The American Scene

Edo de Waart leads the MSO in a survey of 20th-century American music.

Edo de Waart and the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra gave a quick tour of American orchestral music Friday, and they covered a lot of ground in two hours. Spanning George Gershwin (1928) to John Adams (1987), with a couple of stops in between, the program showed how the American concert sound has been pushed and pulled—by jazz, European modernism, and even rock ‘n’ roll–over the decades.

De Waart has been a champion of John Adams’ lush Minimalism since he was director of the San Francisco Symphony in the mid-1980s. The Chairman Dances: A Foxtrot for Orchestra was commissioned by the MSO in 1985–long before de Waart arrived here–as a kind of “study” for Adams’ first major opera, Nixon in China. Like most Minimalist music, it has a steady, almost relentless pulse, which came to Minimalism via the driving rhythms of rock ‘n’ roll. Here Adams uses it to evoke both the foxtrot and a cartoonish Chinese “vamp,” over which he imposes short, lyrical melodic lines. In the MSO’s hands, it was lush, witty—a total pleasure.

While Aaron Copland and William Schuman are usually considered part of the same flowering of American music in the mid-20th Century, few listeners would have trouble distinguishing Schuman’s Sixth Symphony (1948) from Copland’s more popular works. Firmly entrenched in European modernism, this is a rigorous and sonically rich one-movement symphony (in six parts), and one that reflects the bleak and mournful tenor of the post-war times. It is also a showpiece for an orchestra, reveling in fresh textures and dramatic juxtapositions. When was the last time you heard a minute-long timpani solo, or chimes and piccolo playing a long unison line? The MSO’s performance was precise and affecting, with solid ensembles, richly rendered sonorities.

Todd Levy
Todd Levy

Aaron Copland’s Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra was written in the same year as Schuman’s symphony, but it seems to come from a different world. Open and pastoral rather than dense and urban, it’s filled with playful, jazzy lines—not surprising when you consider it was written for Benny Goodman. Written in the same year as Schuman’s symphony, it is wistfully mournful rather than desolate, using the pensive color of the clarinet in the same way that Brahms did in his later chamber works. In the end, though, there is joy and optimism—flashy glissandos and playfully syncopated jazz. The masterful clarinetist Todd Levy has probably performed it dozens of times, but here it seemed as fresh as ever: technically adept but as natural as a meandering conversation on a rural back porch.

Of course, jazz is also a big part of George Gershwin’s An American in Paris, a 1928 tone poem that Gershwin called “a rhapsodic ballet.” Full of familiar, hummable tunes, it’s an American crowd pleaser in the best sense. But standing beside the music of three orchestral masters, both Gershwin’s strengths and faults emerge. He clearly is one of the great melodists in the history of American music. But shaping these songs into a 17-minute orchestral suite was not Gershwin’s forte. Between sections, the music seems static and shapeless, and even de Waart and the MSO’s sense of technical rigor couldn’t salvage some of the muddiness and lack of clarity in Gershwin’s orchestrations.

The program repeats Saturday night at 8 pm.

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Paul Kosidowski is a freelance writer and critic who contributes regularly to Milwaukee Magazine, WUWM Milwaukee Public Radio and national arts magazines. He writes weekly reviews and previews for the Culture Club column. He was literary director of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater from 1999-2006. In 2007, he was a fellow with the NEA Theater and Musical Theater Criticism Institute at the University of Southern California. His writing has also appeared in American Theatre magazine, Backstage, The Boston Globe, Theatre Topics, and Isthmus (Madison, Wis.). He has taught theater history, arts criticism and magazine writing at Marquette University and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.