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Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2011

MSO, Emanuel Ax’s Rich Journey

Also: Frankly Music enlivens Schwan Hall

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Sometimes a two-hour concert feels like being transported on a long, rich journey. Such was the case at the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra on Saturday evening in the vast expanses of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4, and Act I of Wagner’s Die Walkre.

Is there anyone better in Beethoven than Emanuel Ax? The concerto was a thrill ride, played with fire and elegance, combining the strongest steel with the most delicate fine lace. The first movement cadenza was full of ingenious touches that nearly made me swoon. Teaming with Edo de Waart’s insightful conducting and the orchestra’s responsive playing, this most profound of Beethoven’s concertos emerged with majesty and poetry.

Nothing could be more German than Wagner, a fitting conclusion to the German festival of programs at MSO this winter. It was no surprise that de Waart, one of the master opera conductors of our time, led a colorful and disciplined performance. (None of us can forget his previous, stunning opera-in-concert venture with Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle.) The first-rate cast of excellent Wagner singers may have felt a bit awkward at first, without costumes or scenery, but any such concerns quickly dissipated. As Siegmund, heldentenor Clifton Forbis sang with glorious tone, electrifying in big moments of arrival. Margaret Jane Wray’s big and warm sound as Sieglinde, her sympathetic portrayal of her character, and her fluency in the style were a constant pleasure. No one in the world sounds like bass Andrea Silvestrelli, one of the most commanding voices on the scene. His vivid Hunding was full to the brim with vocal authority, conjuring true menace.

Earlier in the week Frankly Music took a departure from conventional chamber music programming with a concert of tangos in Schwan Hall of Wisconsin Lutheran College. Joining Frank Almond was local celebrity Stas Venglevski on the bayan, cellist Roza Borisova, and pianist Nell Buchman. Venglevski contributed most of the tasty and artful arrangements. There was sizzle and charm in music by Piazzolla and other tango composers. The casual, sometimes short-circuited commentary of Almond and Venglevski brought sophisticated comedy into the concert hall. Someone should give these guys a radio show. 
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