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Tuesday, June 5, 2012

MSO's 'Swan Lake' Ripples With Beauty

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Parts of Tchaikovsky's score for Swan Lake are so overly familiar that I admit I went into the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra's performance last Friday evening with some dread. But as the substantial “selections from” unfolded, I was reeled in. My ears perked up. When have I ever seriously considered this beguiling music?

Guest conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya has appeared with MSO before. This Swan Lake was his most satisfying performance here, allowing the musicians fluidity and freedom to play in music so flattering to an orchestra. The big harp solo, so wonderfully played by Danis Kelly, is exactly what most people want to hear from that instrument. Frank Almond is at his best in lyrical playing, and gave in just enough to the romantic phrasing in his solos; the color of his sound was a perfect match to the music. The guest principal oboist, Katherine Young Steele, played with the expressive freedom of a singer. Mark Niehaus gave the cornet solo a credible go.

The most memorable aspect of the concert was the playing of Susan Babini, new principal cellist this season. Before this I had not had the opportunity to hear her as soloist. The first phrase of her entrance was so simpatico, played with such a rich and deep, round tone, that she had me at hello. I leaned forward in my chair, drinking in every note thereafter.

Prokofiev's Alexander Nevsky, a cantata fashioned from music written for Sergei Eisenstein's 1938 film, is exciting stuff, and any competent performance is worth a listen, even though I did not find Harth-Bedoya convincing in it. I wanted more discipline, expanse and deliberate architecture in the performance, with climaxes more carefully prepared. Mezzo-soprano Mary Phillips was a highlight, her opulent, large voice lending the appropriate weight to her featured aria.

When I first moved to Milwaukee in the 1980s, Alexander Nevsky was one of the Milwaukee Symphony Chorus' big pieces. I'm sure I wasn't the only one there who could not help but remember the remarkable spirit of the late Margaret Hawkins, founder of the chorus.