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Milwaukee Symphony plays Bartók and Tchaikovsky’s final works

At the end of January, the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra will present a meeting of titans. The final major works by Béla Bartók and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, both expressions of the composers’ maturation and realizations of their mortality, will define this early 2016 program.

Bartók’s Piano Concerto No. 3 will be featured in the first half of the concert (after Witold Lutosławski’s Musique funèbre), performed by renowned American pianist Orli Shaham. This isn’t Shaham’s first time with the work, but it is her first time with the MSO — a debut she’s excited about. “I’ve been here before as part of a recital but never to perform with the symphony, so this will be a very special visit,” she says.

This concerto was composed in 1945, in the last months of Bartók’s life, and was a gift for his wife. Much like the rest of his work, it is inspired by folk music in its structure and harmonies. Bartók spent most of his early career exploring central European regions like Hungary and Romania for folk tunes, and while those journeys were halted by World War I, the influence remained for the rest of his life.

What separates his Third Concerto and other contemporaneous works is a move toward simplification. In the last decade or so of his life, Bartók began to reduce the amount of notation in his pieces, his final exploration of tonality. “It’s ironic that this piece actually has the fewest notes (but) it speaks the most,” Shaham says. “At this stage in his career, Bartok’s style had become so refined that he didn’t need the extra harmonies anymore.”

Bartók didn’t finish the piece before his death of leukemia in 1945, and the last 17 measures were completely by a colleague, Tibor Serly, before the premiere in 1946. It’s remained popular ever since, which is no surprise to Shaham.

“Bartok’s work stands the test of time because he went to the elements. He went to the human source for music making, which was folk music,” explained Shaham. “The melodies are something that everyone relates to because they tell a story of people regardless of where they live.”

The second half of the concert will feature Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony, which premiered only nine days before the composer’s death in October 1893. Its title, “Pathétique,” means “passionate,” an appropriate title for the work.

How much the work serves as a meditation on Tchaikovsky’s pending mortality depends on whom you speak to in the musicological world. There are possible allusions to the Orthodox requiem liturgy in the first movement, and a “cross” motif early in the first movement in which four consecutive notes make a sign of the cross when connected.

One suggestion made by Tchaikovsky specialists is that the work deals specifically with the power of Fate, referenced in other Tchaikovsky symphonies, and how it controls one’s life and death.

The finale adds additional evidence to these themes of mortality. It’s the only Tchaikovsky work to end in a minor key and its tempo is marked at an extremely slow “adagio lamentoso,” adding to the mournful underlay of the entire work. In addition, the end of the piece is marked “morendo,” meaning “dying away.”

ON STAGE

The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra will present a program including works by Bartók and Tchaikovsky at 8 p.m. Jan. 30 and 2:30 p.m. Jan. 31 at the Marcus Center, 929 N. Water St. Tickets range from $17 to $107 and can be purchased at 414-291-7605 or mso.org.