Tom Strini

Lecce-Chong leads an eclectic program

The young Milwaukee Symphony conductor excels in Sibelius' Symphony No. 5.

By - Jan 19th, 2013 03:45 am

That’s composer Jean Sibelius on that Finnish 100-mark bill. Sibelius might have been the last composer to come to stand for his country, and the least likely. His strange, mystical music — the Symphony No. 5, for example, which the Milwaukee Symphony played Friday evening — does not evoke patriotic fervor, but rather dreamy amazement.


Jean Sibelius and swans on the 100-mark Finnish bill.

He’s lumped in with the late Romantics, but no one else sounds anything like Sibelius. Themes you can hum are few and far between. The Fifth opens with a slow gathering of swirling fragments of melody, groaning bass lines, roiling harmonies. They brew and finally boil like a stew in a cauldron. When we get to something like a theme, it’s really more of a striking ostinato, a running eighth-quarter-eighth syncopation loud and heavy on the lower strings of the massed violins. That figure rises and speeds up to sound rather like a swarm of bees. From this a grand, tense melody unfurls in a blazing orchestra tutti. But even this striking theme is oratorical, couched in speech rhythms that don’t inspire singing along.

And after all that? Pulsation and a lively, innocent dance in 3/4 time, as odd and charming as a rose in a granite quarry. And we do hear the vast, hard surrounding space, in a cosmic glow of harmony in the distance. Suddenly, the brasses ennoble the dance tune and Sibelius embarks on a vast buildup to an overwhelming finish to the first movement. It swept the big crowd at Marcus Center Uihlein Hall into premature applause borne not on ignorance but irresistible excitement and momentum.

But what was that we heard? Not really sonata form, not really themes with hooks, and not really but almost three different movements within one continuous flow. You don’t so much follow the music’s argument as inhabit it and let its peculiar physics take you where they will.

The second movement is stranger still. The simplest, most skeletal folk song imaginable, first heard as a descending arpeggio played pizzicato, runs through all manner of development, much of it within a disorienting bi-tonal harmonic world. A sudden rustling in the strings might represent the beating of the wings of the swans that so fascinated Sibelius (see, they’re on the back of the 100-mark Sibelius bill). The tolling horn figure might represent his expansive feelings about the birds in flight. Or not. But what of those bewildering hammer blows that stop the music so abruptly? It’s all as amazing as a crazy, beautiful dream.


Francesco Lecce-Chong

Lecce-Chong led this remarkable work from memory and drew vivid, energetic and wonderfully precise playing, including dead-on ensemble in the massed string passages. He also saw the big picture in music of grand vistas and built dynamics and intensity over long stretches of time.

I like Abraham Lincoln and I like Aaron Copland, but they never should have gotten together in Lincoln Portrait. Banal bits of extraneous text for the narrator – Mayor Tom Barrett, in this case – get in the way of Lincoln’s own words. And the relentless musical bombast would better represent some Confederate orator in love with his own voice that the plainspoken Lincoln.

Jeffrey Mumford’s a dance into reflected daylight followed on this haphazardly eclectic program. This Sphinx Commissioning Project product is making the rounds of a consortium of orchestras. In this freely atonal work, Mumford lays out some open-ended phrases and spends the next 10 minutes turning them inside out, upside down, transposing them, expanding their spacing, recoloring them, and otherwise running through all manner of continuous variation. He used hocketing, especially, to good effect, as notes in the same theme popped like flashbulbs across the orchestra.

Mumford’s reflected daylight charms with its wonderland of effects, enough to sustain 10 minutes. But I wish he had devised something to indicate closure. Because this piece goes nowhere in particular, because it has a long pause in the middle and because it’s atonal, you don’t know it’s over when it’s over. It’s one of those pieces where the conductor has to cue the audience to applaud. Awkward.

Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue (told you it’s an odd program) featured pianist Stephen Beus, who was terrific with Frankly Music earlier this week. Beus lived up to that promise with an engaging reading that was arch and witty here, Romantic there, and a little jazzy everywhere. Todd Levy made that opening clarinet solo deliciously dirty.

This program will be repeated at 8 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 19. For tickets, call the Marcus Center box office, 414 273-7206, or visit the MSO website.

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0 thoughts on “MSO: Lecce-Chong leads an eclectic program”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Soile Isokoski, singer [with Marita Viitasalo, piano] included Gershwin and Sibelius with an even more bizarre mix: Alban Berg (Composer), Richard [1] Strauss and Oskar Merikanto. [audio CD]
    As for the Lincoln Portrait, perhaps the music misfits like Lincoln’s clothes. The spotlight–what color was it? [I couldn’t attend]

  2. Anonymous says:

    I take your points about the Lincoln Portrait, but… I still got a lump in my throat at tears in my eyes. And I think Francesco’s clear direction and Mayor Barrett’s confident delivery deserve respect.

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