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Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra’s Emotional American Music

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Concert programming can be mysterious business. On paper last weekend’s Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra concert appeared to be a hodgepodge mix of American music. In practice it turned out to be an emotional rollercoaster with satisfying, accumulative effect.

Aaron Copland’s El Salón México paints a wonderfully colorful picture of a Mexico City dance hall visited by the composer. My guess is that there was limited rehearsal before the Friday performance; it was stirring but a bit tentative. Saturday was more assured.

MSO principal clarinetist Todd Levy urged Marc Neikrug (b. 1946) to complete an unfinished Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra for him. The impression it leaves is of the clarinet solo line leading the orchestra through changing sonic landscapes. There are magical sounds along the way, particularly the shimmering orchestral effects near the end. Levy is an amazing player, and played his difficult part amazingly, showing unrivaled technique. His tasteful phrasing and musicality made the concerto feel somehow rooted in standard literature. The solo writing takes the clarinet into an extremely high range, which Levy pulled off with stylish aplomb.

John Adams’ Doctor Atomic Symphony (2007) is based on his 2005 opera. For those who know the original, the opera is impossible to dismiss; it’s an effort to hear the symphony as an entity unto itself. However, it has undeniable, serious power. More than any other American composer, Adams is the voice of our time. Trumpeter Mark Niehaus conjured an elegiac, apocalyptical spell in one of the longest and most effective orchestral solos ever written, a transcription of the aria “Batter my heart,” based on a John Donne sonnet.

After music about the creation of the atomic bomb there was something poignant about hearing the exuberant, pre-nuclear age innocence of George Gershwin's An American in Paris. This was an especially difficult concert to play and conduct, and also a challenge to rehearse. Guest conductor Giancarlo Guerrero brought expression and clarity to all this diverse music. The orchestra was at the top of its game.

The Saturday evening concert began movingly, with the basses of the orchestra playing a tribute in memory of Peter Cujé, who played in the section 1970-2004.