MSO: British Isles, from within and without
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.
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.