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Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Music of the Spheres

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This weekend, concertgoers will get a peek into the future with a performance by conductor Edo de Waart, music director designate of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra.

The concert’s first half consists of a work called In Praise of Music by Pennsylvania native Dominick Argento (b. 1927). Typical of many 20th-century composers, his style reflects many influences—tonality, atonality, 12-tone method—but never became “avant-garde,” unlike several of his postwar contemporaries. Argento has composed works with lyrics (operas, choral music and song cycles) to the virtual exclusion of all else. Two years after winning 1975’s Pulitzer Prize for Musicfor The Diary of Virginia Woolf, he wrote In Praise of Music, a set of seven songs for orchestra. The work, originally commissioned by the Minnesota Orchestra for its 75th anniversary, utilizes themes from around the world.

Somewhat earlier last century, English composer Gustav Holst (1874-1934) also looked to the past and present for inspiration: not just to giants such as Richard Wagner, but also to his groundbreaking contemporaries Schoenberg and Stravinsky (as well as the riches of English folk song). An interest in astrology and astronomy propelled him to compose his most famous work, The Planets, Op. 32, a seven-movement suite (each movement named after one of the planets in our Solar System, excluding Earth, and with poor little Pluto omitted then, as it is now).

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Holst’s suite is shaped to provide great contrast between each planet/movement. Mars begins the work in jarring fashion, with its well known, terrifying vision of warfare. Tender Venus, a consoling vision of peace, follows this nightmare. Mercury and Jupiter provide a fascinating pair of contrasting scherzos; little Mercury flits along with quicksilver speed and Jupiter (both the largest planet and longest movement) shuffles along in an almost heavy-footed manner with its delightful dance motifs. Saturn (Holst’s favorite of the seven) describes human response to old age and its inescapable, inexorable advance—a remarkable combination of terror and resignation. Uranus is a portrait of a mythical magician attempting, with ultimate success, to conjure a spell, while Neptune, farthest planet from the sun, appropriately ends the suite. In Neptune, music floats by and we seem to lose touch with the passage of time. A wordless women’s chorus beckons us to the universe beyond. This music is the most haunting portrayal of infinite time and space ever composed. Adding to the experience will be images of the planets projected above the stage (from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and NASA). The concert takes place at Uihlein Hall on April 18, 19 and 20.

The Symphonic Wind Ensemble & Chamber Orchestra performs its final concert of the season with the suite Fra Holbergs Tid by Edvard Grieg (1843-1907); the Triumphal March from Act II of Adaby Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901); the Overture to Candide by Leonard Bernstein (1918-90); Year of the Dragon by Philip Sparke (b. 1951); and the March from 1941 and the Theme from Raiders of the Lost Ark by John Williams (b. 1932). The concert takes place April 20 in the Chapel of Christ the Triumphant in Mequon.

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