From Our Far-flung Correspondents Series:

Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra: Fresh, Flavor, and Forward

Visit Milwaukee unveiled new branding in April 2024 that included new messaging – Milwaukee: Fresh, Flavor, and Forward. Milwaukee Fresh is the spirit of innovation and exploration that surges through a city where different cultures, ideas, and perspectives continually converge. Milwaukee Flavor is the songs, meals, gatherings, and traditions arising from all the corners of a city where people from around the world came to seek community and opportunity. Milwaukee Forward is what surrounds the community: the people, the positivity, the collaborative energy, and the welcoming and generous spirit. This past weekend, the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra embodied this messaging harmoniously.

Founded in 1959, the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra is the largest cultural institution in Wisconsin. Initiatives such as nationally syndicated radio broadcasts, the nationally recognized Arts in Community Education program, and the years-long project to restore a former movie palace in downtown Milwaukee into what is now known as the Bradley Symphony Center, all prove the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra’s robust commitment to enriching the greater community through the study and performance of music.

Ken-David Masur

Leading many of these objectives from the podium is Music Director Ken-David Masur. In his fifth season with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, Masur’s innovative programming has already made an impact throughout the city. Previously serving as the Associate Conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Maestro Masur has an extensive list of guest Conductor engagements – both professional and pedagogical (at educational institutions). Masur and his family are proud residents of Milwaukee.

Perhaps by chance or perhaps by fate, last weekend’s program presented Visit Milwaukee’s new messaging of fresh, flavor, and forward, with Milwaukee resident and music director Masur at the helm.

Milwaukee: Fresh

Carlos Simon’s work, Fate Now Conquers, opened the performance. Composed in 2020 and premiered later that year by the Philadelphia Orchestra, this past weekend proved to host the first performances by the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. Of the work, Simon offers the following:

This piece was inspired by a journal entry from Ludwig van Beethoven’s notebook written in 1815: “Iliad. The Twenty-Second Book But Fate now conquers; I am hers; and yet not she shall share In my renown; that life is left to every noble spirit And that some great deed shall beget that all lives shall inherit.”

Using the beautifully fluid harmonic structure of the second movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, I have composed musical gestures that are representative of the unpredictable ways of fate. Jolting stabs, coupled with an agitated groove with every persona. Frenzied arpeggios in the strings that morph into an ambiguous cloud of free-flowing running passages depicts the uncertainty of life that hovers over us.

We know that Beethoven strived to overcome many obstacles in his life and documented his aspirations to prevail, despite his ailments. Whatever the specific reason for including this particularly profound passage from the Iliad, in the end, it seems that Beethoven relinquished to fate. Fate now conquers.

Starting the evening with Carlos Simon’s piece was a successful choice. Drawing inspiration from the past, but very much remaining in a modern vernacular, the work somewhat imitates life by drawing a similarity for the way in which the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra commits to artistic innovation in an older renovated facility. With a performance time of around five minutes, the economy of Fate Now Conquers became more appreciated after the breadth of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana and the commitment necessary to experience that work in its entirety.

Milwaukee: Flavor

Megumi Kanda

One was afforded the opportunity to meet the program’s trombone soloist, Megumi Kanda, during a free pre-concert discussion as part of an initiative titled Meet the Music. Scheduled sixty minutes prior to opening downbeats, such an opportunity is available before all performances occurring within the Classics series. Intending to create a better understanding about the repertoire and establish a dialogue with the soloist, host Ryan Tani, who primarily serves as the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra’s assistant conductor, focused only on Tan Dun’s 2021 composition, Three Muses in Video Game for Trombone and Orchestra.

Perhaps most widely known for creating the award-winning score to Ang Lee’s film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Tan Dun writes in a manner that combines elements of Chinese and Western cultures. The trombone concerto takes inspiration from Dunhuang, an ancient outpost along the Silk Road, where generations of monks and pilgrims carved shrines out of the rock and painted the cliffs – known today as the Morgan Cliffs. Each of the three movements enlists the trombone soloist to play in a manner that depicts traditional musical instruments appearing within the aforementioned paintings, respectively the bili, xiqin, and the sheng.

Like Carlos Simon’s work, these performances were also the first time that the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra performed Tan Dun’s piece. Soloist Megumi Kanda’s playing was inspiring and so varied. Assertive multiple-tonguing passages and bold declarations gave way to a lyricism that engulfed the imagination and suspended time with its beauty and expansive range. On a few occasions, Tan Dun’s orchestration paired the violins with the soloist in unison passages displaced by octaves. Balance became compromised in these moments, often losing the majesty of the trombone to the eagerness of the high string brigade. Cinematic in nature, the first and second movement both ended in a manner befitting of a film scene fading to black. The first occurrence was powerful; however, happening a second time for the same utilitarian objective already began to feel a bit trite. Three well-deserved soloist bows for Megumi Kanda were offered by an energized audience.

Milwaukee: Forward

Dashon Burton

After intermission, Carmina Burana of Carl Orff concluded the program. This cantata is based on twenty-four poems from a medieval collection of the same name. Joining the orchestral forces are three vocal soloists, a chorus, and children’s choir, singing in Latin, Old French, and Middle High German. Topics within the poems are varied, covering the delights and dangers of gambling, gluttony, drinking, and the sorrows of love – all possible foreshadowing for the Republican National Convention being hosted by Milwaukee in July 2024.

Dashon Burton, bass-baritone, is the first vocal soloist to perform in Carmina Burana. He along with Sonya Headlam, soprano, flanked the conductor’s podium for the entire piece. Burton’s list of accolades and acclaimed performances continue to grow in collaboration with leading ensembles and conductors. Tonight’s performance was no exception. Using his voice to capture nuances of each poem, he heightened the emotion seemingly with ease.

Whereas Burton sang with an attentive command, tenor vocal soloist Brian Giebler masterfully delivered comedic reprise. Entering stage left just before the movement featuring him began, Giebler took residence directly in front of where Burton was sitting, immediately winning over the audience and preparing all for the hilarity that would soon ensue through song. Brian Giebler’s career continues to be on a trajectory as promising as his tone is clear and expressive. One should seek out Brian Giebler in performance. Burton reclaimed his real estate on stage at the end of the poem and Giebler found his way off stage, only momentarily, and appropriately, pulling focus while exiting.

Only participating towards the end of the hour-long work, Sonya Headlam’s instrument was worth the wait to hear. Equally comfortable concertizing and in productions, Headlam performs throughout the country and regularly with the Choir of Trinity Wall Street. Headlam’s ability to draw the audience in with an intimacy of tone and dynamic was welcomed in the Orff, and, in a way, nurtured one’s soul before the reprise of “Fortuna imperatrix mundi.”

Keeping pace with the vocal soloists was the Milwaukee Symphony Chorus. Chorus director Dr. Cheryl Frazes Hill and assistant director Timothy J. Benson prepared the ensemble with an energized diction and pacing, the result of which was an exciting contribution that maintained integrity through the final fermata. Although with a less-active role, the Milwaukee Children’s Choir realized their parts well under the leadership of artistic director Rachel Maki.

Maestro Masur and the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra were prepared for a multitude of tricky rhythmic passages contained within Carmina Burana. Momentary discrepancies relating to vertical alignment and intonation were expected, and, at times, very present. Ensemble balance, however, proved to be a great strength.

The most moving portion of the evening was when Masur took time to acknowledge the retirement of one member from the Milwaukee Symphony Chorus and two musicians from the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. The vocalist has sung with the organization for thirty-two years, violist Helen Reich has performed with the organization for thirty-six years, and after forty-four years of service, violinist Tim Klabunde has decided to end their tenure. Congratulations to all and thank you for helping to build on to the legacy of these great ensembles!

Milwaukee: Fresh, Flavor, and Forward. Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra: Yes, please.

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