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Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2011

MSO’s Ilana Setapen Stands Out

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I knew violinist Ilana Setapen was good. I had heard her in recital and in chamber music. But I didn’t realize how wonderfully and exceptionally good she is until hearing her play Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto with Milwaukee Symphony last Saturday night.

Setapen is associate concertmaster of the orchestra. I would guess that there are few associate concertmasters among the major orchestras who can play a concerto as Setapen can. There are plenty of orchestras without a concertmaster who can solo at this level. With both Frank Almond and Setapen, the MSO is unusually blessed.

Setapen played with assurance, easy agility and, when the music allowed it, singing tone. This was particularly true in a first movement section after an excellently delivered cadenza. Virtuoso playing gave way to heartfelt, color-rich melody. She lightly danced the sound appropriately in the smile-inviting, signature “Mendelssohn scurry” music of the last movement.

Guest conductor Carlo Rizzi led a tart, cool and crisp Suite No. 2 by Stravinsky. The woodwinds and brass were particularly tight and impressive in this lightly ironic score. Rizzi was much more extroverted in Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5, stressing expressive emotion. It was almost an operatic performance of the symphony. The violins responded with particularly beautiful sound. Some sections were surprisingly ponderous, but nonetheless effective. A couple of minor problems with entrances, which is generally not an issue with MSO, made me wonder if Rizzi was giving the orchestra the cues it needed.

Earlier in the week Susanna Phillips, who is in the midst of a run of La bohme at the Metropolitan Opera, appeared as guest artist on a Chamber Music Milwaukee concert at Helen Bader Concert Hall at UWM. One of the best young lyric sopranos around, Phillips sings with unusual grace and gorgeous, creamy sound. Collaborating with guitarist Rene Izquierdo, three Granados songs were sparkling jewels. Phillips brought sincere emotion to Philip Lasser’s vocally challenging 2009 song cycle In Colors of Feelings, which she commissioned, well played by Yasuko Oura. Because music I composed and arranged for Phillips and clarinetist Todd Levy was also performed, I will not comment further.