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Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Electrified Presence

Classical Review

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There aren’t many real stars among instrumentalists in classical music today. Cellist Yo-Yo Ma is at the top of the list. In a gala performance with Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra last Wednesday night Ma portrayed Cervantes’ demented hero in Richard Strauss’ Don Quixote as convincingly as any dramatized version.

  We expect beautiful tone and masterful phrasing from Ma. I wasn’t prepared for his depth of humanity in this piece and overwhelming musical acting, portraying the character’s swoons, groans and palpable longing. The Don’s aching idealism ended with a heartbreaking death scene from Ma. The orchestra’s playing of this great score and its inventive instrumentation was electrified by Ma’s presence and love of collaboration. Robert Levine, MSO principal violist, was most prominent of soloists featured from the orchestra, performing with strength, warmth and agile richness.

  Andreas Delfs led Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 on Wednesday evening; the same piece was repeated at the subscription concert on the weekend. It concluded Delfs’ circuit of all nine Beethoven symphonies with MSO this season. His expressive freedom and fully sculpted concepts make it obvious that he feels personal affinity with these works. The Saturday performance was more refined than on Wednesday, but still caught the composer’s giddiness in the first, third and fourth movements. Delfs likes fast tempos in this symphony; I doubt that the finale ever could be any quicker. There were small signs of effort to achieve fleetness on Wednesday. By Saturday the orchestra had gotten Delfs’ full gallop under its belt, pulling it off with exciting panache.

  Principal cellist Joseph Johnson, in his first season with MSO, has been a strong addition to the orchestra. His effect on the unity and tone of the cello section is apparent. Johnson was heard in Concerto No. 1 by Camille Saint-Sans, which gave showcase to the deeply felt lyrical qualities of his playing, with opportunity for lovely tenderness. Roy Harris’ earnest Symphony No. 3 from 1939, which began the weekend program, made me wonder why it conjures powerful nostalgia in me for an era in American music that I was born too late to experience.