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Tuesday, March 8, 2011

MSO Masterful With Adams' 'Harmonium'

Classical Review

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I looked forward to hearing John Adams' Harmonium at Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra more than any other music in this classical season. I was not disappointed last Friday evening.

Harmonium
, one of the landmarks in the maturity of Minimalism of the 1970s and '80s, has become part of standard repertory more firmly than any other choral/orchestra piece since Britten's War Requiem of 1963. Edo de Waart conducted the premiere with San Francisco Symphony in 1981, and also the first recording. The power of Harmonium is mysterious. The featured poetry, by John Donne and Emily Dickinson, has no overt program. Its triumph is sonic invention, a slow-moving progression from brooding to ecstasy, with a large harmonic arch over constantly shimmering and vibrating textures.

This music demands supreme concentration for all involved. There could be no better leader on the podium than de Waart, a disciplined general in charge of busy and sizable forces. Individual voices sometimes could be heard in the highly divided choral parts, the only possible flaw in the performance.

Beethoven's Symphony No. 3 after intermission seemed a bit of a letdown. I don't think this had to do with the performance, which was certainly good in all respects, or even with the music, which is indisputable greatness. The mountaintop to which Harmonium takes a listener is simply hard to follow. De Waart led an unsentimental, urgent, clean account of Barber's Adagio for Strings to start the program.

The Sunday afternoon Fine Arts Quartet concert began with the jarring announcement of the retirement of cellist Wolfgang Laufer, after 32 years of devoted playing with the ensemble. There was a collective gasp at the news in the large audience in the Zelazo Center at UW-Milwaukee. In his place guest cellist Robert Cohen joined the quartet in Hugo Wolf's dramatic, quirky String Quartet in D minor. This music takes many surprising turns; one feels as if suddenly transported to a progression of new landscapes. The expressive and passionate performance was hindered by unsettled tuning at times. Schumann's String Quartet in F (Op. 41, No. 2) was also performed.