Dionne Jackson takes on a Nielsen classic with the WCO

Michael Muckian, Contributing writer

Musicians rarely play better than when performing a piece of music they love. Just ask flutist Dionne Jackson.

When the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra tackles Carl Nielsen’s Flute Concerto on Feb. 19 in the Capitol Theatre at Madison’s Overture Center, it will be a labor of love for Jackson, WCO’s guest artist for the evening.

“This is my favorite concerto ever written for the flute and one of the best,” says Jackson. The graduate of Juilliard and the Paris Conservatory serves as associate professor of flute at the University of Connecticut’s School of Fine Arts and assistant principal flute with the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

“Technically, it’s incredibly challenging, with runs that are fast and difficult to play, followed by a gorgeous melody that seems to come out of nowhere,” the Chicago native says. “It changes mood very quickly, and that’s one of the things I like about performing it.”

Nielsen’s 20-minute concerto will be joined on the program by Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 5, on which Jackson will flex her considerable musical muscle. Ottorino Respighi’s Ancient Airs and Dances Suite No. 1 and Haydn’s Symphony No. 79 in F Major round out the evening’s playlist.

The Nielsen piece may have the most interesting backstory, according to WCO music director Andrew Sewell, who will be conducting the evening’s program. It’s also one of the most challenging pieces by the Nielsen, considered one of Scandinavia’s two most important composers along with Finnish composer Jean Sibelius.

“There is a muscularity and power to Nielsen’s musical language and expressive tonality that may take the listener by surprise,” says Sewell, who has conducted several of the composer’s works. “His tonality shifts away from its center and is constantly changing and evolving. By contrast, he is also capable of the most beautiful melodies and effects.”

In the case of the Flute Concerto, Nielsen’s somewhat eclectic approach also encompassed his compositional strategy. After composing his Quintet for Winds and dedicating it to members of the Copenhagen Wind Quintet, Nielsen set out to write concertos for each of the quintet member’s musical “voice,” Sewell says.

Nielsen wrote his Flute Concerto for Holger Gilbert Jespersen, the quintet’s flutist, in 1926, followed by his Clarinet Concerto written for clarinetist Aage Oxenvad in 1928. Nielsen never got around to composing concertos for the quintet’s remaining three instruments.

“The work is in two movements and moves from intimate, folksong-like moments to dramatic full orchestra, or tutti sections, with the barreling timpani and bass trombone adding weight and volume,” Sewell says. “I think listeners should note the pacing of dramatic moments of power versus passive, more thoughtful sequences.”

The concerto also offers duet moments, with just the solo flute and clarinet, following a mini cadenza toward the end of the first movement, Sewell adds. The first movement is written in a traditional sonata form, while the second movement is more rhapsodic and free, with faster and slower sections contrasting each other.

The Nielsen piece stands in marked contrast to the Brandenburg Concerto. But pairing a neo-classical 20th century composition with a Baroque masterpiece is a deliberate effort to expand the evening’s musical palette and showcase Jackson’s skills.

The Bach composition will be performed with a much smaller group of musicians, with two distinct groups among the players both performing in contrast to each other and then blending together in Baroque polyphonic style. Jackson and WCO Concertmaster Suzanne Beia will perform the leading flute and violin parts.

“The Nielsen, on the other hand, uses a larger orchestra with the solo flute as the main protagonist,” Sewell says. “Often it is the flute playing against or in contrast with the orchestra. It poses a challenge to balance the ensemble to not overpower the sound of the flute. In the higher registers, the flute penetrates easily and carries well over the orchestra.”

Jackson might refer to this as the “bird’s voice” of the flute, an aspect that has kept her playing the instrument since the fourth grade. Originally, she had wanted to play the clarinet, but the school music teacher no longer had any clarinets left. Her father, a music teacher, suggested she try the flute.

“It was a lucky mistake,” says Jackson, who has performed with the Chicago Symphony and other orchestras. “I love the flute’s brighter, more upbeat sound.”

She also is looking forward to taking on the Brandenburg Concerto along with the Flute Concerto when she performs with WCO.

“Anything written by Bach is music directly from heaven and you can’t help but feel happy,” she says. “The Nielsen is gorgeous, too, but in a different way.”

ON STAGE 

The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, with guest artist flutist Dionne Jackson, will perform its third Masterworks concert of the season at 8 p.m. Feb. 19 at Overture Center, 201 State St., Madison. Tickets are $15 to $80 and can be ordered at 608-258-4141 or wcoconcerts.org.