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Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2009

Frankly Music’s Knockout Performance

Classical Review

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Frankly Music, Milwaukee’s best chamber music series, began a new season last Monday in a concert at Wisconsin Lutheran College. It was a near sellout, despite the Packers-Vikings-Favre drama playing out on television. Some Wisconsinites apparently prefer Brahms to football.

Violinist Frank Almond, concertmaster at Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra and Frankly Music artistic director, has long demonstrated the impresario’s gift of effectively putting together performers and programs. Almond has high standards and invites guest players, often from out of town, to join him in attempting to reach them. Bringing in noted cellist Lynn Harrell to play not solos but chamber music was an inspired idea. Toby Appel, a violist with an unforgettably arresting tone, returned to the series, as did MSO principal cellist Joseph Johnson and Chicago violist Stefan Hersh. This was the first opportunity to hear Ilana Setapen, the new associate concertmaster at MSO, a terrific addition to our local classical scene.

Johannes Brahms’ Sextet for Strings was a knockout.

Somehow the six capable soloists came together in this one performance to create a wonderfully cohesive ensemble. There was a special spark to it, something beyond good. This combination of two violins, two violas and two cellos rang Schwan Hall with a richness beyond any other configuration of instruments ever heard there. Stretches hit chilling artistic heights, particularly the first and second movements. Unlike a recording, which can be a little safe, this live performance proceeded with captivating spirit and momentum. It was easy to forgive some minor mistuning in the finale. Harrell only took the spotlight when given featured solo lines, emerging with remarkable playing that had both cutting-edge buzz and bighearted warmth, not to mention a master’s phrasing.

Alexander Glazunov’s Quintet for Strings is a curiosity, rarely performed. The music is undeniably beautiful, bathed in melody and lushness. Generally sunny, it moves along without significant tension or conflict. Any one of the movements is lovely on its own. As a whole, one begins to long for something to spell the constant beauty. Even sweet pleasure becomes monotonous if it goes on too long.

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