Tom Strini

Ilana Setapen and 20th-century moderns

The Milwaukee Symphony Ilana Setapen ignites Prokofiev's Violin No. 2, the orchestra thrives on Neo-Classic Stravinsky and in Berio's sonic wonderland.

By - Mar 23rd, 2013 02:24 am

The Swingle Singers

Stravinsky from 1919, Prokofiev from 1935 and Berio from 1968 made for the most interesting and, to some ears, most challenging Milwaukee Symphony program of the season Friday evening.

Berio’s Sinfonia, a mostly atonal work for eight voices and orchestra, apparently worried the management. Music director Edo de Waart prepped the audience with some very funny tales of riots breaking out in halls when he conducted atonal works in the early 1970s. Sinfonia prompted one of them. Over his shoulder, de Waart quipped: “I hope you’re still there when I turn around.”

The reception for this 27-minute avant-garde artifact was hot in some quarters and icy in others, but nothing about Sinfonia is scary.  It just doesn’t accommodate our usual ways of listening. Listening for tunes and their progress through keys and variations makes no sense here, and disappointment over not hearing any — except some appropriations from Mahler — makes even less.

Listen to this music as you would observe a fantastical landscape as you travel through it. You pass through regions in Sinfonia, most of them signaled by piano eruptions that are sometimes coupled with xylophone or harp business. They mark borders between atmospheric music made of mists of cluster harmony. Berio painted these sonic cloud in a fascinating array of colors. From within them come thunderclaps of percussion, avian cries and flights from the winds, lightning in the brass, and distant thunder in the basses and timpani. Berio’s  musical weather gets and holds your attention.

Curb any frustration about missing the words the remarkable Swingle Singers say or sing. If a word comes through here and there, enjoy the momentary wit and let he rest go. The vocals are just part of Berio’s imaginary landscape, in which Mahler’s ghost inhabits the strangest region of all. Music by Mahler, especially from the “Resurrection” Symphony, permeates the third movement, the only one with perceptible metric/rhythmic drive. Sometimes, Mahler comes through more or less intact. Sometimes it’s fractured, and Berio often veiled it with singers reciting lines from Samuel Beckett. Sizzling washes of metal percussion sweep over it now and then.

De Waart’s long experience with this piece showed in his technical command of its complicated and subtle rhythm and his sure way of shaping and balancing the masses of sound. The members of the orchestra fully energized the solo gestures that float above or detonate within its spectral textures.

The Swingles won every heart in the place with an encore, the Beatles’ “Ticket to Ride,” in an entrancing a cappella arrangement. De Waart, lurking among the basses, absent-mindedly mouthed the words along with the Swingles.

The MSO’s players exactly understood the arch wit of Stravinsky’s Pulcinella, a Neo-Classical gloss on Pergolesi fragments from the Baroque. Stravinsky composed it for a Ballets Russes commedia del’arte piece and revised it for concert use in 1949. The piece starts out sounding like Baroque music, but the deeper you get into its eight brief movements the more it sounds like Stravinsky’s wry, Cubist deconstruction of Baroque style. It’s just a bit off, somehow, enough to keep you guessing about what you’ve just heard. Pulcinella is flirtatious that way. It’s a lot of fun.

Stravinsky gives all the principals in the orchestra a chance to shine, and they did in solo after solo. I got a kick out of the antic duet for trombone (Megumi Kanda) and bass (Andrew Raciti), and Jeanyi Kim nailed the rustic fiddle sound and charmed with the many violin solos.

Kim played first chair Friday because concertmaster Frank Almond fell ill and associate concertmaster Ilana Setapen was the soloist in Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 2.

Ilana Setapen

Ilana Setapen

An ominous, slow principal theme emerges from the depths of the solo violin to open the concerto. Setapen endowed it with hair-raising energy at low volume. Prokofiev transforms it in a developmental extension that builds speed and brilliance as it paves the way for the lyrical second theme. Setapen’s crisp articulation and precisely etched rhythm made this passage bracing in the way familiar surroundings take on sharp relief on especially clear days.

The second theme resembles Prokofiev’s music for the Balcony Scene in the Romeo and Juliet ballet score. Setapen made it bloom in generous, singing phrases. And when it dashed off into transitional material, she maintained that warmth and gorgeous legato at high speed. Furthermore, she and de Waart operated in seamless tandem as such transitions accelerated and decelerated, and they knew where the music was going. That made for most satisfying take-offs and landings and sure glide paths.

Setapen gets the dramatic arc of the music. In her hands this concerto means something. In the slow movement, she hushed the main theme into a private introspection then slowly expanded it to all-encompassing exuberance. The finale was not merely a violin show-off moment, but a drunken, jolly, heavy-booted juggernaut of a dance, a wild joy.

This program, given at Marcus Center Uihlein Hall, will be repeated at 8 p.m. Saturday (March 23). For tickets, call the Marcus Center box office, 414 273-7206.

Next up for the MSO: Guest conductor and Baroque-meister Nicholas McGegan, with soprano Yulia Van Doren and countertenor Daniel Taylor, March 29-30. Arias and duets from Handel operas and works by Pergolesi and Domenico Scarlatti are on the bill. For tickets, visit the MSO website or call its ticket line, 414 291-7605. TCD has a block of tickets to give away; sign up for our E-news for a chance to win a pair.



0 thoughts on “MSO: Ilana Setapen and 20th-century moderns”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Jeanyi didn’t know until after the first rehearsal that Frank was sick (he was originally slated to play). Between chamber music engagements and a sick daughter this week, she is a violin goddess to have pulled it together so well for such a violin-solo-heavy program.

  2. Anonymous says:

    We couldn’t ask for better coverage of this complicated event. However, I disagree that Sinfonia isn’t scary, especially the part that imitates something like a transformer gone awry from somewhere in the back of the stage, the arms of Edo pushing from side from side at 45-degree angles against individual electrical leakages of monstrous dimensions which seemed to be boring through the walls.

    Before the concert. Francesco Lecce-Chong played part of an original work for piano, and he explained that he wrote it based on fragments from early music. Unlike the Stravinsky selection, it starts out as a sound mash of ambiguous clusters and becomes more and more Baroque as it nears the end. I enjoyed the dry strings that were a large and important foundation for the cuccess of “Pulcinella”.

    When Ilana walked on stage, all luminous in her orange dress, I knew we were going to hear the Prokofiev concerto as its original purpose was described–an inviting work set to appease scary ferocious Soviet management types. There were no digressions in the performance suggesting madness, something which might occur if any of the concerto were to have been overplayed.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Many of the great violin concertos are romantic era masterworks designed as opportunities for soloists to emote and to parade their virtuoso skills. The Prokofiev concerto is a more serious work and was treated with great respect by Ilana Setapen. Moments of beauty in the second movement were clear but not over-wrought. This is a taxing and complex work, but requires complete collaboration between soloist and orchestra. There is little chance for the violin to independently show off. This balance between violin and orchestra meant a more satisfying piece.

    I was drawn into the Berio work, but found it difficult to integrate the vocal and instrumental parts. I found that the voices were channeled differently – perhaps a multi-tasking habit. When listening to the words, the music became background – and vice-versa.
    It is more important to focus on the music and let the voices settled into background. The music was often magnificent, especially when fragments of Mahler were incorporated. Mahler symphonies often introduce wonderful passages at unexpected moments. I would be personally satisfied with throwing those fragments up in the air and letting them fall where they may. Berio seemed to heighten the listening experience by drawing upon a subconscious memory of great moments from Mahler’s greatest work. (Fragments from other composers were less often recognized, but also contributed to the heightened experience.
    The orchestra seemed to always be in control of a difficult, dynamic composition. “Thank you, Mr. DeWaart.”

    Those who attend the Saturday concert should schedule the excellent pre-talk at 7 by Associate Conductor Francesco Lecce-Chong. He has concocted an audience participation exercise which allows us to imagine the creative process that led Berio to his juxtaposition of ideas and music.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Actually Darcy, Jeanyi didn’t find out until just before Thursday afternoon’s rehearsal.
    I am glad the concert was a success, and that the MSO is well served by 2 terrific Associate Concertmasters.
    Wishing Frank a speedy recovery!

  5. Anonymous says:

    the vocals in the Berio have a “talking in class” effect.
    nothing is supposed to fit. It’s about wreckage.

    I thought I heard a fragment of an orchestral work by Sergei Vasilyevich

    see if you can guess which piece

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