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Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2010

MSO Brings Mozart to Basilica of St. Josaphat

Classical Review

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The Basilica of St. Josaphat is one of the few public places in Milwaukee that conjures the city’s soul, past and present. Awe-inspiring as it is, performances in the Basilica are chancy, to say the least. Unaccompanied choral music works best there, particularly of music intended to be heard in cathedral acoustics. Solo voices work acceptably well in the acoustics of the South Side landmark. Frankly, anything else I have ever heard there is a blurred mess. It sounds as if the music is being played in a gigantic bathtub a football field away.

I have heard folks say of the Basilica, “It depends on where you sit,” usually followed by a theory about seating. I have tried sitting in every area. For orchestral music, based on 25 years of experience, I am skeptical about there being any spot in that vast space that sounds anything that could be described as good. Yet, as is usually the case, all three Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra performances there were sold out last weekend. I can only assume that the audience loves the Basilica so much—and rightly so—that it chooses not to acknowledge its severe acoustic shortcomings.

Edo de Waart led a chamber-sized orchestra and the Milwaukee Symphony Chorus in Mozart’s Requiem. On Friday night there were plenty of clues that de Waart could create a memorable and profound performance of Mozart’s last work in another space. I found his sense of tempo for each movement to be insightful. As it was, though, I could make out very little. Orchestral and choral details were largely lost. Among the soloists, soprano Tamara Wilson’s range of expression was arresting, from softly floating tone to sizable power.

MSO principal clarinetist Todd Levy is one of our best musicians. His playing is full of refinement, facility and an unusually insightful sense of phrase. As soloist in the second movement of Mozart’s Concerto for Clarinet, he created the most tangible emotion of the evening. In another hall the caressing, hushed playing at the return of the theme would have made an audience stop breathing.