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WCO: Diamond, Dvorak, Shostakovich

David Diamond: Rounds for String Orchestra (1944)
Dvorak: Serenade in E Major, Op. 22
Shostakovich: Concerto No. 1 for Piano, Trumpet, and Strings, Op. 35

Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra
Catherine Kautsky, piano
Frank Hanson, trumpet
David Crosby, conductor


In the department of holding high promise, few concert programs would better that of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra Tuesday evening at the Norman Mitby Theater: two wonderful works for string orchestra and a piano concerto with a first-rate soloist.

But once again, not playing in tune raises its ugly head as the great destroyer, completely ruining David Diamond's Rounds for String Orchestra (1944). It's a wonderful piece, cast in three continuous movements, rhythmic high energy embracing lyric intensity. However, as to intonation and ensemble in the outer movements, the work sounded badly under-rehearsed, obscuring the careful precision of its lines and clouding the cool transparency of its sonorities. The expressive central adagio was marginally more successful. Though the work is nearing its 50th birthday, we still think of it as "new" music, and the relative scarcity of contemporary works in the community's concert programs makes the default in this instance even more of a loss than it would otherwise be.

More traditional in every way, but nevertheless one of the most engaging masterpieces for strings, Dvorak's Serenade in E Major, Op. 22 also presented prominent intonation problems. On the whole, however, the performance was redeemed by the most flexible and lyrical conducting I've ever heard from Crosby. Then there's the work itself: somehow Dvorak's pleasant, easy-going nature, often lightly tinged by sadness or regret, always amounts to an irresistible allure, for example in the lovely second of its five movements, tempo di valse. Sad to say, apparently unsolvable tuning problems continue to derail the best of intentions. Frankly, it amounts to a royal pain, badly marring what could have been a great concert.

Shostakovich's Concerto No. 1 for Piano, Trumpet, and Strings, Op. 35, with soloists Catherine Kautsky (piano) and Frank Hanson (trumpet), was a completely different matter. Written in 1933, it fits well in the mold of experimental or avant-garde writing of the period following World War I and the Russian Revolution. Satire, melding good humor and outright jest with high seriousness, is a major component of the piece, which to American ears may well sound a bit on the jazzy side. The major satirical role falls to the isolated trumpet, always a bit out of place with all this wire sound going on around it. Not at all to slight the trumpeter, it's the piano that supports the structural and lyrical central spine of this piece.

Kautsky played with great assuredness and power, solidly secure technique, and a keen sensitivity in lyrical and expressive matters. Her training and awards credentials as reported in the program notes are impressive, but the proof, as always, lies in the playing itself, and there she excelled with complete authority. It's chararcteristic of Shostakovich's music for piano that disarming simplicity exists side-by-side with fierce complexity, and this concerto is no exception. Simplicity comes in the form of relaxed motifs that are not quite tunes, and these Kautsky played with a touching sense of dynamic direction and shape. Musicians recognize that this kind of playing is generally more demanding than the flashy kind, as it leaves zero room for error. Still, the flashy bits are plenty difficult, especially at the breakneck speeds encountered in this particular work. Kautsky didn't have any problem meeting these challenges, either. Also typical of the composer, and indeed part of his Russianness, is a special emotional intensity in slow music, here the longest of the work's four movements (lento). Despite a few jolts in the ensemble, both soloists and orchestra seemed united in achieving the same musical goal.

Isthmus, May, 1993
Copyright 1993 Jess Anderson

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