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Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2014

MSO in top form for Brahms

Milwaukee Opera Theatre presents new work

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Pianist Inon Barnatan
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As is sometimes the case, there was more than one classical performance of interest last weekend. With Music Director Edo de Waart on the podium, the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra was in top form on Saturday evening. The young Israeli pianist Inon Barnatan was a last-minute replacement for the indisposed Radu Lupu in Brahms Concerto No. 1.

Some were undoubtedly disappointed not to hear Lupu, who made a wonderful recording of the piece with De Waart. However, Barnatan rose to the occasion with refined and lyrical playing. I have heard more powerful performances of this concerto, but rarely one so earnest and poetic, with such a light and elegant touch. De Waart gave the piece both space and clarity in tempos that were less pressed than often encountered. The only minor flaws were very occasional spots when the pianist did not land exactly with the conductor, indicating either a lack of rehearsal or Barnatan’s lack of experience in the piece.

Two tortured figures dominated the first half of the program in music previously unfamiliar to me. Schumann’s Overture to Manfred was written for a stage production of Byron’s dramatic poem about a reclusive and repentant idealist. James MacMillan’s The Confession of Isobel Gowdie (1990) humanely renders the story of a woman killed for being a witch in 1662 Scotland. The music is variously pastoral, conjuring the Scottish countryside, and brutally violent. This was challenging listening to the audience, but many responded with riveted attention. It is likely that both the Schumann and MacMillan pieces were unfamiliar to the orchestra. As is usually the case at MSO in such cases, the musicians responded with their very best playing.

On Friday evening I caught The Eurydice Festival, presented by Milwaukee Opera Theatre, at Carroll University. A highlight was the commissioned chamber opera The Crawling Dove by Joel Boyd, which shows a real talent for vocal writing and capturing mood and character. Fluency in text setting was evident in an attractive commissioned song cycle by Nathan Wesselowski. Soprano Ruth Brown was impressive and touching in Ricky Ian Gordon’s song cycle Orpheus and Euridice.