Pianist Wallick dazzles again in Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra season finale


If the draw of an all-Beethoven program wasn’t enough, the Friday evening concert at the Overture Center’s Capitol Theater marked the return of Bryan Wallick—with the hope that he would dazzle us as he did a couple of seasons ago, this time at the helm of the mighty “Emperor” concerto.

But the major draw was certainly Wallick. The Piano Concerto No. 5 (nicknamed “Emperor” by … who knows?) is arguably the greatest of all piano concertos. One immediately thrilled to Wallick’s expansive, yet propulsive, exposition of the opening quasi-cadenzas in response to the WCO’s full-throated chords of punctuation. Yet in the first all-orchestral passage, we also had an illustration of the pitfalls of a chamber orchestra reading of works of this breadth and power: The twenty string players were overmatched by the zealous (though arrestingly beautiful) reeds and brass.

Later in the work, particularly in the finale, the balances were more equitable, and in the larger picture, the performance was like a living dissertation on the state of the orchestra c.1810. The rapid expansion of the number of string players occurred in large part because of the improvement in wind instruments, the fact that composers were writing for a wider variety of reeds and brass in greater numbers, and they made a stronger sound.

And now we can put the criticism regarding balances in the all-but-a-quibble file. The tradeoff is, when artists who work so well together as Wallick and Sewell, as well as the rank and file of the orchestra itself, precious stretches of transparent playing that, at best, are rare when larger orchestras go full bore on the big works. This was never truer than in the shimmering slow movement of the concerto … liquid moonlight being produced by Wallick, the orchestra reflecting it with a shimmer of its own. The transition to the finale—one of this writer’s all-time favorite passages in music—easily rose to the hold-your-breath level of beauty and expectation. The finale was that heady brand of pure joy driven by unbounded energy that lies at the heart of all of Beethoven’s greatest fast movements.

For good measure, and with a little coaxing from Sewell after a standing ovation and multiple curtain calls, Wallick treated us to the Rachmaninoff Prelude in B-flat Major, proving that he can roar all by himself, at least when the piano wasn’t purring instead. We are so fortunate to have had him in Madison on more than one occasion, and if Sewell manages to bring him back again (feel free, sir!), the handfuls of the empty seats Friday night should be completely full next time.

April showers bring May Beethoven

The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra finishes the season with an exhilarating flourish

by John W. Barker

May must be the month for Beethoven. The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra closed its season with an all-Beethoven program. And next weekend, The Madison Symphony Orchestra performs the composer’s Ninth Symphony. 

The WCO began on May 1 at the Overture Center’s Capitol Theater with a comparative novelty that still merits hearing from time to time: the first of the three overtures that Beethoven wrote for different productions of his only opera, under its original title of “Leonore.” It is less ambitious in structure than its grander successors, but the WCO realized it warmly.

The guest soloist was the rapidly rising young American pianist Bryan Wallick, playing Beethoven’s Concerto No. 5, the “Emperor.” This is usually delivered in a commanding and powerhouse style, and, indeed, Maestro Andrew Sewell and the orchestra gave him every encouragement to reach grandiosity. But Wallick promptly showed, in the first movement, a pattern of beginning heroically but then pulling back as soon as possible into delicate understatement. That approach was quite apt in the thoughtful middle movement, which he treated as soulful repose. Then the pianist returned to the alternation of epic and poetic in the final movement. 

In a sense, this approach created an inconsistency, but it was clearly an effort to escape the stereotyping of this work by suggesting a range of expression beyond the conventional. I had the good fortune to speak with Wallick after the concert and he indicated that a chamber orchestra affords him the opportunity for projecting such a range. I found this performance one of the most thoughtful and interesting I have ever encountered of the work.

In an encore, a prelude in B-flat by Rachmaninoff, Wallick again showed his instinct for finding delicacy amid all the bravura writing.

Potent Performances

There were two surprises at the weekly symphony concert by the Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra.  The violins were divided left and right of the conductor.  And, more astonishingly, Bryan Wallick, the American pianist based in Pretoria who substituted for the advertised Russian soloist, played exactly the same advertised work the First Brahms Concerto, the one in D minor. 

What a huge concerto to prepare at just over two days’ notice—and perfectly memorised too!...The only fault to be found in Bryan Wallick’s reading of the concerto was a lack of penetrating singing tone for the melodic passage.  This may have been due to the piano, which though nearly new has a weak treble tone.  Specially impressive was Wallick’s handling of the many strenuous octave passages and the remarkable double trills—difficult for anyone without large hands. 

Ensemble with the orchestra was flawless.  Prabava produced a stylish account of the orchestral component, clearly matched to the conception of the soloist. 

The encore, well chosen, was Un Sospiro (A Sigh), an etude by Liszt which test the pianist’s skill in arpeggios and in playing a melody with hands in alternation from note to note.

The Rachmaninoff Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (Op. 43) has lost none of its magic.

The performance at Merrill Auditorium by pianist Bryan Wallick and the Portland Symphony Orchestra, under artistic director Robert Moody, drew one of the largest audiences the orchestra has ever had for a matinee.

I can’t resist quoting the guitar player in “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” who, when accused of making the same deal, says of his soul, “Well, I wasn’t using it.”

Wallick made the most of the suspense, with a technique that was almost too perfect. At the beginning of the Rhapsody one got the impression that he was tossing off variation after variation as if they were child’s play. It was a bit disconcerting, in that it almost caused a runaway accelerando as the orchestra struggled to keep up.

Some sections, such as the waltz that heralds the appearance of the love interest, seemed slow in comparison. Still, the rubato was excellent, the inner voices clearly articulated, and the love theme worth waiting for. A rousing finale led to an instant standing ovation.

Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra Opens Their Season with a Major Statement

..Along with Sewell’s knack for picking pieces, he also brings in soloists that frequently are making a Madison debut. On this occasion it was the pianist Bryan Wallick, no stranger to much of Europe and North America since his gold medal-winning performance at the 1997 Horowitz competition in Kiev. Not only did Wallick and Sewell opt for one of the less-played composers, Saint-Saens, but offered the Piano Concerto No. 5, a charming and exciting work that languishes in the middle of the pack among the composer’s achievements.

From a seat in the balcony, the nearly 40-member orchestra almost covered Wallick in the big moments, but he had plenty of opportunity to seduce us with scintillating virtuosity and an impressive array of keyboard color—all the more appropriate as Wallick has the condition known as synesthesia, and he sees colors in response to the notes and chords he plays.

In case there were any doubts as to his total technical mastery, Wallick gave an encore of Liszt’s Concert Paraphrase on Rigoletto. As with every true artist, Wallick managed to find the expressive moments couched within the razzle-dazzle.

With the WCO, pianist Bryan Wallick shows why Saint-Saëns' "Egyptian" Symphony deserves greater exposure

...The evenings's featured soloist was pianist Bryan Wallick, another of those enterprising guests who spares us the usual warhorses and brings us something fresh and unfamiliar. Camille Saint-Saëns is still too readily dismissed for his facile productivity, even though his works prove full of delightful surprises. Of his five piano concertos, we are likely to hear only the Second or the Fourth with any frequency, but this is unfair to the Fifth. It is known as the "Egyptian," in view of the place the composer was visiting when he wrote it in 1896, in celebrating his 50th anniversary as a concert pianist.

Whether or not one can identify authentic "Egyptian" material in the piece, it is a jewel box of surprises. Amid all the showy virtuosity, great tunes suddenly pop out of nowhere, and the composer's delight is not so much to develop his material as to play with it, have fun with it. This work really ought to be heard more often. Wallick pulled off the virtuoso fireworks with ease, but also with a sense of Gallic elegance. As an encore, he presented Franz Liszt's paraphrase on the Quartet from Verdi's Rigoletto, plainly as a vehicle to remind us of his capacities for showy brilliance.

Exciting and stimulating evening

Music ranging from the very familiar to the totally unfamiliar was presented in the Durban City Hall when the KZN Philharmonic Orchestra gave its first concert of the winter season.

Unfortunately the audience was rather sparse, thanks to the violence which accompanied a taxi drivers’ protest in the city centre earlier in the day. Those who stayed away missed an exciting and stimulating evening.

We had a new conductor, an energetic, enthusiastic and skilful young Spaniard named Josep Vicent, and a brilliant young American pianist, Bryan Wallick, who has played in Durban before.

The first half of the programme was occupied by Brahms’s massive Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat, which runs for about 50 minutes. For the pianist, this work is a formidable technical and interpretative challenge, and Bryan Wallick produced a virtuoso performance that earned him prolonged applause at the end.

"Wallick made the most of the third movement with astonishing fluency and power, but more pleasing was his flawless integration of his playing with the orchestra's. If you have read any of my other reviews, you know I dislike hearing the soloist swamped by the orchestra — this was different. This was a seamless fabric of sound."

"Wallick owned the Gershwin, investing every bar of it with just the right feel of verve and spontaneity. He and Moody inspired the orchestra to swing joyfully along -- which seemed only natural, given how many players are also proficient in jazz. The finale emerged with uncommon drive and energy."

"The audience applauded his virtuoso piano so intensely and for so long that he relented and served up a little dessert -- a wicked "Flight of the Bumblebee." So fast, his hands were blurs over the keys.".

"Bryan Wallick has played in Durban before, and obviously his reputation had preceded him. He presented a virtuoso programme that greatly appealed to the audience. He is a tall, lean man with an admirably natural and unaffected keyboard manner, and he delivered a very taxing programme with aplomb and exceptional skills."

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