Finally, it has arrived…
Being a part of the artistic planning at any orchestra means thinking several seasons ahead. But even once the final details go public, there’s usually another 5 months before the new season begins. Now, at last, our endless planning becomes a reality!
For our opening weekend, we welcome two Milwaukee favorites: our own concertmaster Frank Almond, and Maestro Gilbert Varga. (Music Director Edo de Waart returns next week for Mahler’s Fourth Symphony!)
But the real star of the show will be Felix Mendelssohn and his two most popular works – the Violin Concerto and the “Italian” Symphony. At first glance, this programming might not seem bold, but ask most orchestra musicians about starting a season (after three months off) with Mendelssohn and you will probably get a wince or a laugh. That’s because playing Mendelssohn at the highest level is terrifying. Underneath every beautiful tune that he wrote is an incredibly delicate and transparent texture full of relentless rhythmic energy. Here’s my crazy metaphor for the week: imagine an energetic puppy that is barking and running around in circles. Now you pick up and hold onto this squirming puppy. You can’t hold on too hard because you don’t want to hurt it, but you can’t drop it on the ground either. Flipping back to our task at hand: the charming puppy is Mendelssohn’s beautiful melodies, its wild energy is the accompaniment to that melody, and the hands trying to delicately contain all of this is the poor orchestra and conductor. That is why it takes not only incredible musicianship, but also a cool head to bring life to Mendelssohn’s music. Maestro Varga is truly an inspiration to me in the way that he has navigated the repertoire this week, with a keen eye towards detail and the patience to piece together the textures in these works. And the musicians of the MSO have blown me away with their own attention to detail and throwing themselves at these ferociously difficult pieces.
Let me get back to my puppy metaphor and give you a couple examples. The first is from the opening of the violin concerto – the solo violin enters almost immediately with a beautiful, soaring melody that is the essence of romanticism. When you hear this, pay attention to the violins behind Frank: with rapidly fluctuating figuration, they provide the sense of urgency that gives the opening its unique feel. The second example is from the opening of the symphony. Again, right off the bat, you will hear the violins play together another catchy Mendelssohn tune. In this case, pay attention to the wind players who are frantically trying to fit in a million repeated staccato (short) notes underneath the violins.
The difficulty for the conductor is to hear both elements simultaneously to be able to help the orchestra fit them together. I remember many conducting lessons where first I would get scolded for not listening to the fast notes and then two seconds later for not shaping the melody. But when it all comes together as it has this week, it is thrilling!
As an extra perk this week, we have brought in a special speaker for our pre-concert talks. Larry Todd is one of the great Mendelssohn scholars, author of the definitive Mendelssohn biography, and recipient of music awards from around the world. Because of the occasion, please note that our pre-concert talks will all take place in Uihlein Hall (not in the atrium) and will begin 15 minutes earlier than usual (10am tomorrow, 6:45 on Saturday, 1:15 on Sunday). Hope to see you there!