Tom Strini

Russian thrills from a Peruvian guest conductor

Miguel Harth-Bedoya and the Milwaukee Symphony excel with Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake" and Prokofiev's "Alexander Nevsky."

By - Jun 2nd, 2012 12:34 am

Anna Sobechshanskaya as Odette in Julius Reisinger’s original production of Swan Lake, Moscow, 1877. Public domain via Wikipedia Commons.

I’ve seen Swan Lake a dozen times or more, but I never really heard it until Friday night. Guest conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya led the Milwaukee Symphony through a rich and vivid account of extensive excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s score, without a ballet dancer in sight.

At the ballet, divided attention and a pit-sized orchestra necessarily curb the power of this music. Friday, with full focus, I heard amazingly sophisticated rhythm, with all manner of syncopation woven into the textures, beyond anything I can recall in Tchaikovsky’s symphonies or concertos. Harth-Bedoya revealed this rhythmic subtlety through careful balancing of voices and crackling rhythmic precision.

The MSO is a great orchestra right now, better than it’s ever been, I’m sure. The players’ assurance, not only with technical issues but also with timbre and interpretation, cast a score usually perceived in black-and-white into brilliant color. Things as seemingly minor as the bassists’ round, cushioned pizzicato sound or the sizzling intensity of the violins’ tremolos added up.

Harth-Bedoya_credit Gordon_TriceAC1

Guest conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya. Gordon Trice photo courtesy of the MSO.

The many solos were gripping without exception, starting with Frank Almond’s lengthy spotlight work in the White Act pas de deux. I do not know the name of the oboist, who will become the new principal in the fall. Tchaikovsky often represents Odette, the good girl of the story, with the oboe, and our new principal lavished the richest oboe sound imaginable and exquisite phrasing on this gorgeous music. (Watch the comment box below; I’m sure some alert reader will pass along her name.)

Mark Niehaus took the big trumpet solo in the Neapolitan character dance, but on cornet. I’ve never heard the moderato first section played so delicately and wittily. And he zipped through the speedy stuff like Errol Flynn in a Ferrari in the Italian Alps.

Harth-Bedoya wrung the Romantic, dramatic passion out of the score, but was always in control and never excessive with his gestures. He made it easy for the orchestra to feel confident and engaged.

Lee Erickson’s Milwaukee Symphony Chorus and mezzo Mary Phillips joined the conductor and the orchestra in Sergei Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky.


Mezzo Mary Phillips. Nick Granito photo courtesy of the MSO.

Prokofiev based this cantata on music he wrote for Serge Eisenstein’s 1938 film of the same name. The topic is a medieval battle in which a citizen army vanquishes invading Germans.

The film is a classic and the music is brilliant, in a yay-for-our-side Soviet sort of way. The text runs along the lines of “Arise to arms, ye Russian folk, in battle just, in fight to death.” When the mezzo wanders the field of the dead, she does not lament the waste of war, but declares “I’ll be wed to the man who’s brave. Hark ye warriors…” Prokofiev assigns the Germans a sort of Gregorian-chant motif; the Russians get a rousing anthem. The two tunes slug it out in a riotous, climactic fifth movement, “The Battle on the Ice.”

If you’ve heard a real Russian chorus, you know the peculiar weight and darkness of their choral sound. Friday, the MSO Chorus replicated those qualities to a remarkable degree. Likewise, the low strings in the orchestra found that heaving, Volga Boatmen quality that Prokofiev surely sought. Phillips sang as if bearing the weight of Mother Russia on her shoulders.

Harth-Bedoya had total technical command of this score. That, his charisma and enthusiasm for the music prompted just the highly charged performance Alexander Nevsky requires. Hey, this isn’t ballet; it’s war.

This program, given at Marcus Center Uihlein Hall, will be repeated at 8 p.m. Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday. For further information, visit the MSO website. For tickets, call the Marcus Center box office, 414 273-7206.

Join me for dinner and fun Friday, June 15, at the Intercontinental Hotel, then proceed to the MSO Pops Sci-Fi concert with George Takei, in a package deal. Think of it as paying for me and getting George for free. Click here for details.


0 thoughts on “MSO: Russian thrills from a Peruvian guest conductor”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Ah, yes, the new principal oboe is Katherine Young Steele, currently of the Florida Orchestra. I had only heard her in excerpts from a solo CD she did some time back, but her timbre then and now is so wonderfully rich and just what the MSO’s wind section needs (we’re getting a new principal flute next year as well, a very talented 22-year-old Curtis grad).

  2. Anonymous says:

    Sorry, the CD was not a solo project, but rather a chamber music project on which she was featured.

  3. Anonymous says:

    There were Russians in the audience.
    I wonder if they themselves would like to
    believe that there ever really was an “old Russia”,
    as Russian as the imagined “Old Spain” of Albeniz.
    I’m listening to this and searching for details
    commonly associated with “Russian-ness”, and, ironically,
    found more of that musical connection in the “Germans'” section
    of “Nevsky”.
    Maybe this was another one of Prokofiev’s inside jokes.

    FWIW, I hear a direct parallel between “Alexander Nevsky”
    and Debussy Etude VIII “Pour les agrements”, i.e. measures 16 and 27-8 with slowly rising octaves in the bass, as well as measure 19 which is written so as to be “out of key”.

    It is always an amazement how Tchaikowsky could make such a great wallow out of notation that looks so ordinary on the page. The MSO knows that Swan Lake is candy. They don’t want to get rough or too rantingly autobiographical [on Tchaikowsky’s behalf] with it
    like you might with the first concerto or with the symphonies. I thought that Harth-Bedoya, in two places, asked the orchestra to drive a nail into a sub-climax and the climax itself, and that the orchestra perceived these places as integrated into the narrative and refused the request. I’m not taking sides. Either way works fine with me. It’s all high class.

  4. Anonymous says:

    And the oboist is: Katherine Young Steele! Thanks, Kyle. — Strini

  5. Anonymous says:

    Nary Phillips was in character, offering a rich, internalized version of the customary “wailer” in the style of Northern Russia [which would be sans outbursts]

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