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Wednesday, June 15, 2011

MSO Season Ends With Triumphant 'Resurrection'

Classical Review

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The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra season ended with a bang last weekend with Gustav Mahler's inspired and titanic Symphony No. 2 (“Resurrection”). Not unlike many others, I'm sure, I approach a performance of this music with high hopes. Will it take me on an expansive journey of tragedy and triumph?

I have been disappointed more often than fulfilled in performances of this symphony. At a good performance I worry about falling into sobs in public as the music reaches its conclusion. (I have the same worry with the Verdi Requiem and the Britten War Requiem.) I was barely able to hold it together by the end of the Resurrection Symphony on Friday evening. When I heard it again on Sunday, I sat alone in a remote spot in case I started weeping. I did, overwhelmed.

This was a great performance, a signpost of the MSO at its very best. Edo de Waart brought constant, detailed discipline to this symphony, which is often weakened by indulgent conducting. De Waart kept tempos moving more than many other conductors, increasing tension and ever-present verve. The moments of terror were spine-tingling. From de Waart's taut urgency, freshness emerged. The results were powerful and honest, without false inflation, a tendency that unfortunately and unnecessarily sometimes creeps into a performance of this symphony.

De Waart's strength as a conductor is his insight into a score, attempting to realize what is on the page without imposing an egotistical, interpretive agenda. Combine de Waart's supreme conducting technique with his grasp of the composer's intentions, and emotion freely comes forth if it is there in the score. And it is certainly there in this symphony. This is a wonderful mystery and a lesson in the aesthetics of performing, because de Waart is not a heat-inducing, emotional conductor.

Bill Barnewitz, retired principal horn at MSO, spoke before the concert. (It was moving to hear the audience applaud him in recognition before he even said his name.) In Barnewitz's elegant and poignant speech, the orchestra rightly dedicated the performance to the memory of MSO hornist William Cowart, who passed away this spring.