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Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2011

MSO Reaching Higher Levels of Excellence

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I was working in Europe for the past nine weeks, and experienced many performances in several cities. In the time-honored expatriate tradition, a renewed perspective on our classical scene in Milwaukee emerged from an ocean away. Beyond musical, acoustical/venue and audience observations, I discovered that regularly attending our top performing groups is part of what makes Milwaukee a beckoning and familiar home for me. I missed it.

For the first time this season, last Saturday evening I heard the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. There have been enough player changes to take the ensemble to a noticeably higher level of excellence. Though the MSO has apparently not settled on a new principal oboist, the flexible and subtle playing from that section transformed the woodwinds, allowing for overall woodwind blend that was not possible with the previous principal oboe player. Though I'm not entirely sure why, the brass section sounds more cohesive and agile.

It took me almost the entire concert to become accustomed to the new string seating. The second violins have been moved to downstage stage right, with the cellos behind them. The violas have been moved to stage left behind the first violins, and are surprisingly more present as a result. At first I found it disorienting to hear violins from both sides of the stage. Perhaps it's a challenge to create blend with the first and second violins split like this, but I grew to like the sound of this setup well enough. If there is a downside to it, it is that the cellos are a bit less prominent.

The concert featured two audience-pleasing British landmarks: Elgar's Enigma Variations, and Holst's The Planets. Guest conductor Lawrence Renes led a fairly tidy performance. His approach to Elgar was on the whole clear-eyed and unsentimental, a welcome approach, with tempos on the brisk side. The Planets created its expected impact. However, I got the firm impression that the orchestra was capable of more than Renes was able to coax from it, technically and musically. The jockey was not quite up to riding the thoroughbred to fullest advantage.