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Wednesday, April 2, 2014

MSO Returns to the Pabst

Great acoustics for a challenging repertoire

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Years ago the Pabst Theater was a regular venue for classical performance. The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra is playing two concerts there, the first of which took place last weekend. I realized how much I’ve missed hearing classical music at the Pabst.

The MSO was split last weekend, with some players in the pit for the Florentine Opera. On Thursday evening I heard the musicians finding their bearings with the string sections as configured for the Pabst concert, and also with the acoustics. The familiar sound of the MSO became something new on the intimate Pabst stage, with audible detail so richly etched and flattering warmth bathing the sound.

Wind players can be overbearing in this hall, and throughout the Thursday concert I heard adjustments in balance. I went back again to hear the Sunday afternoon concert. As expected, the balance and performance had become more refined. Essentially, an orchestra can play in this space with the spirit of chamber music.

This was challenging repertoire. Igor Stravinsky’s seldom heard Concerto in D Major for String Orchestra—a very cool piece—is a mix of styles, spiky and nervous, then lush and lyrical, but always with rhythmic complexity. As a surprise on Thursday evening John Adams was in attendance to hear his Saxophone Concerto, premiered last August. Conductor Edo de Waart, an early champion of Adams’ music, and Adams gave interesting comments to the audience after the concert.

Timothy McAllister, the saxophonist virtuoso for whom this concerto was written, performed with amazing fluency, combining crisp rhythmic energy with infectious, stylish phrasing. Jazz influences, appropriate to the instrument, are often just below the surface. Moody sections, reminiscent of a film noir score, are particularly effective. This is certainly one of the most original and successful concertos written for any instrument in recent decades. The orchestra’s performance of its very difficult part was played with the heightened concentration of a tightwire artist on Thursday night. It had understandably settled by Sunday.

On Thursday evening Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 (“Eroica”) seemed a little less than fully formed in performance compared to the elegant rendition heard on Sunday afternoon.