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Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Contained Expression

Classical Review

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  The automatic, meaningless standing ovation has been out of control in the U.S. for years. Does it come from the American need to overstate everything? Maybe it indicates a lack of standards. It is refreshing to attend performances in Germany and Austria, where knowledgeable audiences applaud appreciatively at length, but never stand up.

  I am accustomed to being the only one sitting during applause, and am familiar with the resulting looks I get. It is a ridiculous situation. A good performance does not merit a “standing O.” Right now, wherever you are as you read this, raise your right hand and repeat this oath: I will not stand up as I applaud after any performance for the next year.

  As of the last few seasons the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra delivers a good performance almost without fail. With this level at his or her ready command, a guest conductor has an opportunity to make musical statements. Alexander Mickelthwate’s leadership of the concert was certainly competent. I did not hear anything unexpected or spontaneous or personal in his interpretations. There was a sense of over control that, rather than edge of the seat discipline, somehow contained expression.

  Franz Liszt’s Les Préludes is old fashioned romanticism that was once at the heart of symphonic programming but has fallen out of favor. It was good to hear it again. Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 has a masked, manly, dry-eyed sadness, the work of a depressed and disillusioned composer staying true to himself while under serious threats from the Stalin regime. Flutist Jeani Foster’s solos were especially effective. Mickelthwate generously gave deserved solo and section bows to many members of the orchestra. The oversight was timpanist Dean Borghesani, one of the best MSO musicians, who had a thrilling, rapid fire solo.

According to the program the Mendelssohn Piano Concerto No. 1, a very standard piece of repertory, amazingly had not been performed at MSO since 1982. Pianist Arnaldo Cohen is a technically impressive player who gets the job done with little fuss. Quiet playing lacked poetry and remained decidedly earthbound; flashy passages needed more panache.
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