Claire Nowak

A Russian Romantic Version of Arabian Nights

Brazilian-born conductor leads symphony in performance of sinuous “Scheherazade.”

By - Nov 13th, 2014 02:33 pm
Marcelo Lehninger. Photo courtesy of the MSO.

Marcelo Lehninger. Photo courtesy of the MSO.

In the ancient Persian desert, a sultan plans to murder his bride. Convinced all women are unfaithful, he has married dozens of virgins only to kill them the following morning. But his new wife, Scheherazade, devises a plan to stay alive. She starts telling him a story, but makes him wait until the next night to hear the ending. With each new tale comes another cliffhanger ending. This goes on for 1,001 nights, and eventually, the sultan decides to let her live.

Such is the story that inspired Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s beloved symphonic poem, “Scheherazade.” The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra performs this weekend under the direction of conductor Marcelo Lehninger, making his MSO debut. That means the Brazilian-born conductor will be leading an American orchestra in a Russian composer’s version of an Arabic story.

The oriental-influenced orchestration uses different instruments to represent various characters. When the trombones boom on the first few notes, the sultan enters the scene. The first violin acts as Scheherazade’s voice.

And she talks a lot. The entire work could be considered a violin concerto because of the instrument’s recurring solo lines. But that conversation with the rest of the orchestra also lets musicians and audiences alike feel the princess’s emotions.

“When she’s afraid of dying and she needs to come up with a solution, you can feel that in the music,” Lehninger says. “You feel afraid. You feel that drama, that anxiety.”

The melody repeats with a different mood for each story, which makes it challenging but rewarding for Lehninger to conduct. Lyrical strings describe a young prince and princess falling in love. A more dramatic section puts the audience on the high seas with Sinbad the Sailor.

“The way the melody moves,” Lehninger says, “you can kind of feel the waves and the ship navigating through the waves.”

Because “Scheherazade” is a continuous piece that combines music and drama, pacing is important. Rimsky-Korsakov’s tempos change unusually often in just 40 minutes, so Lehninger must communicate with the musicians, especially the concertmaster, to make smooth, rhythmic transitions between movements.

Sean Chen. Photo courtesy of the MSO.

Sean Chen. Photo courtesy of the MSO.

“It’s as if you’re opening a book and reading,” Lehninger says. “You want to take care so the music is never boring and always has a flowing element that keeps the audience captivated.”

Adding variety to the concert are two other works: Stravinsky’s Suite No. 2, which was originally written as a simple piece for young students, but orchestrated later into a meaty piece for an orchestra, and Saint-Seans’ complex, virtuosic piano concerto, which will require a great deal of talent and concentration from soloist Sean Chen. The varied program offers evidence of the MSO’s vast and versatile repertoire. But the big work here is “Scheherazade.”

“Every time that I conduct this piece, I put so much emotion into it and so much energy that is required to do this piece,” Lehninger says. “My goal is that the audience leaves the concert hall inspired and with a share of these emotions and energy.”

8 p.m. Nov. 14 & Nov. 15 at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts. Tickets range from $21-101 and are available online or by calling 414-291-7605.

Ben Sollee

Growing up in Kentucky, Ben Sollee studied classical music and played cello in school. At home, he regularly listened to R&B and folk music. He eventually became so fond of each style that he imagined experimenting with a hybrid genre.

“I felt like I could create with all of those sounds in one place, and then it would make sense,” Sollee says.

The result was the combination of folk, R&B, and jazz he is known for today, which he will be showcasing Friday at the Sharon Lynn Wilson Center. He will perform songs from his first record, “Learning to Bend,” covers, and new tunes with the help of percussionist Jordon Ellis and harpist Maeve Gilchrist.

One of those newer songs—and one of his favorites to perform live—is “Letting Go.” It has no connection to the hit single “Let It Go” from Disney’s “Frozen,” though Sollee did write it for a film, “Killing Season.” The 2013 movie stars Robert De Niro and John Travolta as Bosnian War veterans fighting each other in the Appalachian Mountains. His song, on the other hand, is about forgiveness and freeing yourself of past transgressions.

“Whenever I play (“Letting Go”) at a live show, it kinda brings home to the stage, and I can take a breath,” Sollee says.

Almost as important to the show as Sollee himself is his cello, Kay. Her namesake is Kay Musical Instrument Company that made her, but it also describes her “okay” reputation. Music aficionados consider cellos the pinnacle of instruments, but plywood Kay cellos are usually given to beginner students. Sollee bought his on eBay for $200, and it is similar to the cello he started playing in his public school band. Now, he and his “bulletproof, rock and roll cello” perform around the world in a style all their own.

“It may or may not work, we’ll find out,” he says, “but I think for now I’m enjoying doing it.”

8 p.m. Nov. 14 at the Sharon Lynn Wilson Center for the Arts. Show is now sold out.

My Brightest Diamond

To call Shara Worden’s repertoire “diverse” is an understatement. The Arkansas native is a classically trained operatic singer, but started releasing pop albums under the moniker “My Brightest Diamond” in 2006. Her numerous collaborators include Bon Iver and The Decemberists, and she has performed at venues varying from the Sydney Opera House to the House of Blues. Her recently released fourth album, “This Is My Hand,” brings her back to the rock genre with a little dabbling in electronic music.

8 p.m. Nov. 15 at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts. Tickets cost $23 and are available online or by calling 414-273-7206.

0 thoughts on “Classical: A Russian Romantic Version of Arabian Nights”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Rimsky-Korsakov did not consider Scheherazade (upon first completing it), a “real” symphony, but an exercise in musical build-up! Later, when he became so well-known for it, he wished that the public had chosen another one of his works as “great”!

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