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Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2011

MSO's Rousing Whirlwind of Beethoven

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The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra's all-Beethoven season opener was a rousing success that balanced familiar and unusual choices. After a near miss with the opening adagio of the First Symphony, music director Edo de Waart opted for genial tempos. The gentle harmonies of Beethoven's maiden symphony, which has been called "a fitting farewell to the 18th century," were lovingly rendered by the symphony's warm string section.

The same could not be said of the "Grosse Fuge." Suddenly the symphony's string section attacked the craggy, perplexing work with stupefying, razor-sharp precision, despite a tad too much energy from the horn section. Originally intended as the finale to the 13th Quartet, Beethoven anticipated the 20th century with a fragmented work demonstrating his late-life expressionism. It was once deemed an "unplayable monster," hurling thematic variations at the listener's head "like a handful of rocks," but de Waart's amazing, lucid tempos moved poignantly toward what may well have been the hidden spirit of the composer's late inner life in this superbly riveting performance.

Beethoven's Fifth is a familiar and easily accessible monument to the indomitability of the human spirit, a cornerstone of Western culture that almost plays itself—provided the notes are in time and in tune. Many a conductor has stood aside and let Beethoven have his way with him after attacking the four-note signature opening movement. De Waart opted for a direct forward attack with rapid tempos evoking amazing ensemble dexterity from the orchestra, while sidestepping any undue reverence or mannerisms in this famous work. He played it straight, quick and urgent, saving the best for the last in a grand finale, resulting in a whirlwind performance that remains among the best in recent memory.