Claire Nowak

The Return of Rachmaninoff

Edo de Waart has turned the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra into a wonderful interpreter of the Russian composer.

By - Apr 2nd, 2015 03:49 pm
Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg

Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg

Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra music director Edo de Waart has done many interesting  things with the MSO, but one surprise has been how regularly he’s programmed works by Sergei Rachmaninoff. The Russian composer, whose works were mostly written in the 20th century, was long seen as rather backward looking, but audiences clearly like his music and de Waart, no lightweight, has made a strong case for the composer.

This weekend’s program spotlights Rachmaninoff’s “Symphonic Dances,” a three-movement that was the composer’s last work, finished in 1940. It is romantic, adventurous, occasionally grotesque, combining energetic rhythmic sections with some of the composer’s lushest harmonies. The composer hoped it would become the basis for a ballet, and several choreographers set the music to dances, but none of those versions have stuck in the dance repertoire. 

But the music works wonderfully by itself. As MSO associate concertmaster Ilana Setapen puts it, “once you get it in your fingers, it sits really well. It’s very satisfying to play.”

As associate concertmaster, Setapen is the second chair violinist. She supports the concertmaster and conductor by giving fellow musicians an additional guide to watch to help keep the tempo.  She calls “Symphonic Dances” a “well-rounded” piece, where distinct themes for each instrument make changing, intriguing harmonies throughout the piece.

The second movement, in particular, stands out to Setapen, who describes it as a haunting waltz that ghosts could dance to.

Setapen and the MSO have worked with de Waart on this piece before, but performing it again is far from repetitive. Just as musicians grow professionally and emotionally in the years between repeating a piece, the way they interpret music changes to reflect new life experiences. Rehearsals focus less on learning the music and more on specific details to bring the music to life in an original way. It also keeps their jobs from getting boring.

Yet Setapen’s favorite selection from this weekend’s program is not the Rachmaninoff, but Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No. 1. She is almost obligated to feel that way; otherwise, she’d be betraying her fellow violinists. She has performed the solo before, but this time, international star Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, long a favorite in Milwaukee, will take the lead.

 The two composers are quite identifiably Russian, but Shostakovich was Rachmaninoff’s junior by 33 years and lived and worked in the Soviet Union while Rachmaninoff moved to America and became quite westernized. Both wrote stirringly rhythmic music but Shostakovich’s compositions were far more modern and dissonant, enough so that it got him into periodic trouble with the Soviet authorities. In fact he held back the release of this work until the death of Stalin, and the concerto, with its unusual four movement form, eventually won much acclaim. The rather long cadenza in the middle of his concerto requires determination and stamina from the soloist.

Or as Setapen puts it, “if you’re not completely drenched in sweat by the end you’re doing something wrong.”

8 p.m. April 3 & April 4 at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts. Tickets range from $22-102, available online or by calling 414-291-7605.

Next week for MSO

De Waart returns next weekend to conduct MSO’s Mozart program. Featured works include Academic Festival Overture by Brahms, Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A Minor with soloist Inon Barnatan and, of course, Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in G minor, often called “the great.” Which it is.11:15 a.m. April 10 & 8 p.m. April 11 at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts. Tickets range from $22-102, available online or by calling 414-291-7605.

0 thoughts on “Classical: The Return of Rachmaninoff”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Rachmaninoff as “backward-looking”? Not at all, instead – amazing complexity!

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