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Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra’s World-Class Beethoven

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When listening to classical music, acoustics and where you sit in the hall are almost as important as the performance itself. At the Sunday afternoon Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra concert I was seated in row J on the main floor, about eight or nine rows closer than my regular seats. That doesn’t seem like much, but the difference was enormous. Further back in the hall the sound has more space and distance to create some natural mix. The closer seats allow for more discernible detail, but at an obvious and crucial cost, even with Edo de Waart’s innovation of positioning the orchestra upstage under the acoustic ceiling shell.

The performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 was a master conductor’s fresh touch on a familiar masterwork. This happy music came through with crispness and shapeliness, its transitions elegant and full of anticipation. I found de Waart’s tempo choices to be ideal, balancing both urgency and leisure, appropriate to a “Pastoral” symphony about the countryside. The music settled into a rhythmic groove at times, creating gleeful buzz. The storm scene was exciting, melodramatic fury, but contained just enough to retain sharpness. The “Shepherd’s Song” finale had an especially pleasing stately grace.

One of the benefits of the presence of a conductor of de Waart’s stature is world-class soloists. Vadim Repin is certainly one, heard here in one of his calling cards, the Beethoven Violin Concerto, which he is also playing this month with the New York Philharmonic and the Munich Philharmonic. Repin’s 1736 Guarneri del Ges violin has a particularly sweet sound, a fascinating tool in the hands of an assertive Russian musician. His performance combined warmth and rigor, a singing legato and serious contemplation of this music. Repin’s sense of phrase kept the music constantly interesting, matched with de Waart’s conducting. It’s difficult to imagine a violinist better suited to this profound concerto, but something still was not completely satisfying about the performance, and it's difficult to put my finger on it. As beautiful as the tone was, in high passages early on it was a bit tight, becoming more free as the music progressed.