Michael Barndt on Milwaukee’s October music

By - Nov 4th, 2010 04:00 am
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Orpheus with lyre, by Armfield, from a William Morris book published in 1889. Courtesy of the University of Iowa Library.

I liked the grand gestures we heard in Milwaukee in October – a world premiere opera at the Florentine, MSO evenings of stunning Mahler symphony and a refined Mozart clarinet concerto, among other big events. But we shouldn’t overlook the smaller musical gems. Intimate music is a vital part of the scene. Here, in brief, is some of what I heard at seven such concerts last month.

Oct. 2, Early Music Now Presents The Rose Ensemble: The Rose Ensemble celebrated a special moment in a year-long tribute to St. Francis of Assisi. The ensemble performed in the chapel of the international headquarters of the Sisters of St. Francis a few days before the saint’s feast day.

The Ensemble sang with the precise vocal blend we’ve come to expect of it after repeated appearances on the EMN series. Period instruments added a crucial backdrop for the voices. Guest artist Isacco Colombo impressed all with his mastery of the bagpipe and by playing a drum slung over his shoulder with one hand playing a recorder with the other.  A vielle (predecessor to the violin) was often used, but a much small similar instrument – the rebec – had particular charm.  A slight scratching sound added texture to its piercing sound.  A hurdy gurdy produced striking volume, as its wooden wheel turned against catgut strings. The player pressed levers to stop strings and change the pitches, while strings droned and resonated independently to suggest the bagpipe. The rough-hewn harmonics echoed in the chapel’s bright acoustic.


Oct. 6,  Milwaukee Laptop Orchestra (MiLO) – UWM Unruly Music: MiLO reinterpreted Gavin Bryars’ The Sinking of the Titantic, composed in 1969.  The band stayed on board and played “Autumn,” a hymn tune, as the ship went down. Bryars imagined the band continuing to play as the ship entered the water.  The tune was stretched, with harmonies intact, as water affects the sound.  Taped material – interviews with survivors, metallic creaking of the collapsing ship and water sounds – are introduced and manipulated over the 20 minutes it takes the ship to reach the bottom.  Near the end, live piano fragments of a second hymn, Nearer My God to Thee, emerged in short percussive chords.  The piano struggled to complete the hymn, diverted to discordant notes.  When the entire tune emerged, it was clear that the ship had reached its destination.

Projected computer-enhanced images representing an emerald underwater view near the surface gave way darker, bluer views.  Near the bottom patches of light emerged. When the piece ended, the abstraction cleared to reveal a back-lit image of the Titanic, with that familiar railing breaking up the light.  More traditional music, environmental sounds, electronic sounds processed in real-time and evolving computer-enhanced images came together in a way that demonstrated that these new musical tools can deliver an emotionally satisfying performance.

Oct. 8, Classical Guitarist Roland Dyens, UWM Guest Artist: French-Tunisian performer Roland Dyens played transcriptions of Tchaikovsky and Chopin piano works, played guitar pieces by Rheinhardt, Villa Lobos, Pixinguinha and others, and did some improvising. He had a way of giving simple tones space to allow their resonance to sink in. The crowd sat silently in rapt attention and even the pianissimi soared through the room.  To close one piece Dyens struck a chord, then waved his hand to encourage the sound into the room.

Oct. 19, Harpsichordist Trevor Stephenson at St. John’s on the Lake: Trevor Stephenson, artistic director of Madison Bach Musicians brought his newest hand-crafted harpsichord to Milwaukee for this program.  Stephenson’s enthusiasm for his instrument and for the music of Bach, Telemann and Scarlatti was infectious.  He demonstrated that the thin strings of the harpsichord produce pure tones, as opposed to the muddy overtones of thick piano strings. The Baroque music rang crystal clear. Everyone should hear a live performance of Bach in original form. (Click for Sample audio.)

Impressed by the intimate, bright acoustics of the small Palladian chapel at St. Johns on the Lake, Stephenson speculated that this would be an ideal setting for a full performance of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. I second that.

Oct. 27, Wagner’s Das Rheingold, via the Metropolitan Opera Live HD distribution at local theaters: True, the Metropolitan Opera is not such a small gem. But the opportunity to view the Met on a local movie screen cannot be confused with the New York experience.  It’s a mixed bag – a small impersonal dark theater, a two dimensional image and sound systems that artificially pump the sound.  Contemporary hi-tech stage-craft may have been more impressive for those at the Met. But when Eric Owens, as Alberich the Nibelung, loses the ring to Wotan and proclaims the curse that will resound through all four opera’s of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, the screen fills with a dramatic closeup and a powerful statement.  The Met stage doesn’t offer that perspective!

The Met’s cycle continues with Die Walküre in local movie theaters in May.

Oct. 28, From Russia With Love – Wisconsin Conservatory of Music Conservatory Nights: After 18 years in Milwaukee, Stas Venglevski has found a place for the bayan accordion in classical, traditional, jazz and cabaret settings. But Stas is most in his element working with mandolinist Mikhail “Mischa” Litvin.  Their conservatory program included Russian classical works, but the audience was most receptive of traditional Russian tunes. The players caressed the folk themes, which typically accelerate round by round toward a raucous dance.  Litvin was master of the mandolin whatever the speed.  Stas’s accompaniment was often an impromptu response to the moment. The highlight – an impassioned rendering of Moscow Nights. Many of the Russian expatriates in the room — and Stas’ mother — sang along.

Stas will be join in a concert by French chanteuse Robin Pluer at the Conservatory in December and will appear on the Frankly Music series in January, in A Night of Tango.


Oct. 29, Young Concert Artist with violinist Bella Hristova – Wisconsin Lutheran College Guest Artist Series: Touring with the Young Concert Artist series is an important early step in a professional career. Bella Hristova displayed technical mastery of Bach’s Partita No. 3, a popular solo violin showcase.  Hristova followed with Ysaye’s Sonata No. 2 (“Obsession”) and demonstrated a deep understanding of a complex work, which is a tribute to Bach’s Partita with the Dies Irae theme wound in. It is also a sly musical joke about violinist obsessed with the Partita. Hristova analyzed the works of Ysaye and studied his music with a student of a student of the composer.

Another Young Concert Artist is scheduled for February – Marimbist Naoko Takada.

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