As it opens a new series of programs in its artist series concerts, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra is staking its fortunes on a program devoted to music of our own century. In addition to offering a premiere performance of a brand-new piano concerto, each of the four pieces to be presented Saturday evening at the First Congregational Church casts a different light on the idea of modern music.
"Among the four works," WCO artistic director and conductor David Crosby says, "there are a number of interesting pairings. The Respighi Botticelli Tryptich and the Kenneth Leighton Veris Gratia are inspired by nonmusical things, Rennaisance painting in the first case and Latin poetry in the second. And while this pair of works has a programmatic basis, the other pair -- Stravinsky's Dumbarton Oaks Concerto and David Ott's Piano Concerto No. 2 have in common that they explicitly avoid such Romantic ideas."
Indeed, as he conceived the program, Crosby says he arrived at the order that made the most artistic sense to him and was astounded to discover that they were in chronological order, spanning the period from 1927 to 1997: Respighi, Stravinsky, Leighton and Ott. For all that the music is modern, Crosby expects it to be highly accessible to the audience. "Leighton's suite, written in 1950, has some of the same feeling you find in Vaughn Williams," he says. "Though it is quite recent, the Ott concerto, written in 1994 and rescored for chamber orchestra just this year, is a tonal piece. It falls to Stravinsky, with his lean 1937 neoclassicism, to show the 'modern' elements."
Another pairing in the program is that there are two works involving soloists. Oboeist Linda Donahue and cellist Paul Gmeinder, WCO principals of their respective sections, will appear in the Leighton piece, which is a suite for oboe, cello and strings. Indeed, Donahue and Gmeinder recommended the piece, which Crosby didn't know earlier. This will be its first Madison hearing, apparently.
Pianist Frederick Moyer will be the soloist in the Ott concerto, which he commissioned in 1994 and premiered in Massachusetts in 1995. The original scoring was on too large a scale for a chamber orchestra performance, so the new arrangement cuts back on winds. "But the piano part was untouched," Crosby remarks, "and by the way, it is extremely difficult to play." Moyer should be well up to the challenge: he received his training at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia and studied with the superb pianist of the Beaux Arts Trio, Menahem Pressler, at Indiana University.
"All four works are new for me, as a conductor," Crosby notes. "The more I lived with Ott piece, the more I came to like it." With the clock running out on the 20th century, programs like this one are sure to become more common. Traditionally, audiences for live concerts have been slow to connect up with the art of their own time. Crosby's point about "living with it" is probably a key element in greater acceptance of new music. That trend may be growing, at last. The Stravinsky is the only work on this program that I knew beforehand, and I think it's exciting and valuable to look forward to discoveries in most if not all concerts one attends.
Isthmus, September, 1997
Copyright 1997 Jess Anderson