WISCONSIN CHAMBER ORCHESTRA – Momentum
(2005 WCO Records)
Written by Judy Brady
Some historians like to consider the chamber orchestra to be a slightly rebellious cultural entity that arose in response to the development of the huge and gregarious 19th-century Romantic symphony orchestra. And that may be a good way to view the more intimate nature of flourishing groups such as the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra. The problem facing many groups still adhering to the classical music tradition rests in its general “dying” and potentially irrelevant stature among popular-music cultures. So this new CD from the WCO both reasserts the validity of such long-standing traditions yet wisely acknowledges that such traditions need to be constantly updated and refurbished.
The selections on WCO’s Momentum feature a standard but rather unexciting “Concerto Grosso in F Major” by G.F. Handel and the lovely “Masques et Bergamasques” by Gabriel Faure. These two pieces work well together, despite the large time gap between composers. Handel was a leading force in Baroque musical style, and the smaller orchestra of his day inadvertently tailored much of his composition to fit the aesthetic of today’s chamber orchestra. Faure’s treatment of the Baroque dance suite—here he chooses the overture, minuet, gavotte and pastoral—seems like an ode to the past. He summons the charm and lively character of the 18 th century while still expressing his own mastery of the elegant and lush modern French style.
The last two pieces allow the WCO to really shine. Part of the orchestra’s publicity spiel these days includes a gesture to “entertain and enrich the quality of life of diverse audiences.” This multi-cultural outlook seems to be gaining ground in the hallowed halls of the Western art music academy, and maestro Andrew Sewell selected Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara perhaps as an example of an under-represented composer and region. Either way, Rautavaara’s “Divertimento (1953)” is captivating. The strings sparkle, and the less-familiar 20th-century harmonies quickly draw attention to Rautavaar’s creative yet neoclassicist tendencies. The warmth and intensity of this eight-minute piece is pleasantly surprising.
Richard Strauss’ “Suite from Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme” contains nine movements and many opportunities to hear the individual talent within the WCO, specifically “Lully’s Minuet,” “Courante” and “The Dinner.” The recording of Momentum took place over three days and there are slight inconsistencies of volume, depth, and clarity among the four multi-movement works, which is unfortunate. The Faure and Handel selections, for example, sound as if they may have been recorded in different places (although everything took place in MATC’s Mitby Theater) and even certain background layers of the Strauss piece sound buried at times. But with a new performance venue, a new $10 million endowment, and this new CD, the WCO should feel confident and optimistic about its accomplishments and future goals as a part of the Madison musical community.