Tom Strini

Extreme Violins at the Basilica

By - Oct 29th, 2011 03:10 am
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Ilana Setapen

Quotations from Antonio Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons flicker through the shadows of Astor Piazzolla’s The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires. Ilana Setapen played Piazzolla’s so-named violin concerto Friday night, and Frank Almond played and conducted the Milwaukee Symphony’s strings in Vivaldi’s cycle of violin concertos. Guest conductor Timothy Myers led a slightly larger MSO through the Piazzolla concerto and through Vaughn Williams’ The Lark Ascending, with Almond as violin soloist.

We’ve all heard Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons at least four thousand times. Both the performance and the context breathed new life into it. Almond and company did not deliver the light, sometimes genteel Four Seasons we know. He and the orchestra emphasized its explosive shifts of mood and material, its abrupt and willful nature. They made the fast movements startling in this way, despite their familiarity. In so doing, Almond showed that the relation to Piazzolla’s red-hot, tango Four Seasons runs deeper than quotations, that the old Italian piece has some Argentine fire in it.

Not every classical violinist knows what to do with Piazzolla, who in the wrong hands can sound genteel. Setapen’s hands, not to mention her blood and her heart, were born to play Piazzolla.


Frank Almond, MSO concertmaster and this week’s soloist.

She memorized the piece for the occasion and threw herself into it. Vivaldi quotations aside, this concerto (actually, Leonid Desyatnikov’s arrangement of a trio) is typical Piazzolla: ardent melodies in Bolero style interspersed with furiously propulsive tangos. He peppered his music with hair-raising glissando shrieks and rhythms scratched out on the short bit of the strings between the bridge and the tailpiece.

Setapen took the elation and despair in the music to crazy extremes, which is the whole point. Myers and the orchestra, caught up in the thrill of her playing along with all the rest of us, answered in kind. Cellist Peter Szczepanek, especially, go into the spirit of it in an extended solo and in duo interactions with the soloist. Apparently, Buenos Aires is steamy, sultry and violent throughout the year. What a wild ride.

Intense energy was the thing with Vivaldi and Piazzolla. Vaughan Williams was after the shimmering, fragile beauty of an ephemeral moment: A bird sings and flies away. Vaughan Williams sought to capture that moment in sound and make it reproducible. The soaring lines suggest an arcing flight path, and the ornaments ingeniously couched within it the song of the bird. As Setapen was born to play Piazzolla, Almond was born to play Lark Ascending; he took beauty to its extremes.

This program, given at the Basilica of St. Josaphat, will be repeated at 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 4 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 29-30. Call the Milwaukee Symphony ticket line, 414 291-7605, or visit the MSO website.

Display image, of violin with labeled parts, by Sotakeit via Wikipedia Commons under GNU Free Documentation License.

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