Brendan Fox

Symphony Program Lacks Surprise

Setapen shines in Bolcom concerto, but five works programmed got repetitive, predictable.

By - Nov 22nd, 2021 01:30 pm
Bradley Symphony Center. Photo taken September 26, 2021 by Dave Reid.

Bradley Symphony Center. Photo taken September 26, 2021 by Dave Reid.

While studying the music to be featured in this past weekend’s Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra (MSO) concert, I noticed that all but one piece was in the key of D major. Was this an accident or conscious planning? Always good to have some suspense. The program also suggested an exercise in Classical style, with Sergei Prokofiev and William Bolcom commenting on the style and Mozart and Haydn arriving later to provide archetypes.

Prokofiev’s “Classical” Symphony opened the concert with a nimble, festive mood enhanced by the Christmas trees and greens on the stage. This piece showed the composer leaning more consciously into his old-school Classical influences, with more occasional veering back to his personal language. The symphony breezed along: an opening Allegro with an almost unbearably cute second subject, a soul-warming Larghetto, a too-brief Gavotta, and then a Finale with all the Classical fun you could ask for. Strings scurried as in the best Mozart or Haydn finales, and the woodwinds had oomph.

Ilana Setapen, acting concertmaster of the orchestra, got a chance in the spotlight in Bolcom’s Violin Concerto. She offered an expressive reading of the opening statements, both lyrical and bouncy in the line’s unpredictable contours. Perhaps partially because she played from a score (not a bad thing!) her performance came off as unshowy, focused on executing the piece well. Maestro Ken-David Masur created a detailed orchestral backdrop for her, which exploded in a climax full of doom somewhere in the middle of the first movement. I appreciated the colors of muted trumpet and harp in the closing minutes. In the slow movement, Setapen’s tone became progressively richer, showcased in lots of long notes. The orchestra’s ensemble could have been a little looser in some of the initial jazz pastiche that crept up, but maybe the score didn’t allow much breathing room. A second, slower jazz section was wonderful, though. When the doomy music from the first movement returned only to dissolve into more slow jazz, I almost laughed.

Overall, Setapen gave a very selfless performance. It was all about beautiful sound, accuracy to the score, and communicating with the conductor — a testament to her years as a stellar team member and leader in the MSO, Frankly Music, and other settings. I was impressed with her as a soloist, and happy that she used her solo time in this engaging contemporary piece. I hope she gets to make more such appearances!

In the second half of the evening, Maestro Masur spoke briefly on the connection between the next chain of pieces. Something about the hall’s former use as a movie palace connecting it to the Schoenberg film music, the Mozart overture being from a stage work, and Haydn’s “Miracle” Symphony having to do with a mishap in a concert hall; a chandelier fell and no one was injured because they had crowded the stage. Good enough. The Mozart Overture from Idomeneo was fine, not terribly interesting to me. It led right into the Schoenberg, and that was interesting, but I didn’t buy the transition. The Schoenberg piece itself, Begleitungsmusik zu einer Lichtspielszene, started in ambivalence and then heated up with some kick. In the context of this program, it was like a dissonant ghost pepper hidden in a plate of wings in whatever sauce D major would translate to.

When the Haydn symphony started, in another bright D major as if nothing had happened, I started to feel déjà vu. And this is the problem with too much of the same key on one program. Even if you don’t have perfect pitch (and I don’t), you start to hear the same resonances after a while, and the Classical period in particular can be a bit predictable in its musical argument. So it truly is a lot of the same. As the symphony kept unfolding, it felt like the equivalent of fan service: “Look at all the scurrying strings, waddling double reeds, and brass to herald a Very Important Moment. It’s all here!” Amid my jadedness I still enjoyed some of slow movement’s chamber textures of violin and oboe, and another lovely oboe solo in the third movement. In Haydn’s time, these kinds of country dances must have gotten people itching to dance, or maybe they swayed in their seats. The symphony ended with a whizzbang finale. After ninety-six symphonies, Papa Haydn knew what worked.

All told, this was a puzzling program. The concert felt long with two symphonies and a concerto and two other works. I was tired of D major and Classical style by the end. I wondered if swapping the two halves of the program, and choosing a Haydn symphony in another key, might have been more effective.

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