A Journey Through Madison's Classical Music Scene
Jul 26, 2013
02:29 PM
Classically Speaking

Concerts on the Square Drops the Average Age of Professionalism

Concerts on the Square Drops the Average Age of Professionalism

It is not a phenomenon unique to Madison, but surely one that is cherished by local music lovers: The frequent celebration of the next crop of great musicians. Experienced music lovers have by now lost some of initial “gee, whiz!” shock of hearing a 16-year old rip through the once “impossible” riffs of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, e.g., but there is always a wow factor when the next prodigy reminds us what we were doing at their age.

But Andrew Sewell and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra may have taken this type of encounter to new heights Wednesday night at the penultimate Concerts on the Square event of the summer. They presented not one, but four polished prodigies, and if that weren’t enough, they performed an arresting work penned by Alexander Prior when he was seventeen.

Prior is now all of twenty-one, and already packs a resume that would be the envy of most composers—and conductors. At sixteen, he was named assistant conductor of the Seattle Symphony (of course he had just finished his double Master degrees in conducting and composition at the St. Petersburg Conservatory), gets re-invited on the spot most everywhere he guest conducts, has been composing since the age of eight, and has a string of commissions pending that should hold him until he’s, oh, twenty-five or so.

Our taste of the compositional side of this prodigy came via “Horizons,” commissioned in 2010 for the London Barbican. A one-movement work for two violins, cello and piano with large orchestra, it is clearly influenced by John Adams, the work’s dedicatee. But the piece was not merely derivative of the expected minimalism-with-twists that Adams employs in his best works, but has a genuine freshness that piques one’s interest in hearing more of Prior. As for the soloists, suffice to say that violinists David Cao and Bethany Moss, cellist Isaac Bershady and pianist Rebecca Jin did not act their age: As we have come to expect, they looked and sounded right at home with the WCO.

Sewell surrounded the main event with typical delights: Ravel’s “Menuet Antique” and Stokowski’s arrangement of Debussy’s “Claire de Lune” opened the perfect late July evening. Following intermission, the maestro slipped in another obscure work that deserved a wider hearing, the Waltz and Love Scene from Carl Davis’ score for the 1927 silent film Flesh and the Devil. A Concert Waltz by Glazunov was the perfect lead-in to a brisk and crisp Capriccio Italien by Tchaikovsky.

 But perhaps none of it would have happened, we were reminded, except for a vision more than thirty years ago. At intermission, Pleasant Rowland Frautschi was presented an award by Maestro Sewell for her seminal role in creating Concerts on the Square. The memento was a framed enlargement of the newspaper article of January 26, 1984 that announced a new musical series that would begin gracing the square that summer. Multiply 30 seasons times 6 concerts each at around 20,000 audience members, and we’ll get close to the volume of thanks that award represents. Summers in Madison have never been the same since.

Photo: enlargment of the Capital Times article of 1/26/1984, courtesy of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra.

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About This Blog

Years before I contributed my first classical review to the Los Angeles Times in 1988, I started a class in music appreciation for adults that had one aim: to put a few cracks in the “ivory tower elitism” I found pervasive in the classical music world since my boyhood days. Whether as a critic, program annotator or band director, that goal has never changed. After all, Mozart and Beethoven and the gang wrote their music for people like you—not critics or professors!

After growing up in the suburbs of New York City, and spending twenty years in and around Los Angeles, the last twelve years here leave me more amazed than ever at the musical riches of Madison. I’m a cheerleader at heart, because I always think more people would become classical fans if they’d give it a chance—but I’m also quick to tell you when you’re not getting your money’s worth. Classically Speaking brings you as much news and as many reviews as possible, and I hope you’ll join me for a fabulous musical journey.

–  Greg Hettmansberger
Follow Greg on Twitter @ghettmansberger

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