WCO Launches Its Masterworks Series With Two Virtuoso Women | entertainment

The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra’s Friday night concert, a rousing start to its five-concert Masterworks series, showcased two virtuoso women in classical music: composer Florence Price’s Symphony No. 1 in E minor and violinist Elissa Lee Koljonen, who led Max Bruch’s “Scottish Fantasy” played.

Felix Mendelssohn’s ‘Hebrides Overture’, which gave a Scottish theme to the first half of the concert along with Bruch’s fantasy, was motivated by the composer’s journey to Scotland, the same voyage that inspired his famous ‘Scottish Symphony’. During a rather wild excursion on the island of Staffa in the Inner Hebrides, an archipelago off the west coast of mainland Scotland, Mendelssohn visited Fingal’s Cave, known for its acoustics and black basalt columns. After this experience he wrote a letter to his family, enclosing the opening theme of the overture.

While many pieces make liberal use of major and minor tonalities, the ‘Hebrides Overture’ makes the contrast between the two a key feature. From the outset, the first presentation of the opening theme shifts rapidly from minor and somber to major and bright, evoking the darkness and beauty of the cave. The second subject, on the other hand, is in the major key and is more fluid and lyrical, evoking the surging sea. The WCO’s woodwind section shone throughout the overture, most notably in the angelic recapitulation of the second theme.

Unlike Mendelssohn, Bruch wrote his homage to Scotland before touring the country. Instead, Bruch studied Scottish folk music in the Bavarian State Library in Munich and based each movement of his “Fantasy” on a different folk tune. Bruch preferred the first movement’s ‘Auld Rob Morris’ based melody and wove it into later significant moments in the piece, notably at the end of the violin cadenza in the fourth movement.

From the work’s moving folk melodies to its fast melodic runs, “Fantasy” demonstrated Koljonen’s masterful ability to change pitch. Each movement demanded something different from the violinist, and she delivered. In the second movement, she beautifully twirled a violin-like bariolage figure up and down her fretboard, with wonderful tone and not losing a microsecond of a bar. And in the final, Koljonen’s incredibly fast runs, played remarkably clearly and convincingly, were just thrilling to watch and hear.

This wasn’t the first time WCO Maestro Andrew Sewell and Koljonen have worked together, and while it’s been over 20 years since they’ve shared a stage, their chemistry looked mature on Friday. Koljonen stood a little closer to the orchestra than many soloists, which helped her stay in constant communication with Sewell. As a result, Koljonen and the WCO stayed in close sync through even some of the most difficult passages.

Elissa Lee Koljonen

Elissa Lee Koljonen performed with the WCO Max Bruch’s “Scottish Fantasy”.

The concert turned away from the Scottish theme and ended with a great American symphonic work, Florence Price’s Symphony No. 1 in E minor. The piece won Price first prize in the 1932 Wanamaker Music Competition, which led to the work’s premiere at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, when it was the first symphony by a black female composer to be performed by a major American orchestra. Afterwards, the Chicago Daily News reported, “It is an impeccable work, a work that speaks its own message with restraint yet with passion … it deserves a place in the regular symphonic repertoire.” I enthusiastically agree.

Although it has been performed for a long time, Price’s music has recently sparked renewed interest. More specifically, the mainstream classical world has only recently absorbed many composers who have been marginalized, including Price. Seventy years after its premiere, her Symphony No. 1 was published by AR Editions in Middleton in 2008 and has gained popularity on concert stages across the country over the past five years.

From graduating college at age 19 to heading up a college music department in her 20s, Price was a trailblazer. Trained in Western classical composition, her style focuses on African-American music, and her compositions have been influenced by both classical and African-American folk and pop music. For example, the third movement of Symphony No. 1 is a juba movement and exhibits the distinctive rhythmic pattern of juba, a music and dance form created by enslaved people in the pre-war South.

The First Symphony is perhaps best known for its first movement, which features a haunting main theme and exciting twists and turns. But the highlight of the evening for me was probably the second sentence. It began with the brass choir performing a hymn, and as the movement progressed, other sections of the orchestra – woodwind and strings – took the spotlight for a moment, interrupting the brass choir’s chorus. It sounded like a loving conversation between the sections.

The last sentence ended with a bang. Its fast tempo, fast rhythms and heavy percussion provided an exciting conclusion to the night. If Friday’s show is a harbinger of the rest of the WCO’s Masterworks Series, we’re set for an exciting concert season.


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