The surprising Milwaukee Chamber Orchestra
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.
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.