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Monday, Oct. 20, 2008

Friends in High Places

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There's a familiar saying about the key to business success: "It's not what you know but who you know." To some degree, the same can be said of composers, a point made quite evident in the next concert of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra under Music Director Designate Edo de Waart.

Carl Maria von Weber (1786-1826), one of the great figures of early German Romanticism, grew up in a traveling family of musicians, picking up his musical education mostly on the road (though later he would study with Michael Haydn as well). As with many composers of his age, he fell under Mozart's spell, but remained largely ignorant of his near contemporary, Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827). Thus, his works developed relatively independently from those of that most influential master. Weber was mainly an opera composer, but also produced instrumental works; his best chamber music almost exclusively involved the clarinet. It's not that this was his instrument, but rather because of Weber's friendship with one of the pre-eminent clarinetists of his day, Heinrich Brmann. Inspired by Brmann's skills, Weber produced the Quintet for Clarinet and Strings in B-Flat Major, Op. 34 in 1815, one of his most charismatic works for the instrument. The clarinet part is interwoven into the music texture created by the string ensemble, but nevertheless is quite technically challenging. A largely meditative opening is followed by a lighter fantasia; a minuetto capriccio third movement is all gaiety; and a Rondo-Finale brings the work to a dancing conclusion. MSO clarinetist Todd Levy takes the solo part for this performance.

Czech composer Antonn Dvork (1841-1904) may have been fated to relative obscurity outside his native Bohemian homeland were it not for his close friendship with Johannes Brahms, who became Dvork's most ardent champion. It took a long time for him to achieve fame, toiling for years as an organist, viola player and private music teacher. But through his numerous orchestral, operatic, chamber and solo instrument works, possessive of a truly Bohemian spirit, inventiveness and bright color, by 1890 Dvork had achieved widespread renown. Enough so, in fact, that the National Conservatory of Music in New York invited him to the United States, an invitation he proudly took up, remaining here from September 1892 to April 1895.

The American excursion exposed Dvork to our country's musical heritage, and he found himself quite drawn to American folklore and American-Indian and African-American music. "I did not really use any of [their] melodies; I simply wrote original themes of my own and developed them [using] all the possibilities of modern rhythm, harmonics…and orchestral color," he said of the new symphony he composed. The result is a fascinating synthesis of American-Indian, African-American and Bohemian music, as expressed through 18th-century Classical forms and late 19th-century German Romanticism (through the use of a "cyclic form" as inherited by Beethoven and Liszt and perfected by Csar Franck). This is the work that truly gained Dvork worldwide acclaim: the Symphony No. 9 in E Minor, Op. 95, From the New World.

The aforementioned Weber and Dvork works will be performed in Uihlein Hall by the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra under Maestro De Waart on Oct. 31 and Nov. 1-2.