Gilbert Varga, guest conductor of last weekend's Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra concerts, is an impressive presence on the podium. He leads with supreme musicianship, care, insight, taste and style. Most important, he seems an able communicator to the orchestra.
From memory Varga led Haydn's Symphony No. 73 ("La Chasse") with understanding of the composer's wit and playfulness. It was a thoughtful, tight, spontaneous performance. Varga's versatility was on display later in the program in two pieces by Ravel. The basic idea of an orchestra-its combination of instruments adding up in countless ways-is a kind of magic, made apparent in the enchanting Mother Goose Suite. La Valse, a Parisian take on the Viennese obsession, built to thrilling frenzy without ever loosing technical control or essential elegance.
William Barnewitz, one of the cornerstones of the MSO as principal horn, was featured in two Mozart concertos, Nos. 1 and 3. Barnewitz's easy, big, round sound made this lovely music sing with grace and warmth. The jovial good humor of these pieces came through, although two Mozart horn concertos in one sitting felt more than plenty.
Ten years ago there were few options to hear quality professional chamber music in Milwaukee. Times have changed. To the Fine Arts Quartet, Frankly Music, the Prometheus Trio, Early Music Now, Chamber Music Milwaukee, Present Music, and guest artists at the Pabst and Wisconsin Lutheran College, we now add a new ensemble, the Philomusica Quartet. This string quartet, comprised of Alexander Mandl, Jeanyi Kim, Nathan Hackett and Adrien Zitoun (three of whom play in the MSO), presented its second public concert Sunday afternoon at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music.Beethoven's Quartet in A Major, Op. 18, No. 5, began with some dryness in the first movement, but bloomed as the music progressed, reaching its stride in the third movement. Highlights of Schubert's "Death and the Maiden" Quartet were the soulful second movement, with its long progression of variations, and the well-played, breathless finale. I had never heard Anton Webern's Langsamer Satz, and was immediately taken with it in this performance that found earnest, heart-on-the-sleeve Romantic style.