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Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Berio’s Trippy ‘Sinfonia’

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Ilana Setapen
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Avant garde ain’t what it used to be. Forty-five years ago it was still possible to shock and outrage a concert audience. Could that ever happen today? Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Luciano Berio’s wildy experimental 1968 piece Sinfonia Friday evening conjured captivating echoes of a churning era of artistic and cultural upheaval.

Sinfonia is an extended musical equivalent to a surreal, trippy, hallucinogenic film of the late ’60s. Conductor Edo de Waart has a long history with it, and charmed the audience with a funny story of a performance in Amsterdam in the early 1970s that became a near riot of audience discontent.

Berio’s music is kaleidoscopic, with a myriad of diversity carefully thrown together, including bits by Mahler, Stravinsky, Brahms, Schoenberg, Berg and others. Written for voices and orchestra, vocal parts were composed for the Swingle Singers. That same group was on hand for this performance decades later, exhibiting extraordinary musicianship. Besides instrumental-like vocal harmonies, there is much spoken text, which is deliberately submerged and obfuscated.

It was De Waart’s good idea to allow the Swingle Singers to perform an encore after Sinfonia of a masterfully creative arrangement of the Beatles song “Ticket to Ride,” from the same era, allowing the audience to go out into the cold night with a warmer last impression.

The concert kicked off with a crisp, clean account of Stravinsky’s lovable, neo-Baroque Suite from Pulcinella. Though nearly everyone in the chamber orchestra is featured at one time or another, it was the winds that made the strongest impression, with especially expressive playing from Katherine Young Steele (principal oboe), Sonora Slocum (principal flute), Theodore Soluri (principal bassoon) and Megumi Kanda (principal trombone). As would have been anticipated, De Waart led with a light hand and expert clarity.

Associate concertmaster Ilana Setapen has been a marvelous addition to the local classical scene. Her talents shone brightly in Prokofiev’s Concerto No. 2 in G minor for violin. Setapen played with heartfelt, graceful confidence. Certainly solid in the fast and flashy music, she was most moving in the high, soaring lines of the earnest second movement.