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Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2010

McGegan, Almond’s Fresh ‘Seasons’ at MSO

Classical Review

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About 10 years ago I wrote that Nicholas McGegan should narrate a PBS series on classical music. His witty remarks at Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra last weekend gave me the same thought again. Laughs came aplenty, such as at the description of the opening of Vivaldi’s “Autumn” concerto as “peasants getting plastered.”

“Autumn” and three other Vivaldi concertos comprise the famous set The Four Seasons, of course. MSO concertmaster Frank Almond was soloist, with McGegan at the harpsichord. Last spring Almond performed two Vivaldi concertos at Frankly Music employing a Baroque style that only used vibrato as a coloring device, producing fascinating, edgy results. I’ve heard Almond play The Four Seasons in the past with a singing, traditional vibrato-rich violin tone, which was undeniably beautiful. The performance Friday night lay somewhere between those two approaches. It was generally a lighter sound throughout, with a light use of vibrato, and at fleet tempos. Long lines and phrase were a strong suit. Blazing bravura was impressive at times. Almond seemed to be experimenting a bit in how to play this music, which I found very interesting, fresh and engaging, even if there were times I wanted sharper commitment to one style or another.

The concert opened with British composer Thomas Ads’ Three Studies from Couperin, highly sophisticated, subtle and detailed works. Schubert’s Symphony No. 4, the “Tragic,” was heard after intermission. The orchestra performed well, with buoyant tone in response to McGegan’s playful and light-handed leadership. I can’t say I’m anxious to hear this symphony again anytime soon. I don’t find it to be a work for the ages.

Earlier in the week Almond’s Frankly Music chamber series departed custom by presenting guest artists, the string quartet Brookyn Rider, at Wisconsin Lutheran College. These young players presented an anti-romantic performance of Debussy’s String Quartet in G minor, with very light vibrato, stressing the abstractness of the piece. The string tone was without vibrato almost completely in the other works on the program. A contemporary, lean, unfussy sound emerged. Philip Glass’ String Quartet No. 4 came through with mesmerizing effectiveness. Contemporary classical fiddling sounds sizzled in music by Giovanni Sollima.