Milwaukee Chamber Orchestra recasts “romantic” music

By - Feb 21st, 2011 01:29 pm
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Gustav Klimt’s “The Kiss” inspired poet Richard Dehmel, whose poem inspired Schoenberg.

The Milwaukee Chamber Orchestra played Romantic music with a difference Sunday (March 20).

Schoenberg applied 19th-century techniques in his Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night), but this music foreshadows his tradition-breaking Expressionist work in the 20th century. We do not hear impressions of forest, brook or faun. We hear emotions – anxiety, regret, compassion, love – expressed at the very limits of conventional harmony. Schoenberg did not need atonality to express these emotions.

Before the orchestra played the piece, music director Richard Hynson reviewed Richard Dehmel’s poem, upon which Schoenberg modeled his tone poem. Hynson also previewed key transformations in the musical dialogue. Dehmel‘s poem, Zwei Menchen, describes an unnamed man and a woman walking through a dark forest on a moonlit night. The woman shares a dark secret with her new lover: She bears the child of another man. Schoenberg’s music reflects the stages of Dehmel’s poem, beginning with the sadness of the woman’s confession, a neutral interlude wherein the man reflects upon the confession, and a finale that embodies the man’s bright acceptance and forgiveness. Wagnerian motifs pervade the work. (Synopsis from Wikipedia –  full text of the poem here.)

The music conveys the poetical images clearly and specifically. Violist Nathan Hackett reflected the anxiety of the woman as she confessed her story. Themes of regret and resignation in the viola were transformed by the response of cellist Scott Tisdel, as a musical affirmation of the man’s love. Violinist Jeanyi Kim represented the joy of the woman in a beautiful duet with Tisdel. All of the dialogue took place within a rich framework involving full string orchestra. Careful shifts in color, tone and tension mark the evolution from resignation to joy. At one quiet, reflective section near the end of the work, Hynson seemed transfixed – mouthing “Oh my” in response to the sound. Oh my, indeed. Verklärte Nacht is a fully satisfying piece, and the MCO delivered it.

A century after Verklärte Nacht, Rolf Martinsson wrote A.S. in Memoriam, a tribute to Schoenberg’s work. Martinsson’s piece, though written long after Romanticism was out of musical fashion, was the most typically romantic piece on the program. The short work traverses a simple dramatic arc, and the sound is lush. The theme begins in quiet bass and cello voices and ascends to full orchestra and a high, warm tone. At a sustained plateau, Martinsson briefly quotes the transforming dialogue of Verklärte Nacht. A few variations precede a descent to quiet. Fifteen string instruments are balanced (5-4-3-2-1) to favor the warmer voices .

Respighi has composed some of the richest of the Romantic repertoire. In Ancient Airs and Dances, he orchestrated Baroque-era dances and songs in 19th-century fashion. Hynson paid respects to the Baroque in a subdued performance that conjured visions of a formal, courtly ball — on a Hollywood set — during the second dance.  A pleasant Sicilian song and a dramatic Passacaglia complete the work.

(For additional details about the composers and these works, see the concert preview here.)

Pushing the “Nobody gets you closer to the music” theme, the front row was moved even further forward – some seats only 4 feet from players. Sound from the all string orchestra was mixed by the curtained canopy above the orchestra – blending the sound for most any position in the room.

Given the quality of the concert it was even more unfortunate that the Sunday afternoon snowstorm limited attendance. About 100 attended, half of capacity – contrasted with an overflow crowd for the last concert.

The Milwaukee Chamber Orchestra will next play Sunday afternoon, March 13, with the Bel Canto chorus at Christ King Parish church in Wauwautosa. Details here.

However, a program scheduled for late March has been postponed to the next season due to fund-raising difficulties. Patrons who hold tickets for the March 27, 2011 Milwaukee Chamber Orchestra concert may use them to attend the March 13, 2011 performance. They may also choose to receive a refund, or donate the ticket to the MCO.

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