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Thursday, Nov. 8, 2012

Francis Fails to Bring Out Best of MSO

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Programming—what music to play, in what combination and order, and by whom—is an elusive yet fundamental aspect of any classical concert. Though the individual elements of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra concert last weekend were substantial and interesting, somehow the program did not add up to a completely satisfying whole.

The first offering was Paul Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler (Mathis the Painter), a symphony shaped from material composed for an opera about the 16th-century German artist Matthias Grünewald. This is complex music, quite abstracted in its way, and I can understand the urge of guest conductor Michael Francis to speak at length before the performance, illustrating points with brief orchestral excerpts. What followed was good but not razor-sharp playing.

The considerable talents of principal clarinetist Todd Levy are well known to MSO audiences. He was featured in Carl Maria von Weber’s Concerto No. 1 in F minor. The distinctive appeal of this early romantic German music, with its melodramatic shifts from brooding to giddiness, certainly came through. Levy played with robust fervor, negotiating the intricate lines with ease and restraint. The piece gave little opportunity for sustained, reflective playing, but such a moment was a highlight in the reprise of the main theme of the second movement.

The concert was marketed on César Franck’s large Symphony in D minor, and judging from the noticeably smaller audience than usual, it wasn’t the draw that the MSO had hoped. The rich, organ-like harmonies of the music bring Bruckner to mind. The brass section was given a workout and made a strong impression. The composer’s structure brings the same themes around again and again. Some listeners might tire of them, and I admit to being in that category. This has never been one of my favorite symphonies.

The MSO is at such a level that it will never give a less than good performance, but I did not find Francis’ conducting to bring out the best playing of this orchestra. Despite commendable musical ideas, there was a lack of both precision and dramatic urge from the conductor, making the performance less than sizzle.

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