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Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2010

MSO’s Sensuous ‘Sea Symphony’

Classical Review

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British sensuality seems like an oxymoron. Nevertheless, Ralph Vaughan Williams’ A Sea Symphony (1910) is just that, an example of Edwardian passion for a topic always dear to English hearts: the inescapable ocean that surrounds the British Isles, and its resonating, philosophical metaphors of endless journey toward the ever-changing horizon. Interestingly, the composer’s window to the subject is through the American words of Walt Whitman. Music Director Edo de Waart led the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, chorus and soloists in Vaughan Williams’ unusual first symphony last Friday and Saturday. (I heard the Saturday performance.)

Vaughan Williams’ symphony is more about setting a sweeping, static mood than a dynamically dramatic narrative setting of Whitman’s words. De Waart’s abilities as one of the world’s great opera conductors were obviously on display, shaping pacing and phrasing in this rambling, over-ripe, voluptuous score. He tackled its built-in problem as well as anyone could: the constant thickness of the orchestration. Balance and clarity are almost unsolvable challenges in this piece, but de Waart and the orchestra addressed it sensitively and valiantly.

Canadian Hugh Russell, a high baritone with a clear, free, bright voice and admirable diction, vividly brought his music to life. Soprano Christine Goerke’s colorful and sizable voice was a good match to this music. She carefully chose her big vocal moments, rising to spectacular climaxes. This symphony features the chorus more than anything else. It was a turning point in de Waart’s work with the Milwaukee Symphony Chorus. He coaxed exciting sounds from it in sensual, dense harmonies, from quietly mesmerizing passages to full-throated operatic points of arrival.

Kyoko Takezawa was a sometimes puzzling violin soloist in Tchaikovsky’s famous Concerto in D Major. At her best she had the passion of an opera diva, creatingmulti-hued phrasing with flair. The sometimes dazzling sound was not always consistent, however. Her cadenzas were odd statements of diva-like, sustaineddrama peppered with questionable tuning. The thing I liked best about Takezawa was her bold playing to the balcony, looking up to the rafters of Uihlein Hall, a rare quality in a concerto soloist.