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Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Milwaukee Symphony Keeps its Groove

Confident performances of Fauré, Ravel and Stravinsky

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For years now, since the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra found its groove with Music Director Edo de Waart, I’ve written that the orchestra has never sounded better. That remains true. When De Waart is on the podium, as was the case in a concert last Friday, the MSO plays with confident sophistication only achieved by the best orchestras.

The nuance of the strings was notable in Gabriel Fauré’s Suite from Pelléas et Mélisande. There was an ideal blend and balance of sound. Beginnings and endings of phrases were played with sensitive ensemble. Flutist Sonora Slocum’s solo work continues to impress. She plays with a clean, well-tuned sound, easily floating through the hall rather than slicing the air, always creating graceful phrases. Cellist Susan Babini gave soulful presence to her solo, something we’ve come to expect from her.

Maurice Ravel’s Concerto in G Major shows influences from his travels in the U.S. in the 1920s when he encountered Gershwin and jazz. Blue notes and a casual warm spirit permeate the music. The terrific young American pianist Orion Weiss played the solo part with refinement and elegance essential to the urbanity in Ravel’s music. I’ve heard other pianists go too far with this concerto, taking too many liberties with the melancholy second movement, or pressing extremes in other ways. Weiss did none of this. His performance was expressively tasteful, full with lightness of touch and poetic insight. His deep technique constantly served the piece’s musical aims rather than showing itself off, a quality of reserve that eludes many young virtuosos.

Igor Stravinsky was such a towering figure in 20th century music that it’s interesting that a relatively small number of his pieces remain in the regularly performed international repertory. The ballet Pétroushka tells the surreal story of a puppet that falls in love with a ballerina, and then is killed by a rival puppet. The 1947 revised suite played by the MSO challenges nearly every aspect of orchestral playing. De Waart led a thrilling performance, colorful and precise, with evolved ensemble playing from the orchestra, and featuring impressive flute, trumpet and piano solos.