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Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Beethoven Keeps Company with Stravinsky and Adams

MSO gives a blended, balanced, nuanced concert

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The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra again performed in the Pabst Theater, for the last time this season, for the final program in its three-concert Beethoven Festival, which has also featured the music of John Adams and Igor Stravinsky. Hearing Beethoven symphonies in this context made me aware of their progressive edginess and lack of sentiment as compositions.

Leila Josefowicz has made a calling card of the Adams Violin Concerto. She recorded it with the composer as conductor, and has performed it widely, including at MSO in 2007. This is about the hardest music imaginable for the instrument (the composer calls the relentless violin part “hypermelody”) and Josefowicz blazed through it with passion and conviction. Violin playing does not get more technically dazzling than this. Besides a master in the solo part, there was a master on the podium; Edo de Waart conducted the premiere of this concerto in 1994. The orchestra was at its very best on Sunday afternoon, as is often the case in challenging contemporary works.

Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments was written in 1920 as homage to Claude Debussy. Though Stravinsky probably would have denied it, the harmonies in its final chorale are reminiscent of Debussy. The piece certainly captures the coolness of post-Romantic French aesthetics. I honestly can’t imagine the MSO winds of 10 or 20 years ago successfully performing this work. The heightened focus on the winds made me again realize how the sound has evolved to what it is now: blended, balanced and nuanced.

The clarity afforded by the fairly dry but intimate acoustics of the Pabst made present every detail of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7. I have heard more dramatic and grand accounts of this music, but that is not De Waart’s style. This was a crisp and transparent performance.

I noticed that the audience coughs far less at the Pabst Theater than in Uihlein Hall. Maybe that’s because there are simply fewer people. But I also think at the Pabst the audience feels psychologically part of the performing space, rather than separated from it out in the vast, anonymous dark of Uihlein.