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The Once and Future Orchestra
The MSO does Brahms, while Present Music bends the barriers

            Johannes Brahms spent more than a decade agonizing over his first symphony. As Marquette University’s Jason Ladd  pointed out in his informative, casual talk before the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra's all-Brahms concert Friday, much of the mid-19th century was haunted by the spectre of Beethoven’s symphonies, which were considered the zenith of the form. Since many refer to Brahms’ Symphony No. 1, completed in 1875, some argue that Brahms rejuvenated the symphony for the century to come.

            Edo de Waart’s reading of this stormy masterpiece demonstrated why it has endured. It seems to reflect the composer sense of searching and uncertainty. The melodic material in the first movement is either densely chromatic or wide open—leaps of fourths or fifths. De Waart and the orchestra brought clarity to this furious material, allowing the tension to properly dissipate as the movement drew to a close. The orchestra adjusted beautifully to the lush opening of the second movement, which the strings phrased with warmth and tenderness, giving way to Katherine Young Steele’s beautiful oboe solo.

            The winds as a whole continued the warm spirit with the pastoral and flowing lines of the third movements. And, of course, it all is preparation for the stormy and probing opening of the finale, which eventually—after the sunny calm of the brass and wind chorales--gives away to the only “take-away” melody of the symphony—an obvious homage to Beethoven. It’s a stunning musical cloudbreak that seems 35 minutes in the making, and after the calm and stately phrased theme, de Waart and the orchestra were off and running toward the piece’s dramatic conclusion.

            The more familiar and tuneful fourth symphony was also played beautifully, from the lilting dance of the first movement to the rigorous finale, one of the most original final movements in the symphonic canon. The second movement, in particular, showed de Waart’s skill in letting Brahms’ colors and architecture shine through. From the French Horn invocation to the delicate woodwind chorale—backed by a whisper of plucked strings—to the slowly building string tutti that gives way to the second theme. It was shaped with great sensitivity, and featured some gorgeous playing by principals Steele, Todd Levy, and Sonora Slocum.

            Hear it again Saturday night and Sunday morning. 


If that pair of Brahms symphonies showed the pinnacle of 19th-century orchestral music, Friday night’s concert by Present Music—appropriate called “Multitude”—was a savvy sampling of art music in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Artistic Director Kevin Stalheim chose to close its season with by spotlighting three guest artists, as well as a brand new composition commissioned by Present Music.

            Electric guitarist Derek Johnson opened with a triptych of music that demonstrated his versatility and virtuosity. Elliott Carter’s “Shard” was frenetic and eclectic—an atonal romp around the fretboard that could have been mistaken for avant-jazz or rock improvising. Johnson then played his own arrangement of David Lang’s “Wed,” which was soft and languorous by comparison, but no less deft and skillful. Steve Reich’s “Electric Counterpoint” used looping—recording snippets of melody that repeated over and over—to build a dense and beautiful texture.

            The first half of the concert ended with the PM commission, Sean Friar’s “Breaking Point,” which took the guitar—with all its buzzy distortion and occasional feedback—as a starting point for a soundscape. It’s intense and driven, with hairpin turns as the other instruments—string quartet, clarinet, piano and percussion—jangle and clang along to the lead guitar’s riffs. It’s a wild ride.

            Pianist Yegor Shevtsov started the second half with Scott Wollschleger’s “Chaos Analog,” a visceral and aggressive piano piece composed almost entirely of glissandos and cluster chords (cluster as in your whole forearm coming down on the keys). Watching Shevtsov almost made you think the piece is scored for an actor—his body language and intense expressions were as much a part of the music as the notes.

The rest of the program was turned over to Ted Hearne, who perfectly embodies the cross-genre direction that music is taking. His 2004 “Forcefield” is a gentle and searching piece for viola and vibraphone, and here it was a showcase for the beautiful dancing of Mauriah Kraker. His songs feature sophisticated poetry, by himself or his writing partner Meghan Deas, and are built around musical ideas that aren’t really on the agenda of your average pop songsmith. Performing them, however, Hearne fronts the band like an alt-rock bandleader. For “Warning Song” (2006), he turned to cellist-vocalist Leah Coloff, whose singing reminds you equally of Tori Amos and Patti Smith. Others featured Hearne’s vocals, but put Coloff’s punkish and technically adept cello playing front and center. The final instrumental, “Snowball” (2008), was a raucous feature for virtuoso violin work by Sharan Leventhal and the trumpet playing of Don Sipe. 

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