Tom Strini
MSO at the Basilica

Handel floats, Bach sinks

By - Nov 18th, 2011 11:57 pm
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Handel boating on the Thames with King George I, as imagined by Edouard Jean Conrad Hamman (1819-1888). Public domain image via Wikipedia Commons.

Rather than a blow-by-blow account of Handel’s Water Music Suites 2 and 3, as performed by the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra Friday evening, a single detail will speak for all nine dances the suites comprise.

The third movement of the Suite No. 3 is a minuet. The dance at first advanced with a firm, steady tread with some weight to it. The pace remained the same in the trio, but now the music glided along on a footstep of air, and the effect was exhilarating. Handel had something to do with that, of course, but so did MSO assistant conductor Francesco Lecce-Chong. Conductors make a difference with this sort of detail, the little changes in accent and release that make 3/4 time sound heavy in one moment and airy in the next.

Lecce-Chong drew the same sort of detail from a chamber-sized subset of the MSO throughout both Handel suites, Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll, and Peteris Vasks’ Symphony for Strings, “Voices.”

Siegfried Idyll usually bores me, but it didn’t Friday. Instead of making a restrained meditation of it, Lecce-Chong wallowed in its sonic gorgeousness by encouraging his players to well up within its phrases and lavish especially buttery tone upon it. Ravishing horn solos by Matthew Annin, the orchestra’s new principal, helped a lot.


Francesco Lecce-Chong

Vasks’ Voices is a sonic meditation, with a good deal of stunned stasis on widely-spaced chords topped by ethereal harmonics in the violins, long-held drones in the basses, wispy melodies that rise and evaporate, and slow-moving mists of pianissimo harmony quivering with tremolo. Vasks has a knack for setting up sonic intrigue that makes you listen more and more closely. Sometimes the music stands still for so long that a half-step shift in one voice becomes a noteworthy event. The composer also has a way of gathering his feathery bits so gradually that you find yourself at some tense climax without quite knowing how you got there. The drama in this music is at once very intense and infinitely subtle. Lecce-Chong thought it through and he and the orchestra made it real.

They played this concert in the Basilica of St. Josaphat (Million Dollar Quartet is occupying Uihlein Hall this weekend). All of the above selections worked surprisingly well in the echo-chamber acoustic of the basilica’s vast dome. Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 2, however, did not. The fast harmonic rhythm of the speedy outer movements caused the chords to overlap and blur together. Lecce-Chong played the harpsichord rather than conduct, so musicians who could not hear past the person next to them had no visual cues to keep them together. The soloists – flutist Jeani Foster, oboist Margaret Butler, trumpeter Mark Niehaus and violinist Frank Almond — did what they could. The flute and violin didn’t project very well in this mix, and the brilliant clarino trumpet sounded into the dome and kept bouncing around up there long after Niehaus put the horn back in the case.

The trumpet sound will almost certainly have decayed before the MSO repeats this program at 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 4 p.m. Sunday (Nov. 19-20). For tickets and details, call the MSO ticket line, 414 291-7605, or visit the MSO’s website.


0 thoughts on “MSO at the Basilica: Handel floats, Bach sinks”

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