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Andrew Sewell and the WCO Challenge

With one formal concert and a full summer of Concerts On the Square under his belt, Andrew Sewell is fully established as the new music director of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra. He is outgoing, articulate, vivacious, loaded with ideas and armed with apparently boundless energy. These are surely great assets for a person confronting the challenges he will face in the coming seasons. What hasn't emerged clearly yet is whether Sewell is an irresistible force whose zeal will carry the WCO to new heights or rather a very congenial personality who nevertheless can't accomplish a levitation of that kind.

The challenges are real enough, similar to those facing the Madison Symphony Orchestra when John DeMain came to town six years ago. One of Sewell's dilemmas is that this job opening was created by the untimely death of his predecessor, David Crosby, whereas DeMain's hiring arose from the retirement of Roland Johnson. Both Crosby and Johnson had led their orchestras for many years, but Johnson's retirement was a transition that could be planned for carefully, without urgency.

Crosby's sudden death caused deep shock and dismay to all concerned. The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra was forced to respond to a situation for which it hadn't prepared, and moreover to do so quickly. Covering the short term with guest conductors, the organization carried out the search process that resulted in Sewell's selection early this year. The interim period was imbued with optimism that was at best guarded, the more so, possibly, because at the time of Crosby's death the orchestra had been recovering from a near-fatal financial crisis several years earlier.

While neither the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra nor the Madison Symphony Orchestra was artistically moribund at the time of its respective transition, the latter was fiscally stronger and more deeply rooted in the town's cultural fabric. However, for both organizations the change of artistic director was clearly the time to get moving in new directions, to spark renewed growth and to deal with changing audience profiles.

For DeMain the key task was to build on the fine record Johnson had established without battering anyone's ego or making the kind of break that would diminish the standing of the preceding era. Sewell's task is a bit more delicate, respecting proper grief for Crosby yet recognizing that a new approach and different style will help assure an ongoing place for the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra in Madison's cultural life. To falter now, given the WCO's slimmer margin of safety, could be disastrous.

Sewell's new job will require enthusiasm, grit, determination and old-fashioned hard work. But these are qualities he has amply displayed since his earliest conducting experiences.

At 16, he was a violinist in the New Zealand national high-school orchestra course, playing concerts in Auckland and Christchurch. "I was so keen to conduct," he says, "that I'd have been willing to try anything. I told our conductor of my desire, and he gave me a kind of odd 'who are you?' look. But as it turned out, they needed someone to conduct a wind ensemble program. I had two days to prepare for it."

In the mid-'80s, as part of a benefit effort to relieve famine in Ethiopia, Sewell boldly assembled a group of chamber-orchestra players, seeded the project with his own funds and went on tour. "I did everything," he laughs. "It was quite an adventure."

At 22, Sewell achieved a major success in New Zealand, conducting Verdi's La Traviata with the Mercury Opera and the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra.

As he was telling me these stories, I was reminded of one of youth's great virtues: doing things because you didn't know they were supposed to be impossible.

Next, Sewell strove to solidify his technical foundation in conducting. He enrolled in the University of Michigan's master's degree in conducting, determined to study with the renowned teacher Gustav Meier. He had just returned to New Zealand when Meier urged him to enter the Tanglewood conducting competition, where he would be judged among 30 other aspirants. "This was an important crossroads," Sewell recalls, "but the $3,000 it would cost to go to Tanglewood might mean I couldn't afford Michigan as well. Still, I had to go, and though I wasn't selected it gave me a chance to do a live audition in front of Meier."

Sewell completed the master's program at Michigan with honors in 1990. His further studies included master classes in conducting led by the eminent conductors Daniel Barenboim in Chicago, Otto-Werner Mueller in Toronto and Jorma Panula in Finland. Sewell's work has not gone unnoticed. He received the New Zealand Young Achiever's Award in 1987, and in 1997 his country again honored him with the first New Zealand Performing Arts Trust's Star Award.

Next Sewell set out to develop his professional career. Following a one-year stint as assistant conductor of the Memphis Symphony Orchestra he moved to Toledo, Ohio in 1995 and became the resident conductor of the Toledo Symphony as well as the music director of the Mansfield Symphony. In addition to his new post at the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, Sewell was recently appointed music director for the Wichita Symphony in Kansas, where he is committed to five concerts this season and eight the following season. These are significant achievements, especially for a relatively young person.

Juggling a plethora of obligations has become a routine fact of life for conductors, even for the top tier of world-class orchestras. Seiji Ozawa's long tenure with the Boston Symphony Orchestra may be one of the last such unlimited relationships. One of Sewell's idols, Simon Rattle, who conducted England's City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra for many years, will take over the artistic directorship of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in 2002. Several other major orchestras are changing hands as well.

"Longevity can work both ways," Sewell observes. "It seems that ten years or less is the usual tenure for young conductors these days. But change helps vitalize players and audiences alike: People respond differently."

Now 36 and residing on Madison's west side with his wife, Mary (a violinist), and their three children -- Anna, 10; Lydia, 7; and Alistair, 4 -- the conductor has also been busy with the domestic side of his new job. "We're renting at the moment, because we don't know the town that well and haven't had enough time yet to find a house we wanted to buy," says Sewell, who seems very pleased with Madison's amenities.

Change is an obvious feature of Sewell's vision for the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra. He hopes to develop a more direct connection between summer's enormously popular "Concerts On the Square" series and the more classically oriented formal concerts of the indoor "Concerts Off the Square" series, which begins on Wednesday, Sept. 13, at the Wisconsin Union Theater.

One big change is rescheduling the indoor events. Rather than starting at 8 p.m., the traditional hour, four of the five concerts will start at 7 p.m. on Wednesdays, just as the summer concerts do. This might be a tight fit for people who work and need to squeeze a meal in somewhere. However, starting earlier has worked fairly well for UW School of Music events, which begin at 7:30 if they fall on weekday evenings. The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra is addressing the meal issue by offering a dinner option with the Wednesday concerts at the Union Theater, starting at 5:30 p.m.

Changes are afoot with regard to the WCO's repertory too. The summer events have tended to offer very lightweight fare, one result of which was that people seldom paid much attention to the music, chattering right over it while enjoying their food and drink. Sewell is trying to remedy that, presenting a few more challenging works and -- a first this past summer -- explicitly asking the audience to listen quietly to the music. "We want people to have fun but also to appreciate the music," he says. He also hopes this appreciation will attract more of the summer audience to attend the indoor concerts.

"Building the orchestra's Concerts On and Off the Square is a huge opportunity for me," Sewell notes. But "opportunity" is today's buzzword for "really tough task," and whether Sewell actually has what it takes is not yet clear. Obviously the WCO board of directors thinks he can handle it; after all, they gave him the job. And the general public's response to his first efforts here has been overwhelmingly positive.

I heard Sewell's formal concert in May and the second of the Concerts On the Square in July. In the initial rush of enthusiasm, it's tempting to overlook small problems. But a critical evaluation of the actual artistic results means, at the very least, wondering if the small problems are superficial or perhaps thornier. If they were flukes, consequent quality issues can be resolved with little difficulty as players and conductor gain confidence through experience with one another.

Once again it's useful to compare the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra of today with the Madison Symphony Orchestra of six years ago, with regard to string intonation, say. A weakness of the MSO up to 1994 was too frequent out-of-tune playing in the violin section. If DeMain had not been able to raise the level of playing significantly -- which he did by a combination of techniques -- the very demanding repertory we've been hearing in subsequent seasons would have been out of reach, the musical synergy throughout the whole orchestra could not have taken place, and the phenomenal growth of the organization would likely have stalled before it really got going.

So in May it was natural to wonder whether Sewell can quickly resolve the string intonation problems prominent in the WCO's performance of Mozart's "Jupiter" symphony. The performance also had significant problems with rough ensemble, perhaps the result of unsteady tempos in the opening two movements. It's hard to chalk such things up to nervousness.

On the other hand, it was a strong positive sign in the May program, as it had been in Sewell's tryout concert last winter, that he works well with soloists. And it was a very good soloist, flutist Dionne Hansen, in a challenging work, Jacques Ibert's Concerto for Flute and Orchestra. Hansen's tone was warm and mellifluous and her technique formidable. It didn't sound like an easy piece to conduct, and Sewell was very attentive to Hansen's inflections.

The programs announced for the new season of Concerts Off the Square look pretty exciting. In the Sept. 13 concert, violinist Suzanne Beia, who is a member of the Pro Arte Quartet, concertmaster of South Carolina's Spoleto Festival and concertmaster of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, will be the soloist in Vivaldi's famous quartet of violin concertos, The Four Seasons. The program opens with Mozart's Impresario overture and closes with Haydn's Symphony No. 101, the "Clock" symphony.

New this season will be the WCO's Halloween trick-or-treat family pops event on Oct. 25, kids encouraged, costumes allowed. Sewell tried this concept out in Toledo, where it was a big hit with audiences. On Nov. 25 is the WCO's traditional "Sing-Out Messiah" concert, in which audience members can join in the chorus. On Jan. 31, clarinetist Ron Samuels will play the Clarinet Concerto by Gerald Finzi, flanked by Respighi's The Birds and Mozart's Symphony No. 34. On March 21, pianist Tian Ying, who scored a stunning success in Sewell's tryout concert here last season, will return to offer another work by Finzi, the Eclogue for Piano and Strings, as well as the brooding Concerto No. 20 in D Minor, K. 466 by Mozart. This concert opens with Hindemith and ends with the Beethoven Symphony No. 1.

Overall, I'm optimistic that the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra will grow technically and artistically over the next couple of seasons. Just as I had no idea at the outset how far or how fast DeMain would move things along for the Madison Symphony Orchestra, I'm relying somewhat on hope where Sewell is concerned. His past achievements have been impressive. He's clearly in command of the WCO's destiny, and he knows it.

"There are risks," he acknowledges, "and I have to be attentive how far we can go. I'm very keen on retaining the dignity and respect the orchestra has earned, and I hope the audience will trust me and go along with me."

Isthmus, August, 2000
Copyright 2000 Jess Anderson

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