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Wednesday, June 4, 2014

MSO cellist shines in Schumann concerto

A great ensemble hits its stride as season nears end

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A member of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra I have wanted to hear more from as a soloist is principal cellist Susan Babini. After her first featured solo in the orchestra a few seasons ago, I paraphrased the famous line from Jerry Maguire: “She had me at hello.” I have heard her only a few times in chamber music, and only occasionally in orchestral solos. I have always wanted more, and had been looking forward to her Robert Schumann concerto last weekend.

There is a combination of open earnestness, supreme musicianship, honest kinship with the music and sensitivity to ensemble in Babini’s playing. Her tone is gorgeous, whether in remarkably rich low notes or in agile, light playing in the upper register. She plays without showiness, but with heartfelt expression; her phrasing melts me into surprising tears at times. The MSO is lucky to have her, and the Saturday evening audience adored her.

A trend at the MSO over recent months is a video shown before the concert, with a musician speaking about music on the program. Babini’s recorded comments were the most successful thus far, articulating deeply thoughtful experience with the Schumann concerto and its nature.

Guest conductor Gilbert Varga is familiar to MSO audiences. (He returns for the final classical concerts of the season June 6-8.) Any guest conductor at this point benefits from the MSO being in peak form, after several months of steady work, including sectionals in rehearsal, with Edo de Waart. Varga was like the exuberant driver of a finely tuned racecar in Slavonic Dances, Op. 46, by Antonín Dvořák, rarely heard together as an entire set.

The MSO seems to have hit a stride this season with a consistent ensemble sound, no matter who is on the podium. Varga is a first-rate conductor with strong musical vision. The orchestra sounded better than good under him. There was lots of old-fashioned swagger, playfulness and color in these wonderful pieces, but also finely tuned orchestral technique and detail. I confess, though, that hearing all eight dances was like eating too many exquisite pastries in one sitting.