The MSO, Trpceski and Saint-Saens
None of the composers in the Western classical pantheon are bad. But some are better than others, for reasons some of us can spell out.
Friday, music director Edo de Waart devoted an entire Milwaukee Symphony program to Camille Saint-Saens (1835-1921). I’m not alone in placing the French third-generation Romantic in the rear guard of Greatness. On a workaday level, I always thought he relied far to much on sequences — play a tune or fragment then play it again at a different pitch level — to extend ideas and build tension.This obvious trick often yields tedious results.
On a deeper level, previous generations of Romantics hammered out a musical language that expressed their moment; Saint-Saens did not. He received that language and manipulated it expertly. He was marvelously articulate, but had nothing of his own to say often went for cheap, spectacular effects. His music is to Romanticism what the Las Vegas Luxor Hotel is to ancient Egypt.
As Danse macabre, Opus 40, the Piano Concerto No. 2 and the Organ Symphony (No. 3, in C minor) passsed by at the MSO matinee Friday, I had plenty of time to revisit my opinion of this composer’s music. I was right; Saint-Saens does use too many sequences and his music doesn’t run very deep. He loves to end with a bang; you get the feeling he composed those endings with standing ovations in mind, in a way that a true heavyweight — Brahms, say — would not.
But what’s the point in resisting such music? In any case, it is irresistible when played as brilliantly as it was Friday. It was fun to hear Frank Almond, the MSO’s concertmaster, dig in at the bridge to give a devilish snarl to the big solo violin part of Danse macabre.
The rhythmic precision De Waart and the orchestra brought to all this music, particularly to the Organ Symphony, brought out metric subtleties that had previously escaped me. All sorts of ingenious combinations and juxtapositions of duple and triple feeling, many deep in the orchestral mix, jumped out of this reading. I’m thinking especially and the cartoonish trio in the third movement, but it permeated the whole piece. De Waart balanced the orchestra to make all this legible. He also managed tempos and volumes to a razor’s edge to create enormous momentum overall and a world of subtle surges and subsidences along the way.
Of course de Waart, the MSO and Trpceski were more than up to Saint-Saens’ big finish, which is of course the stuff of standing ovations. They got a rousing one from the big afternoon crowd, and they earned it. So did Saint-Saens. Maybe his music is all surface, but my goodness, what a glittering, dazzling surface it is.
This program, give at Marcus Center Uihlein Hall, will be repeated at 8 p.m. Saturday, May 29. For ticket information, call the Marcus Center box office, 414-273-7206 or visit the MSO website.
Click here to read an interview with Simon Trpceski.
NOTE: Click here for the review of MSO violinist Ilana Setapen’s Friday-night recital.