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.
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.
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.
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.