Review: MSO’s All-American program
The orchestra surrounds the solo line like the air surrounds a bird in flight in Marc Neikrug’s new Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra. Todd Levy, the Milwaukee Symphony’s principal clarinetist, premiered the piece with guest conductor Giancarlo Guerrero and the MSO at a matinee Friday.
In each of the concerto’s five sections, the clarinet flies in a particular way through a particular orchestral atmosphere. The clarinet starts disjunct and mid-range against a shimmer of gongs and cymbals. After that, it: runs high and antic playing amid airy string chords; winds among the orchestral winds in a kind of clarinet bouquet; sings a lyric, anguished melody within a claustrophobic orchestral cage; yearns against mounting orchestral density on the way to an unexpected climax; and finally dissolves into a glowing shroud of sound.
Sonic beauty is the most esteemed value in this concerto. Its complex chords and timbres light up in ways that remind me of Ravel’s orchestral music, but Neikrug music doesn’t really sound like anyone else. From start to finish, I felt no pull of tonality, no home-base pitch. Because of that, the concerto has an unmoored, free-floating quality. Neither does it offer a melody to whistle on the way home. The long, florid, endlessly developing lyric melody is a journey, not a tune. The rest of the concerto is about sonority and gesture.
Those sounds and gestures are not isolated. Everything in the piece arises from two intervals: a perfect fourth, calm in its cathedral-like resonance; and the augmented fourth, the most dissonant of intervals. Their nearly constant presence in both harmony and melody lend the music a convincing wholeness.
Neikrug must be pleased with the performance. Guerrero and the orchestra did not merely get through a difficult new work, they empathized with it, shaped it, expressed it. Levy soared over the daunting technical demands and brought its gestures to full stature in a soulful performance.
Guerrero opened this All-American program with Copland’s El Salón Mexico. His utter rhythmic clarity and precision helped the MSO drop those tricky rhythms into just the right grooves. Beyond that, Guerrero understood the piece for what it is: An affectionate satire of Latin-pop clichès circa 1932. He and the MSO made it bright and lively and fun and funny.
A low, heavy, ominous pulse, like the throbbing of a massive press at a factory, permeates John Adams’ Doctor Atomic Symphony, based on his opera about the creation of the atomic bomb. This music is tonal; you can hear it move from key to key as one episode gives way to the next. It opens with a blast of brass and percussion, and moves on to trumpet alarms against a locust swarm of massed strings. The music is relentlessly heavy and charged. Even in the relatively lyrical central section, featuring a beautiful horn melody beautifully played Friday by Krystof Pipal, the low rhythmic, groan, in any combination of basses, bass drum and timpani continued. It was like distant pile-driving during a candlelit dinner.
After all Adams’ weight, Gershwin’s An American in Paris sounded especially ebullient. Guerrero had something to do with that. He brought out its dance and jazz with extra-sharp syncopation and exceptional flex in tempos and rhythms. He also made a point of bringing out the three saxophones in the mix. Guerrero opened plenty of room for the MSO’s players to let out their inner jazzmen in the many featured solos. Principal trumpeter Mark Niehaus, who had a spectacular concert all around, romped notably a deliciously bluesy trumpet solo.
This program, given at Marcus Center Uihlein Hall, will be repeated at 8 p.m. Saturday, March 13. For tickets, call the Marcus boxoffice, 414-273-7206. For further information, visit the MSO website.