American Made

Milwaukee Symphony musicians soar in concert of all-American music.

By - Sep 28th, 2015 02:30 pm
Todd Levy

Todd Levy

With a sound as glowing and round as the harvest moon, the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra’s principal clarinetist, Todd Levy, was radiant in Aaron Copland’s Concerto for Clarinet and String Orchestra, with Harp and Piano. Levy, having performed this work twice before in Milwaukee, was completely at ease with its demands. Whether it was his long, elegant phrases that warmed the hall gently like sunrise on the prairie, jazzy bends and burbling passages that hearkened Benny Goodman (for whom Copland composed this showpiece), or wailing away in the extreme registers of the instrument, Levy was the master of every aspect of this gorgeous concerto. His phrases pulled with lyrical prowess, never leaving one note for the next until he’d wrung every ounce of beauty from it. That’s his way. He sounded elegant and displayed a perfectly anticipated musical style for the joyous leaps and bounds of the last movement. Edo de Waart and the ensemble accompanied Levy sensitively, with good balances and flowing rhythm that made his job that much easier. One exception: At the very end, the throw from the mound was a bit late, with De Waart putting the orchestra behind as Levy glissandoed into home, but the run scored and everyone cheered.

The rest of this all-American program included works by John Adams, William Schuman, and George Gershwin. Adams’s offering, The Chairman Dances, Foxtrot for Orchestra, opened the concert. Commissioned by the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra in 1985, Adams contemplated a dance between Chairman Mao and his bride, Chiang Ch’ing (but Adams did not plan to include this foxtrot in his opera, Nixon in China). The composition begins with a simple, mechanical repetition full of light and sparkling sounds. Punctuated, random orchestral colors, galloping to a whirling climax, are interrupted by a sudden, spotlighted dream state in which the intimacy of the dance music seems too private for an audience; the listener is quickly relieved of voyeuristic embarrassment by the addition of a crowd of shimmering strings, soaring horn lines, and myriad grand gestures. The percussion section added psychedelic color and brilliance to the Adams that was spellbinding, particularly the xylophone wizardry of Robert Klieger.

The Symphony No. 6 by William Schuman is a difficult work to grasp upon a single hearing. It brings to mind American poet Walt Whitman’s description of a sound that is “…untranslatable, [sounding its] barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.” Filled with meandering abstractions that wander without warning toward cacophony, Schuman’s composition left me with the slightly unhinged feeling I had just roller-skated through a madman’s diary. This curious work is not without a great deal of merit. From every seat in the orchestra, challenging passages were played with aplomb. Principal flutist Sonora Slocum and principal timpanist Dean Borghesani were rightly given solo bows at the end for exemplary contributions, but really, the entire orchestra deserves notice for expertly deciphering this work with skill and energy.

The program ended with George Gershwin’s famous An American in Paris. I have expectations of great excitement and smoldering sexiness when hearing this piece. There are many famously juicy bars of music here, but it  requires the conductor to back off the screws just a hair so that all of the sultry aspects of Gershwin’s intentions come searing through. The orchestra played with controlled precision, as directed, but that resulted in a performance that lacked heat. De Waart buttoned the top buttons on Gershwin’s shirt, gave him sensible shoes, and admonished him to think pure thoughts. These days, the orchestra is really playing in high gear and de Waart deserves a lot of credit for that, but regarding the performance of this work, to quote Duke Ellington, “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.”

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