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Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Springtime Classics

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  Describing a piece of music that combines Russian folk music and Asian-inflected themes as “the peace-loving songs of the conquered and their conquerors joined in harmony” may be an almost alien thought to our 21st-century ears, but such was the thinking of many composers during the 19th century’s Age of Imperialism. Russian composer Alexander Borodin (1833-87) so described the work he composed in 1880, In the Steppes of Central Asia, in honor of the 25th year of Tsar Alexander II’s reign. Even so, he dedicated it to Franz Liszt, master of Romantic “program music” and the orchestral tone poem, forms to which Borodin brought a distinctly Slavic-Asian flavor. This well-crafted sonic portrait begins the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra’s next concert, under Munich-born guest conductor Jun Mrkl.

  Similar to Borodin, Robert Schumann’s (1810-56) imagination was fueled by literary ideas and poetic images, though less “exotic” ones to be sure. His compositions had been almost exclusively for the piano until he heard Franz Schubert’s “Great C Major” symphony in concert in 1839. Schumann found both that experience and an abiding love of nature inspirational enough to compose his Symphony No. 1 in B-Flat Major, Op. 38, which he called the Frhlings-Symphonie (Spring Symphony). Lyrical themes abound in this work; an initial “motto” first heard as a brass fanfare helps unify the symphony’s programmatic design. This fanfare, which Schumann wanted to “sound as if from on high, like an awakening call,” reappears in the gentle Larghetto and imposingly so among the trombones in the Allegro animato finale.

  The spring season undoubtedly played a role in the composition of one of the most successful and sunny works of Russian composer Peter Tchaikovsky (1840-93) as well. The spring of 1878 saw the composer on a much-needed leave from his work at the Moscow Conservatory (as well as from his hasty and catastrophic marriage to a student thereof). Violinist Josef Kotek showed Tchaikovsky Eduard Lalo’s new Symphonie Espagnol Violin Concerto, Op. 21, after which Tchaikovsky set about composing his own violin concerto, and his collaboration with Kotek allowed the work to be finished in an amazing three weeks. Superbly lyrical, novel in construction and possessive of a tuneful, exuberant finale, the Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 35 gives some idea of the relaxed mood in which Tchaikovsky wrote this work, as well as the impression that an awakening spring must have had upon him. Acclaimed violinist Hilary Hahn joins the MSO for Tchaikovsky’s D Major Concerto.

  At Uihlein Hall on May 30, 31, and June 1.

  UW-Milwaukee’s Fine Arts Quartet kicks off its four-concert “Summer Evenings of Music Festival” with three Romantic quartets and an opera excerpt for string sextet. Works to be performed are the Quartet No. 2 in A Minor for violin, viola and two cellos by Anton Arensky (1861-1906); String Quartet No. 1 in G Minor by Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943); String Quartet in E-Flat Major by Felix Mendelssohn (1809-47); and the Prelude for String Sextet, Op. 85 from Capriccio by Richard Strauss (1864-1949).

  At Helen Bader Concert Hall on June 1.

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