A Feast for the Ears & Eyes: The MSO at the Basilica of St. Josaphat

David Lewellen

Tagged Under: Bassoon, Classics, Conductor, Partners

The Basilica of St. Josaphat, where the Milwaukee Symphony will perform this weekend, is a beautiful venue with an acoustic that can be a blessing … or not.

“It’s an amazing reverb,” said resident conductor Yaniv Dinur, who will lead this weekend’s all-Mozart concerts. “The more beautiful you play, the more beautiful it will stay. But if you play a wrong note, that stays a long time.”

Built by Polish immigrants at the turn of the last century, the church is an architectural feast for the eyes, and the high ceilings and hard surfaces mean that sound echoes for a very long time. That is ideal for some repertoire, such as the Gregorian chant that the church’s own choir performs for Mass. The MSO has learned that with fast music, it is hard to keep the sound clear and transparent — but it also can’t program every concert with only slow music.

The symphony has performed in the basilica for many years, but Dinur said, “The first rehearsal back, it’s always a shock. It takes about one rehearsal to get used to it.” But over time, Dinur and the musicians have learned more about optimal placement. Last year, he said, while rehearsing Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, they spent several rehearsals putting different sections in different spots, and found that the best solution was to put the continuo (the bass and accompanying instruments) in the middle of the sanctuary, with the brass off to one side.

Placing a symphony orchestra at the front of a church presents logistical challenges, too. John Roloff, the symphony’s director of operations, said every piece is set up differently depending on instrumentation. The MSO often brings the Milwaukee Symphony Chorus to the building to perform appropriate repertoire, but Roloff said that a reduced chorus, such as the size it uses for Handel’s Messiah, is much easier to fit than the full complement of 140.

This year, as in previous seasons, the MSO will present two subscription concerts at the basilica, as well as performing Messiah there during the holiday season. “Patrons enjoy going there. It’s a beautiful space,” Roloff said. “It’s always been our most popular Messiah venue.” And the venue is enhanced by the sanctuary; for some concertgoers, “the opportunity to listen to wonderful music while they’re taking in great art is unique.”

The first half of the concert features MSO principal bassoonist Catherine Chen performing Mozart’s Bassoon Concerto. “I’ll be really listening and making sure I’m really locked in,” she said. “You have to be more articulated in that kind of acoustic. Things have to be even cleaner.” But with the reduced string complement for the piece, “I won’t have to push or force my sound.”

Chen knows the piece intimately; it is Mozart’s only surviving bassoon concerto, written when he was 19, and it is required on almost every bassoon audition. “But it doesn’t get easier,” she said. “I always go back to the piece and discover something new.” This weekend, one new thing will be the original cadenzas she wrote, just as musicians of the 18th century would have done.

The symphony has “a great working relationship and partnership” with the basilica, Roloff said, and Christopher Berry, the church’s music director, agreed. “Depending on the repertoire, the basilica is an ideal place,” said Berry, who performs in the space every week. “The choice of tempo is important.  We need clean, clear textures, and a manageable tempo that allows all lines to be heard clearly.”

But the church’s visual splendor, he said, is probably “why the MSO chooses to return year after year for Messiah concerts. It’s sort of the quintessential-looking sacred space. It’s emblematic of Milwaukee’s churches.”