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Monday, Oct. 26, 2009

Milwaukee Symphony Chorus’ Moving ‘In Memoriam’

Classical Review

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Milwaukee Symphony Chorus (MSC), the premier choral group in a choral town, is rarely heard without orchestra. That opportunity arose in a pair of concerts last weekend at St. Anthony Church, at Ninth Street and Mitchell. Another of the city’s distinguished church interiors, its acoustics are wonderfully flattering to choral music. In this environment, unaccompanied or accompanied by organ or harp, the sound was markedly richer than what is heard with orchestra in the much drier acoustics of Uihlein Hall.

Good compositions by local composers were featured among 22 works, including those by chorus members. Joel K. Boyd’s “Thou Wouldst Be Loved,” with harp, is brief but shows promise. Timothy J. Benson’s “The Good Shepherd,” with flutes and organ, is both dramatic and pastoral. MSC conductor Lee Erickson’s arrangement of “Now Thank We All Our God” is contrapuntally and harmonically interesting. Another local composer, Joseph A. Kucharski, was represented with “Agnus Dei for a Requiem.” 

Titled “In Memoriam,” the concert was tribute to two longtime chorus members who died last year. The shock of Elisabeth Witte’s murder by her ex-husband after a concert unimaginably shook the classical community in Milwaukee. Chorus member Gela Sawall Ashcroft’s “Freude,” in a style that mixes neo-Baroque and part-song, recalls Elisabeth’s sunny personality.

The balance of the concert was primarily sacred and in Anglican style, with a few nods to Lutheran and other choral traditions. There were many moving moments when the music swelled from quietness to overwhelming, majestic fullness. Particularly effective were Rachmaninoff’s “Rejoice, O Virgin,” F. Melius Christiansen’s “Praise to the Lord,” L.L. Fleming’s setting of “Give Me Jesus,” “O Nata Lux” by Morten Lauridsen, and John Tavener’s “Song for Athene.” My only substantial criticism is that the concert felt long on Saturday evening, a danger in a parade of short works.

On Friday evening I caught a UW-Milwaukee faculty recital by two of our city’s best, flutist Caen Thomason-Redus and guitarist René Izquierdo. The program included impressive accounts of Joan Tower’s Snow Dreams,transcriptions of Bartok’s Romanian Folk Dances,and sophisticated Latin American sauciness in music by Celso Machado and Maximo Diego Pujol.

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