Tom Strini
MSO

Tan Dun’s “Water Concerto,” high-viscosity Schubert and Brahms

By - Oct 8th, 2011 01:36 am
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Splish, splash I was takin’ a… concerto, at the MSO Friday night.

waterphone-mso

A waterphone. Photo courtesy of the Kult-ur-Sprung website.

Soloist Yuri Yamashita, front and center behind two large, transparent bowls of water, splashed her way through Tan Dun’s Water Concerto, with Edo de Waart conducting the Milwaukee Symphony. MSO percussionists Thomas Wetzel and Robert Klieger, stationed downstage right and left with single bowls of water, jumped in as sub-soloists.

The piece, from 1998, is fun, but no joke. Everyone involved, most of all Yamashita, had to execute every splish and splash, every dipping of a ringing gong, every whack on floating, inverted bowls and every ghostly utterance from a waterphone with great precision. The same goes for every squawk and groan from the orchestra. The effect might be hippy-dippy dreamy, but your wits must be about you to play this music.

Dun demarks four regions within the continuous flow. In the prelude, Yamashita entered from the house, bowing the metal bars of her waterphone to evoke an ethereal, sustained ringing. When she reached the stage, Wetzel and Klieger added ‘phones of their own. The low strings took up a low pedal tone, and cries from all about the orchestra suggested the calls of whales.

Dun, though long ensconced in New York, is from China; much of this piece sounds Chinese. Occasional exotic scales lend that impression, but it comes more from the onomatopoetic aspects. Traditional Chinese music always tells a story, and sound effects abound in it. Yamashita clip-clopped galloping rhythms on those inverted wooden bowls in the third section of the piece, as the orchestra neighed and whinnied.

Water Concerto entertains the eye as well as the ear. Lights glowed from beneath the transparent water bowls, and sparkling light played about Uihlein Hall as the percussionists disturbed the surfaces. Their ceremonious, stylized actions approached choreography, and Yamashita moved with a pleasing feline grace.

Dun’s sound world is a little disorienting, at first, but always fascinating in the moment. If you keep in mind that the 30-minute work has four sections, you’ll be able to locate yourself in the form. And when he brings back snippets of his previous ideas in the finale, sounds that seemed so strange the first time around feel like old friends.

De Waart didn’t bother to repeat the exposition of the first movement Schubert’s Symphony No. 5, and he didn’t need to. The structure was abundantly clear in a buoyant reading that felt utterly genuine. Schubert wrote this symphony for friends to play for pleasure, and that spirit permeated this performance. It was gentle but not genteel, vigorous and sunny, straightforward. I especially admired the way de Waart parsed out the rhetorical phrases of the first part of the second movement. He also brought out the pastorale in the Trio that followed a robust scherzo.

Brahms’ Symphony No. 2 might be very familiar, but it’s still not easy to play well. This applies especially to the lyrical second movement, which overflows with very long, overlapping arioso melodies oddly couched within the bar.  De Waart was so sensitive and expressive with the nuances; even we amateurs could see him shape them in his eloquent hands. Of course the orchestra responded with subtle and continuously engaging Brahms in all four movements of this warm, comforting symphony.

This program, given at the Marcus Center, will repeat at 8 p.m. Saturday (Oct. 8). Tickets start at $22; call the Marcus Center box office, 414 273-7206. For more information, visit the MSO’s website.

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