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Chamber Orchestra Explores All Things Celtic … and Mozart, Too!

March 17, 2012

Who knew that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart had an Irish cousin?

That apparently was the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra’s conceit for including the Austrian composer’s very familiar Symphony No. 5 in D Major, K. 385, also known as “the Haffner,” in Friday’s evening of Celtic music. The four-movement work, based on a serenade Mozart earlier had written for the Haffner family, was one of the highlights; but then the whole two hour-plus concert of works familiar and not may have been one of WCO’s season highlights.

As a pre-cursor to St. Patrick’s Day, when all the world turns a little greener, the Friday concert proved to be a wonderful opener to a festive weekend. As always, Maestro Andrew Sewell dazzled us with his orchestra’s continuously escalating performance capabilities, while educating us with music we had not heretofore known.

With his Anglophilia in full bloom, Sewell opened the evening with Mendelssohn’s The Hebrides Overture, Op. 26. Perhaps better known as “Fingal’s Cave,” every orchestra’s go-to Celtic melody was evocative of its seaside locale. WCO did a fine, full-throated job of it, but regular concertgoers have probably heard it often enough to last a lifetime.

Not so with John Field’s Piano Concerto No. 4 in E-flat Major, H. 28, which gave Christopher Taylor, UW associate professor of piano, a chance to display his impressive skills. Taylor’s fingers flew over the keys with amazing speed as he played the first movement allegro, echoing the stings with complexity and aplomb.

The second movement, although beautiful and serene, was shorter than the first and third, creating a compositional unevenness. Taylor displayed his greatest expertise in the third movement, one of the most difficult to play because of the speed required to play a succession of broken octaves written in triplets for the left hand. In addition, the rapid key changes in the third movement added a compelling dimension to the work, invigorating listeners and leaving them  asking for more.

One of the evening’s least familiar works turned out to be its most successful. Granville Bantock wrote The Celtic Symphony for string orchestra and six –count ‘em six – harps in 1940. The continuous five-movement composition covered a variety of moods and gave principal cellist Karl Lavine a wonderful opportunity to shine. The moods were many and the delivery sublime. This is a work that deserves greater notoriety, at least based on the way WCO performed it.

The Mozart followed, after which Sewell rewarded the faithful with an encore performance of Percy Grainger’s folk music mash-up of “Molly on the Shore.” Even though Grainger is Australian, one can’t get more Irish than this, a sentiment that  characterized most of a fine musical evening at Overture Hall’s Capitol Theatre.

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