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Tuesday, March 25, 2014

MSO’s Beethoven Festival Begins

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Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra’s three-week Beethoven Festival began last weekend. Besides Beethoven symphonies, the programs feature music by John Adams, a composer whose works have a strong connection to conductor Edo de Waart, and Igor Stravinsky.

John Adams, the most successful living American classical composer, was represented in a compelling performance of The Wound-Dresser, a 1988 setting of poetry by Walt Whitman for baritone and orchestra. Whitman spent the years during the Civil War in Washington, D.C., officially working as a federal clerk, but spending all his available time in the self-appointed task of tending to countless injured soldiers. Whitman’s clear-eyed, unflinching account of the experience is told in the poem “The Wound-Dresser.

Adams’ setting quite rightly keeps communicating the vivid text as a priority, capturing its unsentimental humanity. British baritone Christopher Maltman, a noted Adams interpreter who recorded The Wound-Dresser with the composer conducting, brought the sensitivity and clarity of an evolved art song performer to the piece.

I have often heard conductors so intent on making a big statement in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 that the music becomes overstated, with some aspects disproportionately exaggerated. This was in no way the case with De Waart’s performance, which is not a surprise to anyone familiar with his conducting. The symphony came forth with admirable restraint, yet fully realized. The oboe solo of the second movement and the clarinet solo of the third movement were wonderful highlights, with excellent orchestral playing all around.

Good as Maltman was in the Adams piece, his most impressive vocal moment of the evening came with his first entrance in the finale. I have never heard those first sung notes, “O Freunde,” sung with such a grand sweep of thrilling authority. I found soprano Susanna Phillips’ voice ideal in her part, her ascension to a sustained high note in one spot breathtakingly beautiful. Tenor Thomas Cooley struggled with the high notes in his solo. Mezzo-Soprano Kelley O’Connor sang with lovely tone. There were many good things to admire about the Milwaukee Symphony Chorus, particularly the soprano section sound in the cruelly high sustained spots.