An impressive Sibelius at the MSO

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As Resident Conductor of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, Yaniv Dinur spends more time on the stage with the musicians than any other conductor, including pop concerts, school concerts, and occasionally classical subscription concerts. He grew enormously as a conductor during his many years at the OSM, evolving in musical maturity, authority and fluidity.

Dinur conducted an impressive recital of Jean Sibelius’ Symphony No. 1 in E minor last weekend. Conducting without a score, he apparently communicated his intentions easily to the musicians, creating more a collaboration than imposing a willful and inflexible interpretation. This music has been compared to Tchaikovsky in some respects, especially in the sections where the violins and cellos play the same melodies in octaves. Todd Levy kicked it off with a long and expressive clarinet solo, with sound emerging out of nowhere and gracefully tapering into nothingness at the end of the phrase.

Don’t tell the ushers, but after intermission I left my N row seat on the ground floor for a high seat on the balcony. I recommend sitting upstairs. The mixing and blending of the sound is better in Allen-Bradley Hall from there. On the ground floor, the balance between brass and strings – a delicate subject in this new room – is rather risky. The strings stand out with more presence when listening from the balcony.

I only recently met the African-American composer Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson (1932-2004), named after the Afro-British composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (himself named after the British poet Samuel Coleridge Taylor, without a hyphen this time). None of these men was related except in the kinship of the arts. Perkinson was programmed with his Sinfonietta No. 1 for Strings, a fine three-movement piece from 1954-55.


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The music definitely has a mid-20th century American sound to it, which got me thinking about what exactly that means. There are obvious characteristics of American classical music of the time; George Gershwin, Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein and Howard Hanson immediately come to mind. Perkinson’s sound is not as distinctive but plays with counterpoint and imitation playfully and appealingly, and spins the melody with pathos in the second movement.

Dharma (OK, I had to look that up as a reminder) is the “essential quality or character”, according to dictionary.com. by John Adams Dharma in Big Sur attempts to capture something, in the composer’s mind, that is essentially about the California coast. It was written in 2003 for electric violinist Tracy Silverman, who was a soloist with MSO. His electric violin has six strings, instead of the usual four, allowing for an additional low range on the instrument. He plays with a pleasant combination of flair and restraint.

It’s atmospheric, almost cinematic music. Undulating beds of sound, often mutated into various textures, underlie a freely rhapsodic violin solo. It is a slow-moving piece, hypnotic in its charm, culminating in the insistence of a regularly repeated note in various instruments that resembles the endless pounding of the waves. A moody film by Adam Larsen, showing dancers on the shore in slow motion, was shown as music played. I was so fascinated by the ever-changing details of the orchestration that I confess that I didn’t always pay attention to the film.

I was delighted and impressed by the warm embrace of this music by the public. Could this have happened twenty years ago? Some music that once seemed off the beaten track and experimental to some extent has become mainstream. It lifted my spirits of hope.

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