That's what you get when bring Shakespeare and actors into it. Michael Cotey and Nicholas Harazin, as Tybalt and Mercution, and then Max Mainwood as Romeo, gave a most convincing account of the first fatal scene from Romeo and Juliet. The theatrical excerpt, directed by Mark Clements, set the image for the ensuing musical excerpt from Prokofiev's famous ballet score.
But with Rossen Milanov conducting and the MSO playing with such ferocity, the music alone captured the energy of the combat vividly. Milanov reached deep into a score we're accustomed to hearing with a pit-sized orchestra as we watch a ballet. To hear the full might and virtuosity of the Milwaukee Symphony applied to it with a conductor so well-attuned to its drama is to hear it anew.
In Michael Pink's Milwaukee Ballet R&J, the Capulets' ballroom number is no mere dance, but a collective dagger ritual. Milanov went to similar extremes, but purely in sound in that episode. He drew enormous, pendulous weight from the MSO's stellar basses and low brass. The Capulets sounded like some marauding monster of a family, which is of course exactly what they are.
In all versions of the ballet (I've seen many), Juliet enters this scene like a dove gliding placidly unaware a few yards above the fires of Hell. Milanov and the MSO brought special grace to this arresting moment. In the music from the Balcony Pas de Deux, they made us hear puppy love grow into something grand and then distill into something intimate and profound.
All seven musical excerpts played this vividly and this specifically. The actors, with Erin Stapleton as a disarmingly natural Juliet, did not disrupt the music. On the contrary, their just-long-enough scenes set the stage for the music and prepared us to hear it more keenly. The only stumble in this risky enterprise involved the sound system; reverberation made the actors difficult to understand, especially at first.
I like Milanov's style. He holds a wide battery of expressive gestures at his command, and he understands body language exceptionally well. He's expressive and interesting to watch without being flamboyant. Tightly bound shoulders elicit one sound; free and easy carriage elicits another. He employed the entire range with purpose to every bar of this program, and the MSO's musicians reacted with charged, nuanced playing.
In Mendelssohn's A Midsummer Night's Dream Overture, the tiny, taut 1-2 beat of Milanov's baton prompted high energy and very low volume from the strings in the speedy, skittering lead-in to the principal theme. He relaxed and beat time as if he were spreading icing on a cake to capture the suave, legato second theme. This fresh, committed reading charmed until the very last chord, when someone's pitch went awry somewhere in the woodwinds.
Milanov and violinist Frank Almond harmonized beautifully in Bartók's Rhapsody No. 2 and Chausson's Poème.
Almond perfectly parsed the gruff recitative at the outset as it rambled and sprawled like a clever best man extemporizing a long wedding toast. Milanov and the orchestra sidled their in and took over the solo line without a missed syllable. The orchestra doesn't so much accompany the soloist in this piece as supplement him and expand his voice. Milanov picked up the momentum of the violin phrase and aligned the orchestra with it without fail.
The first movement, in terms of structure, is about transformation of a meaty idea into an ethereal one, and then the combination and further transformation of those two different but related ideas. The second movement, by contrast, unfolds in a series of dance episodes, each one wilder than the next. If the first movement was the eloquent wedding toast, this second in the increasingly drunken reception dance.
|Peter Brueghel the Younger, Peasant Wedding Dance, 1607. Oil on panel.|
Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels
Almond and the MSO ripped through slews of tricky rhythms and split-second exchanges with enormous gusto and impressive precision. Margaret Butler notably twined a snaky English horn line through a violin solo running at full tilt, to me THE wow moment in a movement bursting with them.
Almond quieted the rousing ovation for the Bartók and returned a few moments later with the Chausson.
Even more than in the Rhapsody, in Poème the orchestra extends and amplifies the solo violin rather than accompanies it. Again, Milanov and his players listened acutely and matched Almond's timbres and fell in step with his momentum. Orchestra and soloist merged and parted ways seamlessly. They rode the same waves.
Almond was splendid with the vigorous, hearty Rhapsody, but the Poème lies precisely in the heart of his strength as a violinist. He is all about beauty, and not only the sheer beauty of sound. He has a special way with the pliant, poignant, lyrical line. Poème comprises one long, pliant, poignant, lyrical line after another, many of them for violin alone. To hear Frank Almond play this piece on that gorgeous Stradivarius is to be struck dumb with the beauty of it all.
This program, given at Marcus Center Uihlein Hall, will be repeated at 8 p.m. Saturday (April 19). For tickets, call the Marcus Center box office, 414 273-7206.
More Tom Strini music reviews.