MSO’s ‘Scheherazade’ merges music and storytelling

Julie Steinbach, contributing writer

This weekend, the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra performed a program of works that not only lived up to the ambitious nature of their season, but even surpassed expectations through evocative, escapist storytelling.

The program, led by Brazilian guest conductor Marcelo Lehninger, included Stravinsky’s Suite No. 2 for Small Orchestra and Saint-Saën’s Piano Concerto No. 2, but the centerpiece was Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade. A staple of standard orchestral repertoire, Scheherazade’s exotic, otherworldly atmosphere has the ability to transport an audience when done well, and the remainder of the MSO’s program took full advantage of that tendency Friday night.

Stravinsky’s suite offers the first hint of the MSO’s intentions, constructing a sense of place and time that is decidedly elsewhere, just beyond the reach of reality. Each movement is short, less than a few minutes duration, and humorously depicts a small queue of Stravinsky’s colleagues (Alfredo Casella, Erik Satie, and Sergei Diaghelev) in miniature form. The orchestra dove headlong into the concert opener, presenting each short but technically challenging movement with pronounced artistry.

More substantive was Saint-Saëns’ Piano Concerto No. 2, performed Friday by guest soloist Sean Chen. The composer never indicated the piece as a programmatic work, but nonetheless the work seems to have stories to tell.

The concerto deviates from the traditional concerti format — fast intro, slow second movement and fast conclusion — by swapping the tempos of the first two and opening with an andante sostenuto that unfolds as if it were reminiscing a lifetime of tales aloud. There’s a Brahmsian character and profundity to the movement, only the first conscious homage to Saint-Saën’s compositional predecessors alluded to throughout the work. Chopin’s legacy is evoked in the second movement, a joyous allegro scherzando filled with horn calls and lively romanticism from the winds and strings.

But Chen was most authoritative and impressive in the final, presto movement. After a thunderous opening, the movement swiftly shifts into a wild and mischievous tarantella of gargantuan, Lisztian proportions, which he executed with masterful conviction.

It’s an energizing finish that served as a brilliant bridge to Scheherzade, a wise programming decision by the MSO.  

Rimsky-Korsakov’s symphonic suite takes the stories of One Thousand and One Nights as its foundation, each movement a new tale told by Scheherazade to keep her distrustful husband, the Sultan Shahriar, from executing her in the morning. Each story begins and ends with the voice of Scheherazade, brought into being by concertmaster Frank Almond and continually accompanied by sweeping harp lines. The solo violin writing of the suite is considered among the most virtuosic in the canon, and Almond suffuses Scheherazade’s “voice” with life.

But the success of the MSO’s performance of Scheherazade cannot be merely attributed to Almond. Each new character or theme in the complex work was introduced by a different solo instrument in the orchestra. Each showed off an individual performer’s musicianship and artistry, as well as an attention to detail that transformed the evening from a mere concert setting to an adventurous journey.

The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra will next perform Friday, Nov. 21, at 11:15 a.m. and Saturday, Nov. 22, at 8 p.m., at the Marcus Center, 929 N. Water St. The program will feature guest singer Michelle DeYoung as well as performances of Richard Strauss’ tone poem “Death and Transfiguration” and Schumann’s Symphony No. 2 in C Major. Tickets range from $22 to $102 and can be purchased at mso.org or 414-291-7605.