Tom Strini

Julian Kuerti’s fine MSO debut

By - Oct 22nd, 2011 12:05 am
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Guest conductor Julian Kuerti.

Conductor Julian Kuerti introduced himself to Milwaukee Friday night with Gyorgy Ligeti’s Concert Românesc. I’d never heard of this 1951 item, much less heard it. You would never associate this charming local-color caprice with the composer of, say, Atmospheres, probably the late Hungarian composer‘s most famous work.

Concert Românesc resides alternately between Béla Bartók in Mikrokosmos mode George Enesco in Romanian nationalist mode. Ligeti put one roof over four distinct episodes. In the first, a luscious melody introduced in massed strings mutates gradually through a continuous series of developmental variations. A delightful pattering of snare drum and twittering of piccolo opens the second. Their exchange establishes a lively dance rhythm that builds to a whirligig gypsy hoedown in the strings. A single clarinet note emerges from the dance to connect it to a mist of string tremolos. Noble horns, ringing from the stage and from the top balcony, call through the mist, which grows into a turbulent storm. The urgent chatter of trumpets announces the final episode and prompts a tornado in the strings. That devolves into another round of gypsy fiddling, this one featuring a lively call and response between concertmaster Frank Almond and his violin section and wild interjections from principal clarinetist Todd Levy.

Mozart’s Symphony No. 38 (“Prague”) calls for plenty of energy, too, but neatness counts, here. The crisp clarity of rhythm, grace of phrase and elegant balance that Kuerti applied to it served Mozart well. The gentle pastorale he found in the principal theme of the second movement was perfect, because then we could hear the ensuing complications as disturbance of Eden. It also contrasted neatly with the menace and grandeur of the introduction to the first movement. The blazing string melody, urged on by crackling timpani, that opens the finale was not only fast, it was fierce.

Overall, this reading of the  “Prague” symphony had a bit of a Baroque cast, due I think to Kuerti’s emphasis of the bass line and its interaction with the melody. That characteristic Baroque texture popped out noticeably and frequently, and I don’t believe it was an accident. If indeed that was Kuerti’s Mozart argument, it was convincing.

Mozart’s Classical clarity (and outbreaks of Baroque texture, in this reading) made for a nice contrast with Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 3 (“Scottish”). Mendelssohn and Mozart share the same melodic and harmonic language, but use it to different ends. Mendelssohn, an early Romantic, was more about surprise and disguise than about clarity. He breaks from Classical norms and proportions in favor of will and inspiration.

Kuerti let Mendelssohn be Mendelssohn in that way, and scaled rhythmic flex, explosiveness and lyrical amplitude to express the music’s welling sentiments and urgent energy. The MSO’s strings sounded especially good, with luxurious, cushioned chords and finely shaded responses to Kuerti’s nuanced phrasing in the slow movement. Throughout this symphony, the young Canadian conductor knew just what he wanted from Mendelssohn and the MSO, and he got it.

This Milwaukee Symphony program was given at Marcus Center Uihlein Hall. For tickets to the Saturday evening performance, call the Marcus box office, 414 273-7206.

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