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Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Weltschmerz in Music

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The tumultuous events of the 20th century had a profound effect upon Western music, sweeping Romanticism away and leaving the last of its adherents to become increasingly anachronistic or embrace rapid change. The next Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra concert under guest conductor Pietari Inkinen explores this through the music of three composers.

Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992) composed his orchestral suite Les Offrandes Oubliées (The Forgotten Offerings) in 1931 as his debut public piece. Messiaen's music reflects not only the avant-garde of the mid-20th-century but what he called "the marvelous aspects of the faith," meaning his devout Roman Catholicism.

Messiaen would not have found a friend in fellow countryman Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921), whose works reflect great novelty but also a thoroughgoing Romanticism. Saint-Saëns' five piano concertos span nearly four decades of his creative life and are remarkably diverse in character. You won't find the muscularity of the German Romantic concertos, but they remain consistently diverting, refined works of great character. The MSO with guest pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet performs Piano Concerto No. 5 in F Major, Op. 103 (1896), a refreshing, sunny work with an Andante possessive of exotic themes giving rise to Op. 103's subtitle The Egyptian (Saint-Saëns composed it while in Cairo). If the middle movement depicts faraway places, the robust Finale is the voyage home, with Saint-Saëns remarking that it expressed "the joy of a sea-crossing," wherein the discerning ear can hear the thudding of the ship's engine.

When Finnish composer Jean Sibelius (1865) was born, the American Civil War had just ended. By the year he died (1957) there were jet aircraft, television sets and nuclear weapons. Music had changed profoundly, too. Sibelius' overall reaction seems to have been one of increasing isolation. Relatively early in life he simply stopped composing, and his final two symphonies show that this end was near.

The Symphony No. 6 in D Minor, Op. 104 (1923) is an evocation of much earlier periods in music-there are Palestrina-esque structures, Baroque techniques and even a hidden B-A-C-H motif on the harp in the finale; very much a throw-back work, almost wistfully so. Sibelius' tendency toward negation was taken to even greater extremes in the densely packed, single-movement Symphony No. 7 in C Major, Op. 105 (1924). Both works are also on the MSO program.

At Uihlein Hall on May 29 and 30.