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Wednesday, May 7, 2014

The Best Elgar Ever

De Waart leads MSO in warm, full-bodied performance

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Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra Music Director Edo de Waart conducted his last concert of the season last weekend. I cannot help but repeat some of the same thoughts previously written about his transforming impact on the orchestra. Through his masterful guidance and expert ears, and through key player changes he initiated, the MSO has risen to an artistic level none of the rest of us could have imagined years ago. If only the ensemble played in a hall worthy of it.

I’ve heard Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations more times than I can recall over decades of concert going, with at least three orchestras in addition to recordings. I think the performance on Saturday evening was the best I’ve ever encountered. De Waart’s approach to this warm and beloved music brought it to life without schmaltz, which can weaken the strength of the piece. The great dignity and love in the music emerged with full-voiced, disciplined playing. Many artful details added to the performance: solos from violist Robert Levine, cellist Susan Babini, clarinetist Todd Levy and bassoonist Ted Soluri; exciting, rich sounds from trombones and tuba; gorgeous ensemble work from the woodwinds and horns; and well-blended string section playing.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Symphony No. 38 (“Prague”) was given a tight, crisp, lively performance, finding a happy, buzzy groove. Richard Wagner’s poignant and intimate Siegfried Idyll, written as a Christmas present for his wife, was performed with tenderness and poetry. Again, De Waart’s evolved aesthetic avoided the danger of added sentimentality.

Every few years I complain about the automatic, meaningless standing ovation that is rampant in the U.S. The American urge for overstatement is part of what’s behind this, as well as the habitual, collegial feeling of joining in after it has started. Audiences seem to forget that applause is an adequate ovation, even for an excellent performance. Standing ovations almost never happen at terrific classical concerts in Germany and Austria. A suggestion: Have the courage to sit there and applaud. If more people did that, maybe the standing ovation would become a very rare occurrence every few years, as it used to be, and would actually mean something.