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Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2012

Levy Masterful in Frankly Music Program

Levy Masterful in Frankly Music Program

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Frankly Music (FM) kicked off a new season last week in a program that prominently featured Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra principal clarinetist Todd Levy, heard in all three works on the concert. The title of the final selection, Bartók’s Contrasts, aptly describes this varied evening.

Levy was joined in the Clarinet Quintet by Brahms by violinists Frank Almond and Ilana Setapen, violist Wei-Ting Kuo, and cellist Susan Babini. Besides gorgeous tone and technical accomplishment, Levy is a supreme master of phrasing. The other musicians matched him in this phrase-fest of sympatico playing, full of tenderness and vivid expression. We have had few opportunities to hear Babini, new principal cellist at MSO. Her rich, dark, round sound is rather extraordinary.

Levy performed the same quintet last season at Chamber Music Milwaukee in the vast Helen Bader Concert Hall at UWM. The FM performance at Wisconsin Conservatory was far more intimate and ultimately more satisfying. Only very occasionally did the loudest high clarinet passages overwhelm the acoustics of this small recital hall.

Mieczyslaw Weinberg (1919-1996) became a successful Moscow-based composer after fleeing war-torn Poland. I heard a profound Weinberg opera (The Passenger) in London last fall. His music, not known in the Western world, is slowly gaining deserved recognition. With pianist Jeannie Yu, Levy performed Weinberg’s Clarinet Sonata, composed in 1945. The texture is spare, primarily with spinning melody over a simple accompaniment. Ironic, plaintive whimsy is the prevailing mood—insightful and idiomatic writing for clarinet.

There have been quite a few memorable FM performances over the years. Bartók’s Contrasts of about eight years ago was one of them. I looked forward to hearing Almond and Levy play the piece again, with Jeannie Yu, and was not disappointed. This playful tour de force breaks most conventions, exploring the contrasts of the title in various ways. Almond’s fiery free cadenza in the final movement was impressive. The hot, nimble accumulation of the finale was a buzzy high.

Todd Levy is a hell of a musician, creating artful and spontaneous sounds throughout this very demanding program. We’re lucky to have him in Milwaukee.