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Thursday, Jan. 24, 2013

MSO’s Rhapsody and Lincoln

Also, Frankly Music’s ‘Art of the Cello’

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There have been few major classical stars at Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra in recent seasons. The sell-out audience last Wednesday night was especially eager to hear legendary violinist Itzhak Perlman. His performance of the Beethoven Violin Concerto was not as vigorous as it might have been 10 years ago, but Perlman still sounds like no one else. His gleaming tone is like a sharp, fast skate blade across smooth ice. Perlman was not perfect in this music. Still, it was the performance of a master, with phrasing from a lifetime of music making.

MSO assistant conductor Francesco Lecce-Chong, who normally leads the orchestra in regional and educational performances, got his chance on the main stage in the Perlman gala. Lecce-Chong is a talented young conductor. A good performance of Beethoven Symphony No. 5 preceded the Perlman concerto. The only noteworthy concern was some balance issues, with trumpets sometimes overwhelming.

A large crowd turned out for the MSO weekend concert as well, also conducted by Lecce-Chong. Any audience will respond positively to George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, the most beloved piece of concert music ever written by an American. Separating the music itself from its performance, however, I was not especially satisfied listening to pianist Stephen Beus. He certainly nailed the notes; his ringing tone was pleasing and his technique admirable, but I found too much unnatural posing in his goosed-up interpretation. On the other hand, stylish, blazing hot solos came from clarinetist Todd Levy and trombonist Megumi Kanda.

I’ve always found Aaron Copland’s Lincoln Portrait a little heavy on inflated pomp. Mayor Tom Barrett’s un-actorish, Midwestern plain speak was refreshing in the narration, which I’ve usually heard emphasized to a fault. A new piece written for a consortium of orchestras, Jeffrey Mumford’s a dance into reflected daylight made little impact. Even though it is deliberately static, it seemed a journey to nowhere.

The concert programming did not work for me. Though competently performed, Symphony No. 5 by Jean Sibelius felt like the wrong piece for after intermission. A piece by Maurice Ravel or Igor Stravinsky, or another American work, would have been a better choice.

Frankly Music

The Frankly Music series has brought an impressive parade of world-class guest musicians to Milwaukee over the years. None have been more intriguing than Tamás Varga, principal cellist of the Vienna Philharmonic. At last week’s Frankly Music performance, Varga was featured in three solo cello pieces: Sonata for Solo Cello by György Ligeti, Ghirlarzana by Jacques Ibert and Sonata for Solo Cello by Hans Gál. One couldn’t have hoped for a fuller display of the cello’s capabilities, technically and musically. Varga plays with evolved grace and substance, a deep richness of tone emanating from his 18th-century instrument. Although Varga’s interpretation is fully realized in every way, there is an element of European restraint not to be found in the work of his American counterparts.

Violinist Frank Almond and pianist Stephen Beus joined Varga for Brahms’ Piano Trio No. 2 in C Major, Op. 87. Though these musicians had limited rehearsal together, this was an impressively cohesive ensemble. The combined sound of Almond’s violin and Varga’s cello was unusually beautiful, with touching unity of thought in their phrasing. Beus showed a mastery of this difficult music, with a clean and round tone.