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MSO: No one sounds tired at the finish line

Matthias Pintscher
ThirdCoast Digest

By Tom Strini

The Anton Webern we don’t know — the 21-year-old Romantic — got a rare hearing Friday, at the MSO’s matinee. Guest conductor Matthias Pintscher led the Milwaukee Symphony through Im Sommerwind, a lush and dreamy meditation one might mistake for Mahler, or for Richard Strauss in a pastoral frame of mind, with a whiff of Debussy in the mix. This is Webern pre-Schoenberg. This music embodies the serenity of a summer day in the country, the stirring of leaves with the light breeze, the shifting light, the drift of white clouds in a blue sky, and feelings conjured by such a day.

Webern’s sound world, borne on far-extended but essentially traditional tonality and melody, is a world apart from the free-floating harmonies and gestures of Pintscher’s own Ex Nihilo, given its U.S. premiere Friday. But the works are akin; both are more about aura than structure.

Pintscher introduced Ex Nihilo by saying that the moment of disorientation upon waking in a dark, strange hotel room inspired the piece. Its groanings, mutterings and sputterings, its sshh of breath flowing through tubing without producing a pitch, its percussive pings and rattles, and its slow accumulation of density over 12 minutes do, indeed, suggest forms slowly taking shape in the dark.

Ex Nihilo (From Nothing) intrigues for its wonderland of sounds. Pintscher advises to approach it as a sound garden, as an exercise in awareness more than in following an unfolding structure. He’s right about that; the strange growths in this garden exude exotic charm and shift consciousness. (Just for the record: Pintscher had to re-start Ex Nihilo, because a cell phone rang during the very quiet early moments of the piece. Do remember to turn them off.)

Pintscher is a very accomplished conductor, and the orchestra responded eagerly to both him and the music on this unusual program. Ex Nihilo and Im Sommerwind turn on the orchestra’s ability to make individual sounds and sonorities compelling. The players, alone and by section, showed just the hair-trigger awareness this music requires.

Todd Levy, the MSO’s principal clarinetist, played the feature role in Aaron Copland’s Concerto for Clarinet and Strings, with Harp and Piano, from 1948. Copland wrote it for Benny Goodman. The cadenza, which links the two movements, and the finale are jazzy, but the first movement is an extended aria. An abundance of large melodic leaps make its lyricism elusive, but Levy gathered them into the most exquisitely lyrical legato lines. In some ways, that was more difficult that the firecracker virtuosity of the cadenza and finale, which Levy burned through with great verve.

The orchestra part isn’t that hard, in terms of getting around the instruments. But shifting meters, toe-stubbing syncopations, cross-rhythms and devilish placement of entrances make the second movement enormously tricky. The MSO played it with great confidence and vigor, assisted by a conductor who commanded the score and conducted it accurately, vigorously and specifically.

This orchestra has played with such assurance almost all the time for a good 10 years now. The big advance in the last season or two has come in awareness and subtlety of tone color. The multi-hued Carnegie Hall program (Debussy, Messaien, Chen) might have made the players even more acutely aware of this aspect of music, which also happens to reside at the top of Pintscher’s list of musical concerns. All of this informed a reading of Stravinsky’s The Firebird, in the original ballet version, that shimmered, glowed, glowered and crackled with special brilliance.