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Thursday, Feb. 12, 2009

Czech Mates

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The next Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra concert program contains two rather substantial works by Czech composers and a smaller one by an American. Normally larger pieces outweigh the smaller works on concert programs, but this time the small, opening piece has taken on a sad and unexpected meaning.

This is the Ode for Orchestra by Lukas Foss, the Berlin-born pianist, conductor, educator and composer who served as the MSO's mercurial maestro from 1981 to 1986, and conductor laureate through 1989. Foss, who passed away on Sunday, Feb. 1, contributed mightily to the appreciation of 20th-century music, his own oeuvre consisting of a substantial body of works in the neo-classical, serialist and modern, composite styles. Foss' Ode for Orchestra, a product of 1944, is a somewhat somber work reflecting the then-ongoing world war. It was revised and given final form in 1958.

Antonín Dvorák's Cello Concerto in B Minor, Op. 104 (1895) is his only such concerto, yet was his second attempt at it, coming to fruition only after his nine symphonies and numerous other substantial works. Upon reading through the B Minor concerto's score, Dvorák's friend and fellow composer Johannes Brahms (never one to give compliments freely) proclaimed: "Why on earth didn't I realize that one could write a cello concerto like this? Had I known, I would have written one long ago." Dvorák's Cello Concerto-a free-flowing work that belies its long and painstaking genesis-has rightfully remained in the repertory ever since its 1896 London premiere.

Like his fellow countryman Dvorák, Bohuslav Martinu (1890-1959) enjoyed great success in the United States during his lifetime. He composed five of his six symphonies in rapid succession here between 1942 and 1946, and his final work in the genre, Symphony No. 6 (Symfonické Fantazie), followed in 1953. Of all of Martinu's colorful orchestral works, the Sixth Symphony has received the greatest acclaim. "What is so fascinating, so ravishing about it," wrote Václav Neumann, longtime conductor of the Czech Philharmonic, "is its whole structure, its thought and its musical language-a turbulent, disturbed, dramatic language."

The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, led by Czech conductor Jakub Hrusa, performs Foss' Ode for Orchestra, Dvorák's Cello Concerto (with MSO Principal Cellist Joseph Johnson as soloist) and Martinu's Symphony No. 6 at Uihlein Hall on Feb. 13 and 14.