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Friday, Nov. 16, 2012

König a Match for MSO’s High Standards

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 The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra has become pretty remarkable in the era of Edo de Waart. Under his assured guidance, the orchestra has been transformed by important player changes, new levels of technical discipline and artistic depth. However, the playing under guest conductors has needed improvement. The ensemble generally has not been able to maintain its highest and sharpest standards without De Waart on the podium.

In the concert of last Saturday evening, the MSO was closer to its best self with Christoph König than it has been under other guest conductors. The playing embodied both freedom and discipline. I was impressed by both the transparent detail in quiet sections and full-voiced playing in loud stretches. Precision, balance and section blend were constants at any volume or tempo. Whatever the musicians felt about König, a strong and completely satisfying musical result emerged.

König showed versatility in this varied program. The Overture to Carl Maria von Weber’s opera Der Freischütz was painted in a high chiaroscuro of sharp, melodramatic contrasts. I had never before encountered Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski’s Concerto for Orchestra (1954), a wonderfully imaginative showpiece with a master orchestrator's touch. Bartók’s piece of the same title certainly comes to mind, as do echoes of Stravinsky, Shostakovich and Britten.

König was most persuasive in a moving account of Schubert’s deeply tuneful Symphony No. 7 (“Unfinished”), played with lyrical lightness interrupted by brief and restless storms. With Susan Babini as principal, the cello section sound has gained in round richness, so evident in the famous first movement theme. Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 in D minor was served up as the spicy soufflé it is, led and played with panache. Violinist Ilana Setapen’s fiery gypsy cadenza was a standout moment.

It is a high pleasure to hear the clean, light and free sound of new principal flutist Sonora Slocum, and the expressive, vocal-inspired playing of new principal oboist Katherine Young Steele. What welcome affirmation of how much the MSO woodwinds have changed! Slocum, Young Steele, clarinetist Todd Levy and bassoonist Theodore Soluri form quite a team of phrase-sensitive woodwind principals.