All the Colors of the Orchestra

MSO does Beethoven, Ravel, and contemporary composer Vivian Fung, music from three different eras, and it all sparkles.

By - May 18th, 2015 03:14 pm
Katherine Young Steele. Photo courtesy of the MSO.

Katherine Young Steele. Photo courtesy of the MSO.

If you ever like to put music on a linear timeline to see what has changed over the last couple of hundred years, the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra program last weekend was a good spot to place your push pins. Two works of Ludwig van Beethoven from 1800 and 1812 were coupled with a sparkler by Maurice Ravel from around 1914 (orchestrated in 1919) and a stunning violin concerto from Vivian Fung that premiered in 2011—in music history terms, that ink is still wet.

What hasn’t changed in composition over that span is as notable as what has. The blending of orchestral colors is part of a composer’s craft, and a lot of what Fung did to paint the soundscape in her Violin Concerto is presaged in Ravel’s glittering Le Tombeau de Couperin and in the sonic surprises that Beethoven mustered from the growing forces he employed.

The program opened with ballet music of Beethoven. He’s famous. Not, however, for ballet music. The selections that the orchestra performed from The Creatures of Prometheus, Opus 43, are wonderful musical oddities. The Overture is vintage dramatic Beethoven: power chords chased by a jaunty allegro. The Adagio movement, excerpted from a full ballet’s worth of music, featured lovely wind playing from clarinetist William Helmers, flutist Jeani Foster, and bassoonist Theodore Soluri. The most notable moments from this movement were an extended cello cadenza—performed beautifully by Scott Tisdel—and the inclusion of harp in the orchestration. Hearing harp in Beethoven is a tonal surprise, and it makes me wonder why he made such little use of this sound in his work. The Finale, which uses a theme he used later in the final movement of his Symphony No. 3 (“Eroica”), takes on a higher, louder, faster dynamism as the music charges enthusiastically to the end.

Jump two hundred years ahead to Fung’s Violin Concerto, and what becomes apparent is that big dynamic contrasts and the power of thematic exchanges between soloist and orchestra are as exciting now as they were in Beethoven’s day. What is different is how Fung’s concerto creates a mystic sonic landscape of colors and atmospheres that transport the listener to an otherworldly place. Gamelan-inspired bursts of energy flash in and out of the fabric to be replaced by ghostly sighs and moans. Long glissandos filled the hall with aural sensuality, the curious orchestration techniques of mouthpiece buzzing in the trumpet and horn kept the listener off-balance, and haunting intervals in a trumpet and clarinet pairing had me looking around for a different instrument entirely. Additionally, emphatic percussion effects created a fantastic musical tension that laid the foundation for the extraordinary playing of guest violinist Kristin Lee. Fung wrote the magical concerto for Lee, who wholly owns this piece. Her phenomenal technical ability makes Fung’s challenging music seem easy, but it is Lee’s rock-star vitality and passion that elevated the performance to levels of ecstasy. Fung’s concerto is worthy of becoming a regular part of the standard concerto repertoire, and Lee’s performance simply wowed me.

Opening the second half of the program was Maurice Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin. Ravel’s piece—originally composed for piano—succeeds wonderfully with his colorful orchestration. Ravel could orchestrate Mary had a little lamb and make it amazing, and in listening, it was no great intellectual leap (more of an intellectual skip, actually) to hear hints of Ravel’s implied influence turn up in the Fung. Ravel paints with sound, and his impressionistic palette makes his music shimmer. Oboist Katherine Young Steele led the way. It takes exceptional chops to play the oboe part in Le Tombeau well. Ravel’s fiendishly fleet solo is an audition staple for the oboe, and Steele got all of it with panache. Helmers, English horn player Margaret Butler, and trumpet player David Cohen also contributed stylish moments to this lovely work.

To close the program, the orchestra returned to Beethoven with a performance of his Symphony No. 8 in F major, Opus 93. There are a couple of ways to categorize the symphonies of Beethoven: early, middle, and late composition periods, or “odd and even.” Symphonies 3, 5, 7, and 9 are particularly dramatic—they are full of the stormy, heroic personality that one equates with Beethoven. Symphonies 2, 4, 6, and 8 have melodies that are friendly, light, and bucolic. The eighth symphony represents Beethoven at his cheerful best.

The Allegro vivace con brio is a brightly paced movement marked by delightfully simple, pastoral melody that is interrupted by insistent chords bolstered by the brass and timpani. The Allegretto scherzando moves like a ticking clock, and the melody, with its infectious repetition, becomes a happy brainworm. Beethoven trades his catchy theme back and forth among the members of the wind and string sections in a game of peek-a-boo, and the surprise dynamics are flat-out funny. Instead of a traditional slow movement, Beethoven keeps the mood light with the charming Tempo di menuetto. The trio section features a beautiful duet in the horns, played with great warmth by Matthew Annin and Joshua Phillips. Helmers contributed a lovely clarinet obbligato to the horn duet for a very satisfying bit of playing. The Allegro vivace flew by with an all-is-right-in-the-world joyfulness. The violins were all fingers and rosin dust, and timpanist Dean Borghesani got to cut loose with power and a blaze of hand speed that put an exclamation point on Beethoven’s amazing symphony. Guest conductor Daniel Cohen was at his best in this work, giving clear, economic direction that moved phrases across the bar line with elegant horizontal purpose.

This was a fun evening showing two hundred years of classical orchestral music, expressed by three great composers and performed with pizzaz.

0 thoughts on “Review: All the Colors of the Orchestra”

  1. Anonymous says:

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  2. Anonymous says:

    Just discovered your reviews – thank you, thank you, thank you! How thrilling it is to have an insightful, learned, colorful reviewer again. I can finally stop pouting about Tom Strini’s departure. Looking forward to more!

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