MSO: British Isles, from within and without

Conductor Christopher Warren-Green, violinist Jennifer Frautschi and the Milwaukee Symphony play Walton, Bruch and Vaughan Williams.
May 26th, 2012 |
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Frautschi credit Lisa-Marie Mazzucco

Violinist Jennifer Frautschi. Lisa-Marie Mazzucco photo.

Nineteenth-century Europeans, thanks to the novels of Sir Walter Scott, imagined Scotland as a wild, exotic, mysterious land. Thus Mendelssohn’s Fingal’s Cave and Scottish Symphony, and thus Max Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy for Violin and Orchestra. Soloist Jennifer Frautschi played Bruch’s fantasy Friday evening, with guest conductor Christopher Warren-Green and the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, on the MSO The British Isles program.

Bruch took Scottish folk tunes — Through the Wood, Laddie, The Dusty Miller (a favorite of folk fiddlers everywhere),  Scots wha hae, I’m a Doun for Lack O’Johnnie — for spins over about 30 minutes in six sections. Nothing too deep here; the Fantasy is a violin showpiece. Frautschi is very good, and she has a very good violin (the 1722 ex-Cadiz Strad). Together they showed they could crunch multiple-stops above the orchestra, fly through scales and arpeggios that span the fingerboard, soar in the the lyrical line, float the glassiest of pianissimos, and parse out a soulful recitative. Frautschi was notably deft and lovely with a spray of high harmonics near the end of the Andante Sostenuto, the sounds as gently gay as petals whirling in a breeze.

Frautschi impressed. So did Bruch, by weaving his little tunes together, expanding them to monumental scale, and bringing early ideas back late, like flashbacks amid the busy finale. But even with all this going on, I can’t say that this piece interested me. I haven’t heard it in years, but I always knew where Bruch was going. I wish he’d tripped me up now and then; I don’t like to feel smarter than the composer. The music is expert and all, but facile, one bright shiny object after another. I’d like to hear Frautschi return with a more substantial score under her arm.

warren-green-mso

Christopher Warren-Green. Photo courtesy of the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra.

Bruch’s piece is about the British Isles. William Walton’s Crown Imperial is of the Isles, and as British as music can get. He wrote the seven-minute fanfare-cum-march for the 1937 coronation of George VI. Who better to conduct it than Warren-Green, a Brit and frequent conductor for royal events for decades? Millions of people, none of whom are me, saw him conduct at that televised wedding of someone and someone Royal in April of 2011.

He and the orchestra had loads of fun with the Walton piece, which is grand without being stuffy. The A sections in the A-B-A1-C-A2 structure are quick marches with breathless momentum, borne on rhythms down in the mix that stutter and stumble from the fourth beat across the bar line. The B section could bog down but didn’t, because Warren-Green kept it smooth and light and suave. The A material returned adorned with glockenspiel and piccolo sparkling above the general tumult. Then Walton surprised us with new material that rose to a knockout climax that I, for one, did not see coming. Nifty piece, led by a conductor who really gets it.

Warren-Green, music director of the Charlotte (N.C.) Symphony, also gets Ralph Vaughan Williams’ mesmerizing Symphony No. 5, which the MSO last played in 1967. I can see why it took them so long to get around to it again. No slam-bang glory is in it. This music inspires you not to stand up and cheer at the end, but to sit quietly in order to remain in its meditative aura as long as possible. The music has its violent moments, but they are as stones falling into a pool that quickly regains its mirrored calm.

A minor horn glitch early and a few barely-off entrances mattered little. Warren-Green’s calm grace of gesture put the musicians and us in the right frame of mind to sense the ineffable, not only in the mists of Vaughn William’s celestial harmonies in the slow music, but also in the skittering 6/8-3/4 flights of angels in the scherzo.

We all did, indeed, sit quietly for a long time at the end. It’s good to feel your place in the universe now and then. We do, after all, belong here.

This program, given at Marcus Center Uihlein Hall, will repeat at 8 p.m. Saturday, May 26, with tickets ranging from $25 to $102. Call the Marcus Center box office, (414) 273-7206 or visit the MSO box office.

Join me for dinner and fun Friday, June 15, at the Intercontinental Hotel, then proceed to the MSO Pops Sci-Fi concert with George Takei, in a package deal. Think of it as paying for me and getting George for free. Click here for details.

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7 Responses to “MSO: British Isles, from within and without”

  1. Tom Strini says:

    Thanks for commenting, Jeff. And congratulations,you are the first to write a comment that is longer than the review. — Strini

    [Reply]

  2. Jeff Poniewaz says:

    I’m glad Tom Strini’s reviews, better perceived and written than Elaine Schmidt’s in the JourSent, can still be read online. His review of this concert is much better, too, than the one by Rick Walters in the Shepherd, in which Walters admits “I’m not a big fan of the music of Vaughan Williams. I find it bathed in sameness in its creamy English charm.” That comment actually reveals Walters’ ignorance of the variety of this composer’s music—as if he’s only heard his pastoral music, such as The Lark Ascending. It also indicates he’s not a nature lover who’d love an exquisite evocation of the British countryside. The music Vaughan Williams wrote in a pastoral vein is not mere “creamy English charm.” What’s more, he also wrote turbulent music, e.g. his Fourth and Sixth symphonies, that can hardly be accused of “creamy English charm”—music that employs dissonance in a way musicologist Michael Kennedy said “proves that dissonance and stark orchestration, handled by a poet, can lead to a thing of beauty.”

    Rick Walters is apparently one of those arrogant critics who feel it among their missions to put down composers they don’t like but many people love. Another was the Milwaukee Journal’s onetime classical music critic Walter Monfried, who didn’t like Sibelius and put down Samuel Barber’s First Symphony for its “Sibelian lugubriousness,” impervious to the concise power and dark beauty of one of the most rigorously worked out symphonies ever written—though, like the Vaughan Williams 5th, sadly seldom performed. Seeing as Rick Walters knew in advance that he had no feeling for the music of Vaughan Williams—and inadvertently revealed he had no real knowledge of its amazing variety—why didn’t he let some other person review this particular MSO concert? He preferred to flaunt one of the blindspots in the spectrum of his music appreciation as if he knew what he was talking about. My preview of this same concert, published in the previous week’s Shepherd, is far more knowledgeable and appreciative of the power and beauty of Vaughan Williams’ Fifth—in itself and in its historical context (it being an eye-of-calm at the center of the hurricanes unleashed in the Fourth and Sixth)—and of Vaughan Williams’ music in general.

    Walters also complained that the audience gave the Vaughan Williams Fifth a standing ovation. As Tom Strini reports, the audience first sat in hushed silence—as it did during other quiet passages. Even the coughing that often afflicts performances of other concerts did not afflict this transcendently serene symphony—a sign of how deeply the audience (except for Walters and a relatively few others) was affected. Nearly a half minute passed before it stood and applauded. This symphony doesn’t have the sort of ending after which whistles or bravos are appropriate. But the audience clearly loved it and signified that by standing to applaud. Walters seems to think the audience should stand to applaud only for music he deems worthy.

    Finally, Andreas Delfs let the MSO Chorus members vote for their favorite choral work so it could be included in his last season as MSO music director. They chose Vaughan Williams’ Symphony No. 1. Rick Walters must think he’s a better judge of music than the majority of the MSO Chorus and the audiences that gave it a tumultuous standing ovation.

    [Reply]

  3. Tom Strini says:

    Thanks Paul, Judy, Don and Stefanie for commenting. — Strini

    [Reply]

  4. Paul Mamerow says:

    Spot on review, Tom. Frautschi had great tone and her trills were clear and incisive way up in the cheap seats. Vaughan Williams 5th was a first for me. The third and fourth sections were particularly moving. A great concert. A great orchestra.

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  5. Judy Howard says:

    Thanks, Tom! Great review. I, too, loved the way we in the audience just sat, at the end, and let the peace of the music wash over us. The couple sitting next to me hadn’t heard the piece before; I stole a glance at them during one of my favorite parts and caught the gentleman wiping his eyes.

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  6. Don Elliott says:

    We enjoyed the concert immensely. I concur in your comments about the Bruch, and the Walton. Showy pieces both. I was not familiar with the VW, and came away moved by the piece. The slow movement was just superb – can anything really be that soft and still be heard? Just wonderful.

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  7. Stefanie Jacob says:

    Thanks, Tom–I’m looking forward to hearing the repeat tonight!!

    [Reply]

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