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WCO: Respighi, Finzi, Mozart
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Program
Respighi: The Birds
Finzi: Clarinet Concerto, Op. 31
Mozart: Symphony No. 34 in C Major, K. 338

Performers
Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra
Ron Samuels, clarinet
Andrew Sewell, conductor

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The high point of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra's concert last week was the appearance of soloist Ron Samuels in Gerald Finzi's Clarinet Concerto, Op. 31, scored for clarinet and strings. Written in 1949, the concerto is an impressively evocative work. Though quite in line stylistically with other English music of the first half of the 20th century, its orchestrational details frequently recalling the sound of Finzi's models Elgar and Vaughn Williams, it avoids bucolic naiveté and formal meandering, offering instead a strikingly intense, pensive sense of yearning tinged with regret.

Wistfulness even pervades its beginning allegro vigoroso and concluding allegro giocoso, despite their quick tempos. The middle movement, adagio ma senza rigore, features gorgeous string writing. It also afforded Samuels a means of plumbing the lyrical depths with really remarkable soft playing, often barely above a whisper, while shaping its sinuous long arches. Music director Andrew Sewell carefully provided space for the soloist's expressive freedom. All in all, it was a fine performance.

The program opened with Respighi's The Birds, a suite of five character pieces based Baroque models. The performance was distinguished by a number of well-played wind solos, but on the whole was plagued by persistent string intonation problems and not a few lapses of ensemble. The pieces are fun and not intended to be taken very seriously, but if anything that requires greater rigor in the performance standard, not less. The WCO's small size means that players are more exposed and that small slips stand out in greater relief.

Unfortunately, this problem continued during the final work on the program, Mozart's ebullient Symphony No. 34 in C Major, K. 338. It's a tremendously upbeat, delightful piece -- joyful Mozart is a joy indeed -- and to be sure, there was some good playing, in the winds especially. But it needed greater flexibility in shaping phrases in the first movement, which sounded somewhat stiff. With winds tacit, the slow movement made it very clear that Sewell needs to solve the WCO's string intonation problem. Given the beauty of the writing, the result verged at times on painful, sorry to say. The finale fared better but lacked precision and crispness in attack.

The WCO is casting about for innovations that work, but the colored spotlights on stage were more of a distraction than an enhancement, I thought. The audience applauded everything enthusiastically, clarinetist Samuels especially.

Isthmus, January, 2001
Copyright 2001 Jess Anderson




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