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Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Strident Debut

Classical Review

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Friday evening at the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra was the debut of conductor Edo de Waart, music director designate, who will begin the post in September of 2009. There was a jittery edge to the performance, understandable from an orchestra eager to play for its new maestro. It was exciting, but not always elegant. I returned Saturday night to hear if the performance would become more settled. In most ways it did.

 De Waart is the first internationally famous conductor to become music director of the MSO in its 50-year history. The ensemble would not have been ready for this in its sometimes-dreary ’90s, before dramatic improvements under Andreas Delfs and the strengthening of its player roster. 

De Waart seems, by nature, a strong and willful presence on the podium, allowing few indulgences. In Englishman Gustav Holst’s great suite The Planets most conductors would milk the rests between crashing chords at the end of “Mars” for effect, but de Waart would have none of this and drove to the end. He resisted the urge to broaden the final verse of the stately chorale tune in “Jupiter.” Those are just two examples among many such musical choices. This disciplined, insistent approach with rather quick tempos served its purpose, producing tightness and heightened playing from the expanded orchestra. 

Richard Strauss’s Serenade in E-flat, opus 7, for wind instruments (plus double bass in this performance) was composed at age 17. It was poignantly followed by Strauss’s Metamorphosen, composed at age 81 in the spring of 1945 in sadness over destroyed German cities and opera houses. 

The Serenade’s lyricism was only marred by some inelegant oboe playing. I had always thought ofMetamorphosen, scored for 23 solo strings, as mysteriously and slowly emerging. De Waart’s interpretation instead surged forward at what felt like a fast pace, each phrase spilling into the next. On Friday night it sounded as if the players were struggling to adjust to this idea. To be honest, so was I. There was much more unity of purpose on Saturday night in this profound and tricky masterwork.

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