Rob Gebelhoff

Lecce-Chong kicks off MSO’s Chamber Music experience

Chamber Series I takes place at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist this weekend, providing a divine backdrop for the music of Bruckner, Bach and Arvo Pärt. Tickets are only $5.

By - Nov 5th, 2013 12:45 am

MSO’s Associate Conductor Francesco Lecce-Chong will lead the first Chamber Series concert at St. John’s Cathedral Nov. 1 and 2. Photo courtesy artist’s website,

The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra experiences a change of scenery this week as it kicks off its three-part Chamber Series Friday night at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist on Jackson Street. The audience will see classic works transformed, led by assistant MSO conductor Francesco Lecce-Chong.

“The concert should be about an experience,” Lecce-Chong said. “I’m attempting this three-part series as something you wouldn’t experience in a concert hall.”

The principal piece will be Anton Bruckner’s Symphony No. 6 in A Major, accompanied by a piano arrangement of Bach’s Chaconne by Joachim Raff and Arvo Pärt’s Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten.

“There is a unified experience throughout this program,” Lecce-Chong said. “I would like people to see how these composers thought about music, that it was something more than just our human, earthly experience. This music is really reaching for something.”

Lecce-Chong said he programmed the concert specifically for the cathedral setting. Interestingly, while all the composers on the program are deeply religious, each of the three works are secular.

Although this was unintended, Lecce-Chong said it is an element that will add to the concert. He also said the cathedral is a more accurate backdrop to celebrate Bruckner’s sixth symphony.

“Bruckner basically grew up in the cathedral,” Lecce-Chong said. “His whole world was the sound of the cathedral. In many ways, it’s even more appropriate to play his piece at the Cathedral, because that’s probably how he envisioned it.”

Bruckner’s sixth symphony is a four-movement work that was completed by its composer in 1881. It’s one of the shortest of Bruckner’s nine symphonies, lasting about an hour.

Site of Chamber Series 1, St. John's Cathedral in Cathedral Square

Site of Chamber Series 1, St. John’s Cathedral in Cathedral Square

The symphony was composed on the organ, which is evident throughout the work. The orchestra shifts very rapidly from the strings to the brass, similar to the organ, which can change the sound of a cathedral at the press of a key.

“Bruckner is about sound—not melody or harmony, just glorious sound,” Lecce-Chong said.

The sixth symphony is a rarely-performed work and, like many of Bruckner’s other works, it received a lot of criticism at the time of its premiere in 1883. Lecce-Chong explained that he had difficulty understanding the music of Bruckner until he discovered that it was different in its very character.

“It’s not really about the human experience so much,” Lecce-Chong said. “We always expect the music to be about us—the struggles, the triumphs, love and death. Bruckner is about God — it’s about assurance. We don’t really get that in music very much.”

Similar themes are found in the other two pieces, especially the arrangement of Bach’s Chaconne by Joachim Raff, a contemporary of Bruckner.

Raff’s arrangement of the Chaconne was completed in 1873, although he had already rendered the piece for solo piano in 1865. Bach’s piece, written for solo violin, was so difficult to play that Raff felt it necessary to orchestrate the piece, making it available to a wider playing and listening public.

“It’s so much more than an arrangement,” Lecce-Chong said. “It’s really a new piece for orchestra based on the framework for Bach’s Chaconne.”

Lecce-Chong said the juxtaposition of Bruckner’s symphony and Bach, who had a major influence on Bruckner’s work, will serve as an interesting experiment.

“It’s a beautiful connection to the Bruckner symphony,” Lecce-Chong said. “What happens if you take the framework of Bach’s Chaconne and you put it in the style and orchestration of Bruckner’s time? What would it sound like?”

On the other hand, Arvo Pärt’s Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten will provide an intriguing contemporary connection to Bruckner’s symphony.

The Cantus, completed in 1978, was composed by Pärt in honor of his contemporary, Benjamin Britten, who died in 1977. Strangely enough, Pärt never knew or listened to the work of Britten before his Cantus was completed, but he did feel that he and Britten shared a common vision of music.

The Cantus is a perfect example of Pärt’s self-invented minimalist technique called “tintinnabuli.” In this technique, all the instruments in an orchestra play a single sequence of notes, but at different times. The piece is very simply constructed in this way, yet sounds very complex.

“It’s static, but it’s linear. It’s timeless, but it’s moving,” said Lecce-Chong. “It’s just incredible.”

Lecce-Chong said Pärt’s work will contribute to a common theme of simplicity and clarity in the music presented in the program.

In addition, these pieces will be challenged in a new venue. The cathedral setting will doubtlessly promise a new interpretation of the music and a unique event for the MSO and its audience.

Concert time is 8 a.m. Friday and Saturday, Nov. 1 and 2 at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist on 812 N. Jackson St. Tickets are $5 general admission (a huge bargain against the MSO’s regular Marcus Center performances). It is recommended to arrive early for the best available seating. Doors will open 45 minutes before the concert.

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