The Language of Music

De Waart and Milwaukee Symphony offer a kind of multilingual musical melange.

By - Feb 8th, 2016 02:37 pm
Jennifer Koh. Photo courtesy of Pick-Staiger Concert Hall. Photo by Christina Walker.

Jennifer Koh. Photo courtesy of Pick-Staiger Concert Hall. Photo by Christina Walker.

Music is a universal language. Cheesy to say, perhaps, but true. We do not need to be fluent to perceive at least some part of what music is trying to communicate, nor are we allowed to be passive listeners when the conversation seems indecipherable. Thus it was that the program presented Saturday by the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra and conducted by Music Director Edo de Waart was a multilingual affair that expressed a much emotion with varying degrees of success.

The easiest composition to grasp was the richly romantic language of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2 in E Minor, Op. 27. This musical valentine washed over listeners in long sweeping lines that dripped with honeyed chromaticism and sizzled with uninhibited passion. The lushness of Rachmaninoff’s work was made vibrant by the playing of the MSO string section. Full sections produce full sounds, and the large complement of violins, violas, cellos, and basses made the most of conveying the urgent beauty of the music. The MSO strings have always been able to produce a warm, luxuriant sound, and with de Waart, they were also able to achieve precision that made for some hair-raising musical moments. Hand-in-hand with the electrifying string playing came elegant woodwind playing. The duets between Katherine Young Steele on oboe and Margaret Butler on English horn were sweetly phrased and lovingly tapered. But it was the exquisite clarinet playing of Todd Levy in the third movement that delivered the deepest poetry of Rachmaninoff’s masterpiece. When Levy gets hold of a long, tender phrase, he is at his expressive best: Buttery legato, singing lines, and alluring dynamics are his stock in trade. Also adding to the thrill was the brilliance of the horns, trumpets, and trombones. The Rachmaninoff features many bars in the louder dynamic range, and the brasses contributed their considerable power without being overbearing. During his time here, de Waart has proven to be a big fan of Rachmaninoff, and he conducted this weighty gem with intensity, passion, and clarity. The ardent language of Rachmaninoff was unmistakable as de Waart and the orchestra spoke fluent love song.

Béla Bartók’s Concerto No. 2 for Violin and Orchestra, with violin soloist Jennifer Koh, spoke of passion, to be sure, but it was a much more intellectually challenging discourse. Bartók’s language can seem romantic at times, but his train of thought is also angular, modern, and sometimes confounding. One might exit the auditorium singing a passage from Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, but it is doubtful that many will recall a single theme from the violin concerto played on Saturday. Koh is a considerable talent on the violin; her preparation and production of the solo part was exemplary. From quarter-tones to impassioned lines, the complex interplay between Koh and the orchestra was an impressive thing to hear. Koh can produce a lot of sound and play many difficult notes per square inch. She is amazing. Bartók, however, may have overestimated the solo violin’s ability to play above such a full orchestration. De Waart kept the balances close to tolerable, but the girth of the orchestration obscured many of the finer details of the solo part.

The concert opened with Anna Clyne’s Within Her Arms, a paean to the death of her mother. Clyne, a recent co-composer-in-residence of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, uses in this fragile piece a compositional language filled with conflict that searches for and occasionally finds resolution. A whispered four-note theme began the work for fifteen solo strings as Clyne’s music seemed to explore the possibility that even as sadness dissipates, love is undiminished. Within Her Arms required the listener’s full attention in order to cull meaning from its wistful bars, and we may not have understood Clyne completely—or at all—but the language of anguish wants to be listened to, and we all respectfully obliged.

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