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Tuesday, Nov. 18, 2008

Music To Dream To

Classical Review

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A great piano performance of almost any literature excites me. Somewhere in my adult reaction are the dreams of my 12-year-old pianist self, who listened to recordings by famous artists then ran to the instrument to attempt imitation. Once in a blue moon a gripping performance brings up those delusional boyish hopes, an embarrassing but oddly awakening memory. Sometimes we need to be reminded that music can inspire us to dream.

Such thoughts were provoked by Horacio Gutiérrez's performance of Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra last weekend. (Rachmaninoff represented ultimate glamour to me as a boy.) Gutiérrez has superhuman finger strength and exceptional technique, but did not showboat these abilities. They organically informed his interpretation and became tools for restrained expression, long lines and phrasing. Gutiérrez has a modest, unassuming personal presence onstage, at odds with the "wow" factor of his playing. The new MSO Steinway sounded with less stiffness and more ring throughout the range than in its debut a few weeks ago. Gutiérrez showed that it's quite a piano.

Mexican native Carlos Miguel Prieto led a Mexican curiosity to begin the program: Redes, adapted from 1935 film music by the little known Silvestre Revueltas (1899-1940). The performance was a bit effortful on Friday night, but the score came through as surprisingly expressionist, dramatic and serious. Trumpeter Mark Niehaus was the standout orchestral soloist, with a colorful tone that was both rounded and piercing. Though there are stretches in this suite that are a little thin in content and sound like underscoring, it inevitably raises a question: What other worthwhile music we've never heard is out there?

Robert Schumann's Symphony No. 4 is a problematic work. Any music history book comments on its muddy instrumentation. In four movements performed without breaks it can seem the equivalent of purplish prose that runs on too long. Prieto is an energetic but inefficient conductor. The music needed more definition, architecture, and a finer sense of balance and shading. It felt as if the orchestra was in there working at it without clear enough leadership.