Big nights for Lee Erickson’s MSO Chorus
Brahms in A German Requiem and Stravinsky in Symphony of Psalms drew selectively from scripture to portray a benign and forgiving God. The Milwaukee Symphony Chorus, augmented by 22 kids from the Milwaukee Children’s Choir, won’t be singing about fire and brimstone as it performs both works on this weekend’s MSO concerts, with Edo de Waart conducting.
The resemblance between the two pieces pretty much ends with the theological outlook. Stravinsky’s Psalms, from 1930, springs from the composer’s somewhat mis-named Neo-Classical period. It might more aptly be called his Ant-Romantic or Neo-Baroque period. During this period, Stravinsky tended toward leaner orchestrations and a sort of objective beauty that did not encourage expressive liberties on the part of performers. The music has tonal centers and a push and pull of dissonance and consonance, but chords often resolve in unorthodox ways, and Stravinsky could be boldly dissonant.
Brahms unfurls long, gorgeous melodies or lush harmony. The Requiem is high Romantic music, but not of the yearning, searching, emotionally distressed variety. The music aims at a transcendent serenity and encourages peaceful passage to the next life.
“Stravinsky, tonally, doesn’t do so much what you’d expect,” said Lee Erickson, the MSO’s chorus director since 1994. “But it’s not as foreign to our ears now as it was even 20 years ago, the last time we did it.” (Actually, the MSO’s last go-round with Symphony of Pslams was in 1991, under resident conductor Neal Gittleman.)
“The second movement is a double fugue with lots of angular melodies, which. present problems with tuning. The third movement has rhythmic tricks. Stravinsky put the tenors in a not very happy part of the range. They’re always hanging from a rope, it seems.”
Erickson said that the choristers were divided over the piece along love-it-or-hate-it lines. But everyone loves the Brahms Requiem, if only because they’ve sung it dozens of times and have the notes down.
“We always rehearse the Stravinsky first,” Erickson said. “The Brahms is the reward.
“This is good for the chorus. It takes a fine chorus to go from style to style and do it well.”
De Waart, like every other conductor, did not consult with Erickson prior to rehearsal. He left it to the chorus director to anticipate his interpretation.
“I always have to guess my best or coach vanilla-but-musical,” Erickson said. “At the piano rehearsal, (de Waart) didn’t have a lot to say, but you could tell by the look on his face that he was enjoying himself. ”
Erickson saw a sharp contrast between de Waart and Andreas Delfs, his predecessor. Delfs was demonstrative, energetic and immediately started in on correction and fine points of interpretation. De Waart is more inclined to just listen, at first. Still, Erickson thought de Waart drew a great deal of nuance and musicality from the singers at that first piano rehearsal. He was startled to find all of that gone at the first rehearsal with orchestra.
“He said it would be a read-through, and it was exactly that,” Erickson said. “I thought, oh no! What’s going on? But then last night, at the second rehearsal, all the cuing and the encouragement and the nuance were back. I think he was just analyzing the night before. In the Brahms, the chorus sounds more musical to me than they ever have. I’m proud and pleased.”
The soloists are soprano Twyla Robinson and baritone Luca Pisaroni.
Concert time is 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, April 30 and May 1, at Marcus Center Uihlein Hall. Tickets are $25-$93 at the MSO website, the MSO ticket line (414-291-7605) and at the Marcus box office, 414-273-7206.
Hear the Milwaukee Symphony’s Frank Almond up close and personal at Arts Fever on May 13. Food, activities and performing and visual arts of all sorts will be represented at this event, a joint project of ThirdCoast Digest and UPAF. Details here.