Tom Strini
Review

The surprising Milwaukee Chamber Orchestra

By - Apr 17th, 2010 10:25 am
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Richard Hynson, Musical Director for the Milwaukee Chamber Orchestra. Photo courtesy of website.

The Milwaukee Chamber Orchestra is the happiest surprise of the current season for these reasons: intriguing programs you’re unlikely to hear at the MSO, Richard Hynson’s sudden growth as a conductor, establishment of Calvary Church as a superb downtown music venue,  the opportunities it affords for local musicians to step into the spotlight as soloists, and for building a large following in just a few seasons of renewed life after several dormant years.

Friday night’s concert was a prime example. The MCO played Aaron Copland’s Concerto for Clarinet, Gerald Finzi’s Romance, Opus 11, and Béla Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta.

William Helmers, who usually labors in relative obscurity as the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra’s bass clarinet specialist, took on the concerto. His intensity, subtlety and command earned the standing ovation from an audience that filled nearly every seat. Helmers and Hynson’s languid pace and liquid legato in the first movement could not have been more soothing. In the second,  aggressive velocity, punchy accents and razor-sharp rendering of Copland’s jagged rhythms made for a bracing contrast.

Finzi was part of the Vaughan Williams/Gustav Holst circle in England, and his music reflects that: All tweedy country-gentlemen Romantic, with lots of tunes that sound like British folk songs but unfurl to post-Romantic length. The Romance was sweet, lush, well-played and uninteresting.

Bartók’s piece, too rarely heard, is intensely interesting at every turn. The opening fugue, wound obsessively around a serpentine coiling of minor seconds, builds pressure like the turn of a screw into dense wood. In the faster movements, the music skips and trips over shifting meters as it dashes along breathlessly. All the while, the most astonishing colors rise from extended string techniques, woozy tympani pedaled through pitch changes and tone clusters that are downright hallucinogenic coming out of a celesta. Calvary — a big live room that somehow isn’t muddy, acoustically — was the ideal venue for this piece. You could really hear the antiphonal exchanges between the miniature string orchestras to Hynson’s right and left. The music envelopes you in that space; you feel as if you’re inside of it, and that feeling heightened the thrill of Bartók’s music.

Hynson had fully absorbed this difficult piece and understood how the meter changes worked with its momentum. And he knew when the music was about momentum and when it was about atmosphere. The musicians, almost all of them moonlighting MSO members, gave Hynson close attention and responded with great vigor. The MCO has a tiny budget and thus is chronically under-rehearsed; a few moments of ragged ensemble reflected that reality. But those moments hardly mattered in such an electrified performance.

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