The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra opened its season Friday night with a "Concert of Firsts" — a program made up of pieces that marked important turning points in their composers' careers. Coincidentally, the program also drew from a time period spanning little more than 30 years — 1892 to 1925 — and surveyed some of the radically different kinds of sounds that emerged during that period.
Without a doubt, the most engaging portion of the evening was Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No 1, featuring Ilya Yakushev. It's a witty, sometimes pungent composition whose territory includes, among other things, a churning main theme, a weird modernist dance, romantic flourishes, and moments in which the solo piano line seems completely disjointed from the orchestra. Yakushev's performance was charismatic and energetic, and he held these disparate parts together with great humor, even across some fiendishly difficult passages.
The piece was an admirable programming choice, though, and one that reveals the aesthetic of angularity and juxtaposition that came to characterize one strand of musical modernism in the 20th century.
Yakushev also carried the other crowd-pleaser of the evening, Gershwin's 1924 Rhapsody in Blue. Here again he showed a talent for milking the piece for all of its expressive twists and turns: pounding chords, romantic sweeps, mincing melodies.
Modeled as it is on a jazz ensemble, the piece made space for solos by a number of orchestra members, and each was performed well. Though the limelight always falls on the clarinet for its soaring glissando (which was quite fine) special mention ought to go to the percussion section here, who held together the rhythmic tension that is crucial to the piece. Conductor and Music Director Andrew Sewell was clearly enjoying himself throughout the piece.
Aaron Copland's Music for Theatre marries qualities of both the Gershwin and the Prokofiev. Composed after a stint in Paris, it is alternately dissonant and full of jazz flourishes and syncopation; traces of his future Americana style pop out here and there. For the most part the orchestra played with verve, and the string sections deserve special praise for handling some funny moment (hesitance in the first movement, loping lines in the fourth) with confidence. However, across the board I would have liked even more oomph to communicate that sense of being abuzz in the modern world.
Elgar's Serenade for Strings, the first piece of the evening, was radically different from the others. It is romantic, undulating, and sweet where the others were full of twists and turns. Although the piece was simple, I appreciated the gesture of resisting the usual over-the-top fanfare with so many concerts start. It offered something of an invitation to the audience rather than a demand for excitement.
Much credit is due to Sewell making some unusual programming choices, aside from the always popular Gershwin. There were moments in each piece where the orchestra briefly lost its footing, as when Yakushev's tempos were especially fast or when the pulse felt a bit muddy. On the whole, though, these were balanced by a performance that was stimulating and adventurous.