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Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Shakespeare By Prokofiev and Mendelssohn

MSO guest conductor Rossen Milanov’s passionate evocations

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A conductor’s influence on a performance is one of the ever-fascinating aspects of orchestra concerts. The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra sounds its best self, which is better than good, with Edo de Waart on the podium, a decidedly non-indulgent and tasteful conductor who stresses technique, balance, transparency and objectivity. Last weekend I heard another version of the MSO sound, almost as interesting as under De Waart, with Rossen Milanov, one of the best guest conductors in recent memory.

The orchestral sound under Milanov was not as refined nor as accomplished as under De Waart. However, theatrical color and a persuasive edge of excitement emerged. Milanov passionately evoked contrasts and drama in Felix Mendelssohn’s magical Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream and a suite from Sergei Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. The conductor seemed to delight in the fairies’ scurry, Bottom’s donkey hee-haw and general high spirits in the Mendelssohn overture, before a touchingly sweet pastoral conclusion.

Eager, young, over-amplified actors performed edited excerpts from Shakespeare’s play between movements of Romeo and Juliet. I’m on the fence as to whether this concept added or detracted from the impact of Prokofiev’s vivid score. There was something a bit awkward about the interruption of the flow of the music of the suite with the actors. Nor am I convinced that the earthy (rather than lyrical) style of the actors’ performance was a match for this great music which grandly elevates the story to a universal level. But I have to admit the audience liked it.

I fondly remember Frank Almond’s 2002 performance of Ernest Chausson’s Poème, and so was pleased to hear him again in the same music, an excellent vehicle for Almond’s strengths of singing lyricism and graceful, sophisticated phrasing. Something about its contained romanticism suits Almond’s playing especially well. He followed this with an intriguing choice, Rhapsody No. 2 by Bartók. This happy-spirited music asks for folk-influenced virtuoso fiddling and lots of primal low register playing, among many other challenges. The large artistic range Almond showed in these two pieces of such very different styles was impressive.