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Ralph Vaughan Williams' Fifth in Uihlein Hall

MSO revives a neglected masterpiece

May. 23, 2012
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Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) is one of the great composers not programmed enough by the MSO. When we do get to hear him, it's usually The Lark Ascending or Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis, his best-known and best-loved works. But there's a lot more to Vaughan Williams.

Records show the last time the MSO played Vaughan Williams' Fifth Symphony was in 1967, when the Pabst Theater was its concert hall. The Fifth will sound in Uihlein Hall this weekend, but it's incredible it had to wait 45 years for the MSO to play it again.

With all due respect and love for the great works that get played most often, if they were played a little less often there'd be room in each concert season for more beautiful and exciting works that too rarely or never get played here. German and Russian repertoire dominates; meanwhile, equal gems of British music are overlooked. The Fifth being played this weekend raises hopes we'll get to hear more Vaughan Williams in the future—for instance, his powerful Sixth.

Some of his nine symphonies have yet to receive their Milwaukee premiere. Only his First, subtitled "A Sea Symphony," has begun to be programmed with some regularity here. An awesome hour of cosmic Whitman poetry for chorus and orchestra, it bowled everyone over last season under Edo de Waart, though lack of supertitles prevented the audience from fully savoring how brilliantly each verse was set to music.

The only time De Waart's predecessor Andreas Delfs ever conducted it, it wasn't his choice. Delfs let the MSO Chorus members vote for their favorite choral work so that it could be included in his last season as MSO music director. When they chose Vaughan Williams' First, Delfs admitted he wasn't familiar with it, or with much else by the composer. His experience conducting it duly impressed him and left him curious to see the scores of Vaughan Williams' other eight symphonies—better late than never.

The same year Vaughan Williams wrote The Lark Ascending, World War I broke out. As a stretcher-bearer and ambulance driver in France, he came face to face with that horrific war among supposedly civilized Christian nations. He saw pastoral French landscapes, like the ones he'd seen and heard larks ascend from in England, turned into hellscapes by mechanized war. His Fourth, written in 1934, sounds fraught with the oncoming cataclysm of World War II while still haunted by the cataclysm of World War I. His 1936 anti-war oratorio Dona Nobis Pacem was a further powerful response to war, past and to come.

Vaughan Williams denied that his Fourth, Fifth and Sixth had "extra-musical" associations, but the clear connection between his Fourth and Dona Nobis Pacem belies that. Those three symphonies aren't "programmatic," but they do strongly reflect and respond to the times during which they were written.

After the tumultuous Fourth, the Fifth came as a relief to war-weary Brits. You'd never guess it was written between 1938 and 1943. A return to his pastoral mode, it exists in a realm of serene peace that shows the influence of his former teacher Ravel more than of the German and Russian symphonists.

Someone hearing its premiere said the Fifth sounded like "a blueprint for a possible future." A deeply moving English horn solo stands out in the gorgeously melancholy slow movement. The luminous finale, not triumphal yet confidently hopeful, seems to anticipate the end of the war.

Though glad we'll get to hear Vaughan Williams' Fifth this weekend, I wish his Fourth could be the first half of the program. That would show his amazing range: the Fourth as turbulent as anything in Shostakovich, the Fifth full of transcendent peace though written amid a second catastrophic World War that began only 21 years after the first one ended.

Alas, the MSO would probably worry that an all-Vaughan Williams program wouldn't have the box-office draw of an all-Brahms concert, another one of which is scheduled for the umpteenth time next season. Handel's Messiah is definitely great, but couldn't the MSO give its audience a chance to hear Vaughan Williams' magnificent Christmas oratorio for a change?

British guest conductor Christopher Warren-Green will lead the MSO in Vaughan Williams' Symphony No. 5, preceded by William Walton's Crown Imperial and Max Bruch's concerto-length Scottish Fantasy for Violin and Orchestra with Jennifer Frautschi as guest soloist.

The concert takes place 8 p.m. May 25-26 at Uihlein Hall.


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