By his own estimation, Andrew Sewell has conducted the 1812 Overture some 50 times — but he never tires of the famous work.
His most recent performance of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s familiar overture was July 6 as part of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra’s Concerts on the Square series. Sewell, who has served as WCO’s maestro and music director since February 2000, conducted his 17th outdoor performance of the piece before a crowd of some 45,000 people gathered on Madison’s Capitol Square.
By anyone’s estimation, that’s the largest classical music audience in the state. The concert was one of six open-air performances WCO presents free of charge on Wednesdays in the summer.
Wild applause followed the closing cannonade.
“Tchaikovsky is never easy and this is a challenging piece to play,” Sewell says. “It’s bombastic, but in a good sense. I absolutely love it.”
Sewell has never shied away from musical challenges, at least not since he decided on a career as an orchestra conductor at age 14 in his native New Zealand. That decision made his move to the United States almost a forgone conclusion, since New Zealand at the time had only five symphony orchestras — three of which were part-time endeavors. The United States had about 750 orchestras.
Sewell, the second youngest of seven children, grew up in a musical family in a small town. His mother loved music, but her family couldn’t afford a piano when she was growing up, so she made it her mission to make sure all of her children learned to play.
Sewell’s father was a violinist, and Sewell also chose to learn that instrument, as well as the cornet.
“I chose to play the violin because I thought it would more easily get me a job in an orchestra and might better pave the way to becoming a conductor,” he says.
Sewell earned his degree in violin performance from the University of Auckland in 1984. While there, he met his future wife Mary, another concert violinist. They sat next to each in the New Zealand National Youth Orchestra.
Life as a violinist changed dramatically for Sewell toward the end of 1985, when he caught several of his fingers in a lawn mower mechanism. The damage was so severe, he feared he might never play again. Rather than give up music entirely, the 21-year-old moved forward his career plans and remade himself as a conductor, forming a chamber orchestra and touring New Zealand.
“I tell young conductors that they have to make their own opportunities and form their own orchestras,” Sewell says. “I had to create the program, hire the musicians, book the halls, write the program notes and drive the bus, as well as conduct.”
The Dell’Arte Chamber Orchestra, as Sewell dubbed it, lasted three years and gave the young conductor the podium experience he desperately sought.
The work also helped attract the attention of the Australian Guarantee Corporation, sponsor of the Young Achievers Award.
In 1987, Sewell was one of nine winners out of 400 entries to win the award, which in his case included a $9,000 grant to study classical music in either the United States or the United Kingdom. The funding enabled Sewell to make an extended trip to visit U.S. music schools, including the Juilliard School in New York City and the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.
“I also spent a week in Birmingham, England, with Sir Simon Rattle, then conductor of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra,” Sewell says. “He was very inspiring, but I discovered I had to be very deliberate and even a little bit cheeky if I wanted to pick his brain. It was a good life lesson.”
Sewell eventually earned his master’s of music degree with honors in conducting from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor in 1990.
Since graduating, Sewell has carried on a busy and ambitious career as music director with various symphonies. He served in that capacity with overlapping assignments at the Toledo Symphony from 1995 to 2000, the Mansfield (Ohio) Symphony from 1997 to 2002, and the Wichita Symphony from 2000 to 2010.
Sewell joined the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra in 2000, beating out 240 other conductor-applicants to succeed the popular David Lewis Crosby, who died of a heart attack while driving to the final Concerts on the Square performance of the 1998 season. Crosby had led the orchestra for 28 years.
Sewell also is in demand as a guest conductor, having led the Toronto, Detroit, Milwaukee, Columbus, Syracuse, Illinois, Monterey, Gulf Coast and Eugene symphony orchestras. He also has conducted the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, Auckland Philharmonia, Christchurch Symphony, National Symphony of Mexico, Kyushu Symphony in Japan, City Chamber Orchestra of Hong Kong, Hong Kong City Opera, and others.
In addition to WCO’s six Masterworks concerts starting in October at the Overture Center’s Capitol Theater, Sewell’s 2016–17 season includes return engagements with the City Chamber Orchestra of Hong Kong and the Illinois Symphony, as well as his debut with the San Luis Obispo (California) Symphony.
Andrew and Mary Sewell, who became U.S. citizens in 2007, reside in Madison, where they raised their children, who are pursuing their own careers in the performing arts.
Andrew Sewell is enthusiastic not only about his children’s interest in the arts, but also about what he sees as a bright future for classical music.
However, Sewell says, performing companies must work hard to promote the values of live musical performances.
“Smartphones and portable devices have changed the landscape, giving people access to all kinds of music. The challenge is in reminding people that going to a live concert is not the same as hearing it come out of a speaker,” Sewell says. “Live music can make you joyful, make you calm and give you a unique experience. The marketplace has become very diverse and we need to move with that diversity to keep ourselves relevant.”
Some may say that’s not an argument needing to be made when 45,000 people gather on a warm summer evening for a classical music program.
For more information on the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra’s Concerts on the Square, which end Aug. 3, and the Masterworks series, which begins Oct. 14, visit wcoconcerts.org.