Tom Strini

Film composers at Chamber Music Milwaukee

By - Nov 1st, 2010 11:37 pm
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Todd Levy

The klezmer-tinged main theme of John Williams’ Viktor’s Tale could be a from Fiddler on the Roof, were it not for the clarinet variations that make it a virtuoso dazzler. Monday evening, Todd Levy, accompanied by the excellent Jeannie Yu at the piano, dived and darted through Williams’ loop-de-loops with breathtaking agility while maintaining a luxurious sound. This expertly crafted, old-school virtuoso showpiece opened a Chamber Music Milwaukee program of words by composers best known for film scores.

Vitkor’s Tale, drawn from music for the 2004 film, The Terminal, is a hybrid in that respect. Williams’ Horn Concerto is purer, as he wrote it for Dale Clevenger, the Chicago Symphony’s principal. Greg Flint took on its fifth movment, Nocturne, The Crimson Day Withdraws, with Jeffry Petersen at the piano.  I like the way it opens in the piano, with a long melody buried in low, heavy chords; when the horn takes up the theme, it’s as if the sun has broken through clouds. Williams’ third entry, Elegy for Cello and Piano, is an extravagant tear-jerker in the way of his music for Schindler’s List. Cellist Stefan Kartman and Yu played it just fine. They also offered a little oddity, Erich Korngold’s Romance-Impromptu, written for but cut from the 1946 film Deception. It’s a high-Romantic exposition missing its development and recapitulation.

Bernard Herrmann‘s Souvenirs de Voyage (1967) is about as far from his Psycho score as he could go. Levy and the Arcas String Quartet (violinists Ilana Setapen and Margot Schwartz, violist Wei-Ting Kuo and cellist Peter Thomas) played Herrmann’s gentle, Italianate quintet. I’ll bet his voyage was to Venice; the last movement opens with a languid barcarole at just the right poling tempo for a romantic gondola ride. The players seemed to savor every sweet harmony and charming tune. In that last movement, I admired Levy’s magical lontano effects, which suggested a distant carnival, and the louder, antic bits that placed you in the tumult of the carnival. (By the way, the same five played this piece at Setapen’s recital Sunday at the Wisconsin Conservatory. A review of that concert is in progress.)

Malcolm Arnold’s Suite Bourgeoise was my favorite. Arnold, still famous for his Oscar winning score for Bridge on the River Kwai, wrote this clever and sophisticated trio in 1940, when he was just 19. Yu, flutist Caen Thomason-Redus and oboist Margaret Butler looked and sounded as if they had a marvelous time playing their busy, highly idiomatic, parts.

Gregory Flint

Arnold’s glowing harmonies resemble those of Ravel and Debussy. He is current to 1940 in his references to swing dance, in the blues-inflected third movement; to tango, in the second; and to the nifty contrast between a jazz waltz in 6/8 and a Viennese waltz, in 3/4 in the finale. The fourth is a love song so florid and sappy that it goes over the top into satire, yet somehow remains beautiful all the while. Each of the five movements springs some sort of surprise at the end. They cut off short, they go on long, they take some weird flight of fancy. The surprises read as punch lines, and they made Butler smile after every movement. Me too.

Students in Jamie Bertsch’s Art 108-2D Concepts class decorated the acoustical shell in a collaborative project for this program. Definitely a visual improvement. Levy and Flint direct Chamber Music Milwaukee, which the UWM Music Department puts on at the UWM Zelazo Center. More on the series right here.

0 thoughts on “Review: Film composers at Chamber Music Milwaukee”

  1. Anonymous says:

    This was a pleasant, cinematic concert – full of images

    John William’s Elegy for Cello and Piano demonstrated once again that the cello is the ideal sound for elegies. The opening song gives way to an increasingly dissonant plaintive, upper register cry. The close is more stable, soothing – ready to move on with life. Stefan Kartman gave the piece an elegant reading.

    Malcolm Arnold’s Suite Bourgeoise seemed to be a pleasant joke. The dances were all restrained; a little upper-crust. Even the tango was low energy, without the usual strong Argentinean rhythms. The central Dance section could have been from New York City 30’s night clubs rather than London. I even heard the traffic.

    Tom, your observations of Bernard Herrmann’s Souvenirs de Voyage demonstrate the listener’s freedom to bring one’s own visions to a composition. It would be interesting to know what the performers had in mind, but ultimately that does not matter.

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