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Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2010

MSO’s ‘Four Seasons’ in a Single Evening

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When you see that Nicholas McGegan is the guest conductor of a Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra concert, you can expect that the Baroque-through-Early-Romantic repertoire will be presented in most ebullient fashion. Thus it might at first seem odd that one of the works on the program is by a contemporary composer—Thomas Ads (b. 1971). But look a bit closer: Ads’ work on the program is called Three Studies from Couperin, an homage to French composer Francois Couperin (1668-1733).

Ads is, according to writer Allen Schrott, “among the brightest young stars in contemporary composition, and a musician of broad achievement and influence. His complex and appealing music exhibits a flair for drama…and is notable for the creative use of instrumental color.” Ads composed his Three Studies from Couperin for the Basel Chamber Orchestra, which premiered the work in April 2006.

Venetian composer Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) was the creator of literally hundreds of concertos for all sorts of instruments; indeed, as the string quartet has always been so indelibly associated with Haydn, such is the relationship between the concerto and Vivaldi. Though many of Vivaldi’s concertos have fallen into obscurity, his first four concertos of Op. 8, collectively known as Le Quattro Stagioni (“The Four Seasons”) remain his best-known and most characteristic work.

“The Four Seasons” also represent one of music history’s first examples of “program music,” that is, works composed to be rather obviously descriptive, a genre later taken up to great effect by Berlioz and Liszt (in fact, Vivaldi wrote descriptive poems to accompany each of the four concertos). His La Primavera (“Spring”) concerto begins the set, complete with colorfully depicted birds greeting the season “with their happy song”; the L’estate (“Summer”) concerto portrays the piping of a shepherd and the approach of a rainstorm; L’autunno (“Autumn”) displays a folksy harvest celebration and the galloping horses of a mounted hunting party; and L’inverno (“Winter”) shivers in its bleakness—a severe yet expressive portrait.

Beethoven is often thought of as the composer who embodied the “next step” in the line of musical progression from Bach to Mozart and Haydn, but Franz Schubert (1797-1828) also traced his roots to the same sources. Alas, the Schubertian path leading away from Haydn came to an abrupt end with his tragic death at the age of 31 (most of his output, in fact, was all but unknown outside of a small group of friends until after his death).

From Schubert’s impoverished years as a young schoolteacher came his Symphony No. 4 in C Minor, D. 417, which Schubert dubbed the “Tragic.” The C Minor Symphony is rather more dramatic in character than it is tragic, and a gripping piece of music that bears testament to its composer’s inventive gifts—remarkably so given the fact Schubert was all of 19 when he wrote it.

The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra performs these works at Uihlein Hall on Feb. 19-21 with Nicholas McGegan conducting (and providing harpsichord accompaniment to the violin solos provided by MSO Concertmaster Frank Almond in the Vivaldi concertos).

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