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CLASSICAL  May 2005

CLASSICAL May 2005

Subject:

Wuorinen's Seventh in Milwaukee

From:

James Tobin <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Sun, 8 May 2005 17:35:08 -0500

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In a three-symphony concert the weekend of May 6, 7 and 8, the
Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra performed Charles Wuorinen's Seventh Symphony,
commissioned--for the MSO and for the orchestras of Toledo, Berkleley,
and New Hampshire--by Meet the Composer and the Koussevitsky Foundation
in the Library of Congress, and dedicated "to the memory of Serge and
Natalie Koussevitsky." Also on the program were Mozart's Symphony No.
6 and Dvorak's Symphony No. 8.  The conductor was the visiting James
Paul (once MSO Associate Director when the recently-deceased Kenneth
Schermerhorn was Director.)

A notable fact about these performances, aside from the unusual absence
of soloist or chorus, is that the Wuorinen work was completed in 1997
and premiered March 4, 1999 by the Toledo Symphony Orchestra under
its Music Director Andrew Massey (who has just been appointed Resident
Conductor of the MSO).  Why such a long delay in Milwaukee?  What kind
of introduction did it get to the classical music public here?  And what
was the critical, corporate and audience response to the work?

Some short answers: The local premiere was delayed for years because,
on the basis of a tape of the Toledo performance, the symphony management
evidently dreaded public reaction to the work.  The Friday performance
in Milwaukee drew a very negative newspaper review in the Milwaukee
Journal Sentinel.  By Saturday, when I attended, the Symphony pulled out
all stops to engage the audience positively.  First there was the usual
"Overture Live" pre-concert introduction by the long-time program annotator
and principal bass, Roger Ruggeri, who has an interest in contemporary
music and who began by asking if we had "read about" this work and
concluded, to our laughter, that was why we were there.  He revealed
that there had been a lot of "hand-wringing" that week over this piece
and said that Wuorinen's music is "widely regarded but thinly loved."
At the concert, before playing any music, James Paul made some from-the-podium
remarks.  He said that we might be anticipating one of "those" works but
that if we didn't like it that was OK and they would simply go on to
play the next work.  If we did like it, they would still go on to play
the next work.  Following the evening's performance there was a post-concert
talkback, with several symphony personnel, along with James Paul on stage
seeking feedback.

So what kind of work is this?  Well, it is a serial composition, actually,
by a composer who prides himself on his intellectualism and feels that
art music should require some effort on the part of the listener.  One
thing that really put off the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel music critic,
Tom Strini, who tends strongly to express his personal reaction to a
piece rather than trying to suggest how listeners of different tastes
might react, is that Wuorinen was quoted in the notes as measuring the
time values of the sum of his intervals down to a one-sixtieth.  That
would put off mostprospective listeners and a lot of musicians too.  It
certainly was not something that attracted me.  How did I find the music
itself?  Did I like it?  I am not quite prepared to say that I did or
didn't, but after all the dire warnings, I found the symphony remarkably
melodic, actually; at least there were many flowing phrases and even an
oboe solo that was quite nice.  It was not one of these serial pieces
with notes going every which way.  The orchestration was quite conservative,
with timpani as the only percussion, but there was heavy brass, which I
would have preferred less of toward the end.  I did not even attempt to
listen to the work on an "intellectual" or cerebral level-and I don't
believe I could-but I found it quite listenable on a sensuous basis,
which is more generally my personal style anyway.

Reactions of other listeners ranged widely.  Heard in the restroom at
intermission: "too loud to sleep by and too boring to listen to" and,
in response, "oh, I've had nightmares worse than that," to.  In the
talkback, more mildly: "I didn't like it, and if the Symphony plays a
lot of things like this I will vote with my wallet and stay away." Same
place: "How can we develop our taste if we don't hear new things?" Someone
else, while disclaiming musical expertise, said that he had enjoyed
listening to all the pieces played, and particularly appreciated the
opportunity to hear them live.  James Paul admitted frankly that he did
not care much for serial music and had found the work difficult to conduct
but that he agreed to do it in the spirit of professionalism; he saw
things to admire and found it structurally clear.  The point was made
that it is important to present all kinds of music.  I heard someone
else say that she liked it "because there were huge scimitars of sound
that sliced curved shapes in the silences; I've never heard anyone do
that before." To my delight the man behind me at the Overture Live
mentioned Slonimsky's Lexicon of Musical Invective, specifically the
initial critical description of the Tchaikovsky First Piano Concerto
as having fallen as flat as a first pancake.  Both Ruggeri, there, and
Paul--from the podium--mentioned a critic who yelled from the balcony,
"garbage" while his wife, next to him, tried to drown him out by calling
"Bravo."

Following the Wuorinen performance I attended, the very attentive audience
recalled the conductor twice with strong applause-including one loud
"Bravo" from an enthusiastic woman in the center of the audience on the
floor.  This for Milwaukee, especially at mid-concert, was a better an
average response.  At the end of the concert conductor and orchestra
received a standing ovation.

Jim Tobin

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