The Milwaukee Symphony at the Basilica
With the Milwaukee Ballet in Uihlein Hall this weekend, subsets of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra and Chorus have gone south for two performances of an intriguing program at the Basilica of St. Josaphat.
Francesco Lecce-Chong conducted.
I have heard Arvo Pärt’s Fratres in several versions and venues. It never played to greater effect than it did in the cavernous basilica. The solemn opening chant, played mostly by strings in octaves, took on a tingling presence. The sound was all around us, hanging in the vast well of air beneath the great dome. Lecce-Chong conducted patiently and let the sound bloom in the space. At intervals, Thomas Wetzel struck a clave resting on a bass drum, which evoked the clank and distant thunder of heavy old monastery doors opening and closing and iron latches falling into place.
About 60 members of the chorus, prepared by choral director Lee Erickson, joined the orchestra in John Rutter’s The Sprig of Thyme, a cycle of settings of traditional tunes from the British Isles. Rutter is revered in choral circles for good reason. Rutter blends and twines vocal lines in lovely harmonies formed of exquisite voice leading; you could hear the pleasure of singing in this set. He cannily contrasted and balanced slow and fast, feminine and masculine, bold unison and rich harmony, and complexity and simplicity as the 11 songs unfolded. The chorus nailed them; Lecce-Chong had firm command of the score and knew what he wanted.
All that being said, five songs would have been enough for me. Rutter’s idea of beauty dates to about 1885, when this piece could have been written. (The actual date is 1981.) The Sprig of Thyme is very beautiful in a familiar and conventional way, but it is not very interesting.
Derek Bermel’s Soul Garden, for viola and strings, is unconventional, gnarly, and extremely interesting. Robert Levine played the challenging solo part with gusto. Bermel wrote lots of slides and quarter-tone inflections, which makes the viola part sound like some hallucination of the Blues. Against a fine mist of orchestral dissonance, Levine declared the long shout-out of a principal theme. We never heard it again, really, except in fragments, twisting extensions, or as duet rave-ups with principal cellist Susan Babini.
A big, wild cadenza stands at the climax of Soul Garden. This was likely the only Jimi Hendrix moment in Robert Levine’s career, and he made the most of it.
Lecce-Chong, the MSO’s resident conductor, made the most of Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht. He’d stood on the audience side of the altar, which was shrouded in purple for Lent, to this point. For Verklärte Nacht, he stepped behind the altar, close among his 25 or so string players. He eschewed the baton and stirred up the pre-serial, late-Romantic mercurial passions with just the right blend of zeal and control. It really felt like a D-minor dark night of the soul followed by a redemptive sunrise in D-major.
Concert Info: This program will be repeated at 7:30 p.m. (note, 30 minutes earliers than usual MSO concerts) Saturday, March 31, at the Basilica of St. Josaphat, 2333 S. 6th St. (At Lincoln Ave.) Tickets are $28 and $48; call the MSO ticket line, 414 291-7605, or visit the MSO website.