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Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Groundbreaking Classics

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  “Fate blessed him when he was baptized with the perfect name—Felix,” said Robert Schumann when describing fellow composer Felix Mendelssohn (1809-47). Mendelssohn grew up in the midst of wealth and calm, and to a great extent his music reflects a Romantic spirit, but also great emotional tranquility. Few think him innovative, yet to a large degree Mendelssohn is to be credited with saving the piano concerto from being snuffed out. By 1830, composers like Hummel, Thalberg and Moscheles had brought the piano concerto to something of an artistic dead end, but Mendelssohn, sensing the crisis, drafted his own such effort in 1831, managing therein to breathe new life into a moribund musical genre.

  Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 25, presents aspects of both Classicism and Romanticism yet conforms to neither. The soloist doesn’t merely stand apart from the orchestra, but is integrated into the orchestra’s texture. Mendelssohn also linked all three movements through the use of small intermezzos, giving the work thematic unity. As Schumann called the G Minor Concerto, it’s “a serene, joyful gift.”

  Mendelssohn’s contemporary, Franz Liszt (1811-86), wasn’t merely innovative but downright revolutionary—a personification of the Romantic ethos if there ever was one. Seeing it as his mission to “bear witness to the greatest emotions of humanity,” Liszt sought to move music away from Classical formulas, and even came to invent a totally new type of work; the orchestral “tone poem.”

  His best-known such work is Les Prludes (1854), a large-scale piece in which Liszt strives to give voice to “great emotions” such as love, loss, solace, strife and triumph. He prefaced the work thus: “What is life but preludes to that unknown song whose first solemn note sounds with death?”

  Unlike Mendelssohn or Liszt, Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-75) had the misfortune of trying to express himself artistically with some degree of self-respect whilst living in a totalitarian state. As a result, he walked a tightrope his entire life, swaying often between official favor and denunciation, ever at the whim of Stalin and his gray minions. With his first full-length opera denounced bitterly in Pravda, Shostakovich immediately shelved anything he was working on that was the least bit provocative. He turned his energies to a work that would meet with both “official” and genuine public adulation: the Symphony No. 5 in D Minor, Op. 47 (1937). The accessible, conventionally-styled Fifth Symphony superficially seems to be a paean to the new Soviet Man, but it is truly a work filled with profound irony, its mournful moments reflecting the suffering of the Russian people under a ruthless dictator, its triumphant finale announcing the victory of evil, not of good. As Shostakovich secretly admitted about the finale: “The rejoicing is forced…as if someone were beating you with a stick, saying ‘your business is rejoicing!’ And you go marching off, muttering ‘our business is rejoicing, our business is rejoicing…’” In the universal pathos of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, a forced smile is cast at oppressive regimes everywhere.

  Brazilian-born pianist Arnaldo Cohen joins the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra under guest conductor Alexander Mickelthwate—music director of the Winnipeg Symphony and associate conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic—in performances of these three works. At Uihlein Hall on June 13 and 14.

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