Rob Gebelhoff

The “Hooligan” Composers

The MSO programs works by a close group of “outcast” composers like Ravel and Stravinsky.

By - Feb 27th, 2014 10:26 am
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Nationally acclaimed pianist Orion Weiss will join the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra for the first time to play Ravel's Piano Concerto in G Major.

Nationally acclaimed pianist Orion Weiss will join the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra for the first time to play Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G Major.

Early 20th century France was the setting for a classical music revolution comparable to the British rock’n’roll invasion. Superstar composers and musicians, often based in Paris, all seemed to find their way onto one artistic stage, generating bonds of brilliance and creating music that defined an era.

This is the setting for this week’s upcoming concert by the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, featuring Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major. The program also includes Gabriel Faure’sPelléas et Mélisande Suite” and the 1947 version of Igor Stravinksy’sPetrouchka.”

“These guys were like sponges soaking in the world as it slowly started to become smaller,” says nationally acclaimed pianist Orion Weiss, who will join the MSO for the first time this weekend to perform the Ravel piece.

The concert, which will be led by MSO music director Edo de Waart, brings together the work of great allies in the era. Ravel, best known for his 1928 orchestral work “Boléro,” studied under Fauré during his time at the Conservatoire de Paris between 1898 and 1900 and maintained a strong friendship until Fauré’s death.

Ravel also developed a close relationship with Stravinsky as members of an artistic group referred to as the Apaches, a group of “hooligan” outcasts that also included Manuel de Falla and virtuoso pianist Ricardo Viñes. The group also championed Claude Debussy‘s opera Pelléas et Mélisande, and this concert also features Faure’s suite dealing with the same story.

Maurice Ravel in 1925.

Maurice Ravel in 1925.

“Fauré captures French romanticism and Stravinsky’s ‘Petrouchka’ is known as some of the first modern music,” Weiss explains. “Ravel definitely has both of those aspects in this piano concerto.”

Beyond his personal connections, though, Ravel was also heavily influenced by a four-month tour to the United States in 1928. His travels to America added a range of new flavors to his compositions, including the same spice of New Orleans jazz that inspired George Gershwin to create his beloved “Rhapsody in Blue.”

Ravel incorporated the jazz throughout all three of the piano concerto’s movements. As he observed, “Jazz is a very rich and vital source of inspiration for modern composers and I am astonished that so few Americans are influenced by it.”

But influences on the piano concerto are certainly not limited to just jazz. The piece begins with a whip-crack, followed by a movement with clear Spanish undertones. Weiss also notes that there are bits of Chinese sounds in the work.

“What makes it so fun is that it takes you everywhere with the piano,” Weiss explains. “It has its emotional moments, brash and creepy moments, moments that feel like being in a dance hall with big band music — I love playing the whole thing.”

Ravel’s piano concerto reflects Gershwin’s style in many ways, weaving between highly emotional and slow string lines to sporadic blares of brass and percussion. In a way, it is a testament to his highly calculating composition style. Stravinsky once described Ravel as “the most perfect of Swiss watchmakers.”

The result is a highly thrilling orchestration. Weiss says the tempo and intricate musical trills in the right hand of the piano is what makes the piece fun and challenging to play.

“Ravel was a master of orchestra color,” Weiss says. “In his orchestrations, you can hear everybody — every part of the orchestra has a soul and a voice. It’s a really rich tapestry. Even the way he writes for the piano, he makes it sound like lots of different instruments. Sometimes it sounds like strings, sometimes like percussion.”

The MSO’s performance promises to be an engaging representation of a fantastic time in music history, which Weiss says may inspire a “sense of awe” in the audience.

“I hope people walk away humming tunes with a little bit of lightness in their step,” Weiss says.

The concert is at the Marcus Center for Performing Arts at 11:15 a.m. on Friday, Feb. 28 and at 8 p.m. on March 1. Audience members may join local music experts in the Marcus Center’s Anello Atrium to discuss the works an hour before each performance in a program called Meet the Music. Tickets range from $22-$102 and are available at the MSO’s website or by calling (414) 291-7605.

Other events coming up:

“Opera Insights: Julius Caesar” by the Florentine Opera

Perhaps the most dramatic scene in George Frederic Handel’s opera, Julius Caesar, comes in the form of the aria called “Se pietà di me non senti” (If you do not feel pity for me). It’s the pivotal moment of the drama when Cleopatra realizes that she may actually love Julius Caesar instead of just pretending to love him for political reasons.

The powerful aria is one of many reasons why this classic work was chosen by the Florentine Opera to perform this season. The show opens March 28, but the company offers a preview of sorts this week, with its latest installment of “Opera Insights.” The event provides a 45-minute discussion of the work led by Corliss Phillabaum, a former theater professor at UW-Milwaukee and a huge opera fan who has taught courses in it.

The event is free and open to the public, at 7 p.m. March 5 at the Opera Center and at 12:30 p.m. on March 8 at the Wauwatosa Public Library. For more information, visit the Florentine’s website.

Free concert series at the First Congregational Church

The First Congregational Church will celebrate the long-awaited (and still missing) spring this week in its decade-long, annual tradition this week called “4 O’clock Concert Series.”

The series, which features local music talent, begins with “Storytelling Journeys in Music,” performed by the Quintet Attacca, an award-winning group which resides in the Music Institute of Chicago.

“These free musical presentations are another important way we reach out to our community,” says the Rev. William Trump, senior minister at the church, in a press release. “Music is a unifying language that can bring diverse cultures together.”

The concert will take place March 2 at 4 p.m. at the church and will feature the Quintet Attacca. For more information, visit the FCC’s website.

Tuesday Night Jam Session by the Milwaukee Youth Symphony Orchestra

Another opportunity to enjoy the musical talent of young Milwaukee musicians at no cost. The Milwaukee Youth Symphony Orchestra will be putting on its Tuesday Night Jam Session, which features favorite jazz professionals from the city.

The concert will begin at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, March 4 at the Jazz Gallery. For more information, visit the MYSO’s website.

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