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Thursday, Nov. 6, 2008

Balance and Expression

Classical Review

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A fundamental strength of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra is the high artistry of a few key musicians. Among them is Todd Levy, soloist in the concerts of last weekend in Carl Maria von Weber's Clarinet Quintet. (The string quartet parts were given to a reduced string section.) With masterful technique Levy demonstrated why the clarinet is the most richly multi-faceted of woodwind instruments.

Levy presented arresting contrasts and colors: bubbling fountains of sound, plaintive melancholy, athletic leaps and scales, ethereally birdlike ornaments, the vocal tone of a great singer, and mesmerizing soft playing. All he does is enveloped in refined taste, sensitivity, devotion to the composer's intentions, and a marvelously satisfying grasp of phrase. This quintet is among many works written for the legendary 19th century clarinetist Heinrich Baermann. After years of hearing Todd Levy make art of every line he plays with the orchestra, and extraordinary solos such as this, I can't help but wonder at the unanswerable: how does Levy compare to Baermann?

Edo de Waart, who will become music director next fall, is a formidable musician and conductor. The concert began with John Adams' The Chairman Dances (premiered by MSO in 1986), about an imaginary 1930s seduction of Mao Tse Tung. This evolved minimalism-evoking the 1980s as surely as any remnants of the era-requires highly disciplined conducting and playing. De Waart and the orchestra delivered a razor's edge, acutely balanced performance that did not sacrifice expression: the odd wooziness of this music was hypnotic.

De Waart approached the sprawling score of Dvorak's Symphony No. 9 ("From the New World") with the same rigor, yet gave it the long line and expanse of the romantic style. The danger of mushy thickness in this symphony was avoided with crisp clarity and transparent textures. The orchestra performed so remarkably well that a side effect result emerged: the few spots and stretches not up to the highest level of playing stood out in sharp contrast. I began to think of them as a road map of De Waart's likely future work with MSO.
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