Mozart, Haydn or Beethoven symphonies, a staple for chamber orchestra repertoire, but also over the years we have covered a wide variety of works.

I’m always looking out for new and interesting pieces.  I like being surprised when I hear a piece I don’t know on the radio or while looking through CD collections in public libraries or even music stores.  Sometimes I have a specific piece or concerto in mind, and will ask a soloist whom I know well to play it, as in the case of John Field’s piano concerto.  I know Kit Taylor, and he agreed to play it at my request. In other situations, I may hear of a soloist, and we will approach their manager for a list of works they may be offering during a season which is actually happening right now, as I’m currently planning and thinking about the 2012/13 indoor season.  Once a soloist has been booked, then I go to work and program around the concerto or solo piece. Following that, it becomes much like putting a jigsaw puzzle together or creating a fine menu. Looking to make a program palatable for an audience and musicians alike, and thereby create a buzz for people to support the orchestra.


How do you balance the music between familiar pieces such as Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue with more unknown selections?
AS: As I have mentioned before, in describing the current season, you can see how the familiar names, Haydn, Mozart or Beethoven are prevalent, but I also try to create something appealing for the serious classical musician who knows the repertoire outside these familiar names.  Or if a composer’s name is familiar then perhaps choosing a less familiar work, such as Aaron Copland’s Music for the Theater. Or if a particular composer is from a certain school of composing or era, such as last season, we performed a ballet suite of nine French composers from the 1920s.

In the case of Gershwin, it celebrates jazz as a legitimate genre when it was still in its infancy in the classical music halls.  These days, it can be coined more of a pops piece, but frankly, we have to loosen the idea that “popular music” or “pops” somehow undervalues the music.  It doesn’t.  Music is great in all its various styles, and we as listeners get pleasure from our understanding of that style, and what appeals to our senses.  If you have grown up in a family that listens to talk-back radio, you will probably gravitate to that eventually and do the same.  Similarly, sporting families or classical or popular music-loving families, we all have an appreciation for the music environment in which we grew up. That’s why, education is so important in the schools for music and art, and we should continue to advocate these important subjects in the earlier grades as we are trying to do here in Madison.

Have you ever regretted choosing a selection because the audience was not receptive or you received negative reviews?

AS: Once or twice that has happened, and early on in my career.  It was from thinking a piece had more substance at first hearing, or that I had programmed a work for ulterior reasons, such as a pops arrangement, or a thematic selection. But on the whole, I’m very careful to investigate thoroughly all the scores, and separate the good ones from the not so good.  But as you can tell, I get excited about most scores, which is why I love what I do.

What is your favorite piece this season and why?
AS: This season, I have several – I love the Finzi piece on the last program as well as Beethoven’s Ninth.  I have also enjoyed getting to know the Field Piano concertos and have wanted to introduce them to our audience for a while.

What is your favorite piece in general and why?
AS: That’s a tough one.  I love Haydn, and always like to program at least one or two of his works a season, and the same with Mozart, Beethoven, and/or Schubert.

How do you manage to keep the music alive, vibrant and fresh when there are so many outlets demanding people’s attention?
AS: The music should always come first. If I am excited about it then it’s my job to convey that excitement, joy and enthusiasm to others.

Any comments about Friday’s opening or the season in general?
AS: I think we have a stellar season this year, and the orchestra just keeps getting better.  This past summer Concerts on the Square was an excellent season, and the more we play together, the better we get. My good friend and colleague, Ilya Yakushev is a phenomenal talent and this concert should not be missed.  Knowing his specialty is Prokofiev, after all, they are both from St Petersburg!  I think our audience will get a kick out of the Copland Music for the Theater.  It has many telltale gestures to it, classic Copland-esque traits we hear 15 years later in pieces such as Appalachian Spring for example.

For ticket information, contact the Overture Center for the Arts (608.258.4141) or visit the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra.



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