Nicknamed "Beloved Beethoven," the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra's February 24 concert featured two Beethoven giants — the violin concerto and the sixth symphony — along with Benjamin Britten's "Night Mail," a short setting of a W.H. Auden poem, both music and text originally created for a 1936 short documentary film.
It's a perpetual harangue of mine to wish that artistic directors would discuss why they put specific pieces together on a program. Beyond practical constraints, why choose the compositions at hand? And, in turn, what can audiences learn by considering the several pieces performed together in a program that we might not think of when they're experienced separately?
The concerto and symphony are an easy group — two Beethoven pieces from the middle period when the composer was extending and expanding the structures and musical language he inherited from the classical era. How do they reflect upon one another within that framework? What do their very different dispositions tell us about the diversity within Beethoven's musical thinking even in a short time period?
And what of the Britten? "Night Mail" celebrated both the natural landscape of Scotland and the mechanical traversal of it by the mighty night mail train. Pairing it with the Beethoven "Pastoral" symphony raises questions about relationships between the human and the natural, the technologically modern and the traditionally agrarian. The Britten and the violin concerto, though radically different in style, nevertheless share a tendency to oscillate between sections that are tense and rhythmically driven and those characterized by broad, sweeping melodies. Both are in stark contrast to the sunny, almost naive tone that permeates the sixth symphony.
To ask how these pieces are in dialogue, how listening to one might influence the perception of another, is to recognize that at its best, musical performance can mean something, can teach us and engage us both emotionally and intellectually.
And so the performance itself. "Night Mail" is a small piece — short, and focused around percussive sounds more than anything else. The ensemble was tight, but James Ridge's sure-tongued narration of the excited, fast-paced poetry stood out. Ridge moved easily between those sections that mimicked the quick cadences of train sounds and the broader, arrhythmic parts that reflect the magic of night.
The Beethoven violin concerto was for the most part stellar. The central tension of the first movement emerges almost instantaneously: it opens with an obsessive, repetitive figure in the timpani that is immediately followed by a light, pretty melody in the winds. The orchestra could have brought out that opposition more strongly from the first, but it found surer footing as the movement unfolded.
Alexander Sitkovetsky, the soloist, was especially convincing here. He employed a lovely rubato throughout, breathing life into both melodic passages and the extravagant passages designed to show off a soloist's skills. His final cadenza was dazzling, as much for its technical mastery as for its working through of the movement's ideas as he alternated between flashy arpeggios and double-stop versions of earlier motives. When he emerged from the cadenza, the re-statement of the theme had a knowing quality that registered a sense of significant change.
The second movement of the concerto has some of the ethereal, crystalline qualities more strongly associated with Beethoven's later period. Again I wish the orchestra had captured the strangeness of the halting opening more quickly, but they settled in and the soloists in the orchestra performed beautifully.
The finale of the concerto shares a general tone with the entire sixth symphony. Both are fun, clear, and relatively emotionally uncomplicated. Where the concerto celebrates having traversed difficult territory, the sixth symphony is almost escapist. Four of the five movements of the symphony are overwhelmingly cheery, and the storm of the fourth movement is a powerful natural phenomenon, not a crisis of identity.
The orchestra seemed to be enjoying the symphony a great deal, perhaps because, as Maestro Sewell noted in the program notes, we Wisconsinites could use some sun right about now.