Lush sounds echo in the Basilica to end the MSO series
The Milwaukee Symphony ends its Basilica series with an all-strings program.
Associate Conductor Francesco Lecce-Chong conducted the MSO in the last of three Basilica concerts Friday evening. This evening, “MSO” signified Milwaukee String Orchestra in strings-only music by Vaughan Williams, Prokofiev and Mieczyslaw Weinberg.
In the two previous concerts in the Bascilica series, Lecce-Chong has taken great pains to select music appropriate to the religious setting and to the extraordinarily bright acoustics of the Basilica of St Josaphat. This evening was not entirely successful in that regard. When Prokofiev composed a dialog between string sections, the acoustical memory of recent measures seemed like crashing waves. But when Vaughan Williams did similar things in Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Talis, the sonorities resembled a great organ – the entry of violins over the recent phrases of cellos and basses blended compatible sounds. Weinberg’s symphony worked as well.
Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis presented a very familiar work in a new light. When the full orchestra was involved, chord sequences piled upon one another for even richer sound. Meditative passages are enhanced by reducing the number of players to 9 or 4. Following sections for full orchestra, the subdued dynamics of solo instruments and string quartet sections floated in the Basilica space. Lecce-Chong maintained a slow and steady tempo and extended rests to let the sound fade away.
The work opened with dreamy thin phrases, gradually establishing a firm presence. A solo turn by violist Robert Levine resonated, and solos by concertmaster Frank Almond soared above an organ pedal cello section. In the midsection of the work, the melody drifted in timeless space. Vaughan Williams subtly allows momentum to build again, only to drift into silence in the final measures.
Mieczyslaw Weinberg, born in Poland in 1919, escaped persecution of the Jewish community by moving to Russia, only to have Stalin’s regime suppress his works. Weinberg’s 2nd Symphony (of 22) received its United States premiere Friday night. Weinberg deserves much more recognition. This was a moving, well constructed work resembling symphonies by Dmitri Shostakovich in its high string sonorities and meditative tension.
A moderate allegro section opened the symphony. A quiet, rising theme in the cellos provided the platform for violins to rise even higher. There is tension in this movement, but a wistful beauty as well. Almond’s violin sang a lovely melody over a gentle pizzicato bed of sound. Crescendos were broken by rests, to let the sound decay.
In the adagio, cellos top of their range entered the violin’s territory, but offered a more resonant sound. Stratospheric violins created tension. But the dissonance remained tender. As the pace quickened, overtones in the hall added drama; Susan Babini filled a break in the drama with a lush cello solo. The orchestra engaged again in a slow ascent – violins carried a high lilting melody over a slower-moving cello and bass sections, only to fade quietly to a close.
The final allegretto movement contained many magical moments. Swirls of sound created by rapid bowing were somewhat lost among the echoes. When a simple melody was introduced within several extended pizzicato sections, the individual plucked strings ricocheted around the hall. After more ethereal soaring sound, all sections stepped down slowly to end the work in gentle harmonic chords.
Jennifer Startt, the MSO principal second violinist, was featured in a lesser known Vaughan Williams work, Concerto in D minor for Violin and Orchestra (“Concerto accademico”). Vaughan Williams pays tribute to Bach’s string concertos. The pace is breathless. The featured violin drives the work from the very start, with the orchestra in a supporting role. Startt introduced the first section as a playful fiddle arrangement, echoed as the work concludes in a cheerful English Jig. A more lyrical middle section offered rich Vaughan Williams harmonies. The solo violin is engaging throughout. I liked Startt’s approach to the work, but when the cello section was frequently assigned as background to the virtuoso violin, the balance did not work in this space. Even a driving violin could be lost in the mix.
Lecce-Chong and the MSO strings will repeat this concert Saturday evening at 7:30 p.m., May 18. The Milwaukee Symphony will return to the Performing Arts Center next weekend – May 24,25 and 26 – as de Waart conducts a pair of Brahms Symphonies. See the MSO website for information and tickets.