Rumors of Our Demise Are Exaggerated

Concert proves Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra is alive and well and wowing audiences.

By - Nov 10th, 2014 02:22 pm
Ted Soluri, the bassoon soloist for Pictures at an Exhibition

Ted Soluri, soloist in the new bassoon concerto performed with the symphony. 

Musicians and music lovers are regularly forced to debate with those who declare “the death of classical music” in response to half-empty halls or ambitious programming. The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra delivered a smack-down response this weekend to that notion. Under the direction of guest conductor Carlos Kalmar, the MSO presented to a well-attended house four works—all written or orchestrated within the last 100 years, with two by living composers—that dramatically illustrated why classical music remains relevant and exhilarating.

Sergei Prokofiev’s charming Classical Symphony, Opus 25, written in 1917, flatly rejects the excesses of romantic music and demonstrates for the listener how Prokofiev imagined a Haydn symphony might have evolved during a century or more of musical changes. The clear, symmetrical symphonic form in the Classical Symphony is a Prokofiev-ized realization of Haydn in every way. The orchestration is light, using a reduced complement of strings, timpani, and pairs of oboes, flutes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, and trumpets, with an architecture that employs the very Haydn-like allegro first movement, a slower second movement, a dance movement, and a molto allegro finale. For all of this imitation (Haydn used this general structure a whopping 106 times), there is nothing ordinary about what Prokofiev has composed. Graceful, innocent melodies dance back and forth between the strings and woodwinds, and contrasting dynamics emphasize the melodic surprises at which Prokofiev is so good. Kalmar conducted for clarity and sparkle, and the return from the orchestra was breathtaking. Metronomic precision and jaw-dropping dynamics were on full display—the pianissimo dynamics in the second movement gave this listener goose bumps—and the tempo di double espresso of the last movement surged like a shot of adrenaline with a Red Bull sidecar.

The second piece on this creative program was the Milwaukee premier of Marc Neikrug’s Concerto for Bassoon and Orchestra with the MSO’s principal bassoonist, Theodore Soluri, as soloist. The concerto—recently co-commissioned by the Boston Symphony, the National Symphony, the MSO and the National Arts Centre Orchestra in Ottawa—is a welcome addition to a somewhat slender catalog of regularly performed bassoon concerti and the kind of work that could easily become a durable part of the solo bassoon repertoire. Neikrug employs a rather large orchestra to accompany this limited-dynamic instrument, with a full assembly of percussion, winds, four horns, and some low brass, but his colorful orchestration is so savvy it never stands between the listener and the solo bassoon.

The first movement emphasizes large, facile intervallic leaps in the bassoon set against a coy dialogue between several different woodwinds and the soloist. The second movement shows off the lyrical quality and range of the bassoon: ascending chromatic lines climb, drop, and climb again with a melancholy yearning. The third movement is a fluttering, trilling, three-legged race to a cadenza that displays the bassoon to full advantage, providing a satisfying challenge to the soloist while giving the listener a rich depiction of the instrument’s tonal and technical capabilities. Soluri was magnificent. His warm, polished sound sang with multiple colors and dynamic nuance, his thoughtful musicianship gave the impression there could be no better way to play the piece, and his technique was sure and easy.

After intermission the orchestra grew in size once more for another Milwaukee premiere, Gunther Schuller’s 1959 composition, Seven Studies on Themes of Paul Klee. Schuller, an early mentor of Neikrug, writes music that can hardly be pinned down to a certain style. These seven studies paint imaginative-descriptive tonal pictures. “Antique Harmonies” and “Abstract Trio,” compositional clinics in cool orchestration techniques, are followed by “Little Blue Devil,” which swings with bebop madness and gave trumpet player David Cohen and vibraphonist Robert Klieger the opportunity to get in touch with their inner jazzster. “The Twittering-Machine” squawked and chirped accordingly. “Arab Village” featured beautiful flute playing by Sonora Slocum in an off-stage siren’s call while solo viola, oboe, and harp in a Middle Eastern melisma with quarter-tone pitch variations seduced the listener into imagining exotic, faraway places. “An Eerie Moment” is so cinematic that in listening, one imagines a cold hand on the back of the neck with the distinct feeling that something dreadful is about to happen. “Pastorale” concluded the work with a kind of cubist layering of rhythm and sound that featured elegant playing by principal clarinetist Todd Levy and principal hornist Matthew Annin. Again, Kalmar was clear and in full control of this varied and complex score.

The last piece on the program, Pictures at an Exhibition, composed by Modest Mussorgsky and orchestrated in 1922 by Maurice Ravel, is a well-known orchestral chestnut. For someone new to symphonic repertoire, Pictures is a gateway drug to the bigger works of the orchestral canon. To the experienced listener, another performance of a warhorse is a joy only if really well performed. Happily, the MSO soared. Led by guest principal trumpet Bill Williams, the opening Promenade rang out with exciting, clarion majesty, and in Il veccio castello, saxophonist James C. Umble played with shimmering beauty. Throughout this piece, the orchestra gave an elegant, nuanced performance, and Kalmar conducted with energy, grace, and style.

As Prokofiev once put it, “the composer must beautify human life and defend it.” Kalmar and the MSO did exactly that this weekend, and in most entertaining fashion.

0 thoughts on “Classical: Rumors of Our Demise Are Exaggerated”

  1. Anonymous says:

    The guest principal oboist was Anne Bach (Chicago), and guest principal harpist was Elisabeth Remy Johnson (Atlanta Symphony).

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