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Unexpected Tribute

Classical Review

Feb. 17, 2009
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Lukas Foss, composer and music director of Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra 1981-86, died on Feb. 1 at the age of 86. By an odd coincidence of programming planned months ago, Foss' Ode for Orchestra was performed by MSO last weekend. It became a tribute to him.

The Ode was composed in 1944 by the German-born Foss, who settled permanently in the United States in 1937. Originally conceived as a memorial for war dead, the music is understandably anguished and conflicted, with churning intellect. There is no resignation to noble tragedy and sacrifice, as might be expected. It was worth hearing, but I hope that MSO programs a more substantial Foss work next season. His With Music Strong, written for MSO and its chorus, would be an excellent choice.

The guest conductor was 27-year-old Jakub Hrusa, who will assume the post of music director of the Prague Philharmonia later this year. He knowingly led the cryptic Symphony No. 6 by Bohemian composer Bohuslav Martinu (1890-1959), a strange and wonderful piece I had never before encountered. I could not pretend to permeate it after one hearing, but found it richly fascinating. When it was over, I was not sure what had happened, but knew it was something substantial by a composer at the height of his powers.

Hrusa has passion and technique. The orchestra needed a guide in this eccentric music, and played well for him. I had one thought as I watched and listened. Did Hrusa perhaps attempt too much control?

Principal cellist Joseph Johnson has an attractive gentleness as a musician. He does not force a result, but lets it emerge. Johnson played the Dvorak concerto with lyrical grace, natural loveliness, and phrasing that showed shapeliness and sophistication. Those qualities were also present in the Brahms Trio, Op. 114, played by Johnson, pianist Judit Jaimes and clarinetist Todd Levy at a Chamber Music Milwaukee concert, held last Thursday at the Zelazo Center at UW-Milwaukee. This combination of musicians created an unusually sensitive and balanced result. Jaimes' touch is exquisite. She makes every instrument she plays sound like the best piano in the world.


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