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Wednesday, Sept. 29, 2010

MSO Searches for Its Stride in Opening Concert

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Wisconsin’s largest arts organization by far, the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, began a new season last Friday night with a concert that showed more a promise for the future than a highly polished present. The orchestra sounded as if it needed more rehearsal to gel and find its stride of last spring.

The program was somehow unsatisfying. It began with a brief and understated John Adams piece, Tromba Lontana, an antithesis to a fanfare. The first half continued with Copland’s Suite from Appalachian Spring. None of this felt like the appropriate aesthetic tantalizer for the main event after intermission, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9.

Edo de Waart seemed a bit out of his element in the warm Americana of Appalachian Spring. He gave a technical and conservative reading of this deceptively complex score. The results were a little dull, frankly. It sounded as if this podium veteran was making a careful and deliberate path through the music with musicians that were coming together again for the first time in three months. Ultimately, the performance sounded as if in sections, rather than an accumulating architecture.

The same studied approach came through in the Beethoven symphony. De Waart’s tempos were noticeably slower than those of other conductors who have led this same music in Milwaukee. This allowed some clarity at times, especially in key sections of the finale, which when taken too fast become an impractical blur. The basic issue of orchestral tone did not always seem completely formed. Again, this probably just needs more rehearsal at the start of a new season.

The choral sound was not always up to Milwaukee Symphony Chorus standards. The tone in the exposed male unison section (“Seid umschlungen, Millionen!”) was somewhat raw and unrefined. The soprano choral sound was not as well blended as has been the case in the past. Soloists never make or break a Beethoven 9. This cast did an adequate job: Pamela Armstrong (soprano), Meredith Arwady (contralto), Vinson Cole (tenor), Oren Gradus (bass). De Waart’s slowish tempo made the tenor solo military march and the notorious quartet section more negotiable than is often the case.
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