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Tuesday, Jan. 27, 2009

Sensual Scheherazade

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While watching a movie at the Oriental Theatre on Saturday evening my mind was adrift with what I had heard at Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra the night before. With the film still rolling I left my stunned friends for Uihlein Hall, arriving in time for Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade, conducted by Vasily Petrenko. I had to hear it again.

A tall, blonde and boyishly handsome 32-year-old Russian, Petrenko is the young celebrity face of classical music in Europe. This return engagement puts the MSO at the center of his anticipated American career. Petrenko has the distinguishing quality of a great leader of people, one who inspires them to be their very best. The MSO musicians must have known that they had played the most remarkable Scheherazade of their lives.

Petrenko balanced rigor and expanse, freedom and discipline, emotion and restraint, virile sweep and tenderness. He incited memorable playing from the many soloists and allowed them room for it. Frank Almond's stunning violin solos rose to richness in color and sensually expressive phrasing. The brass section knocked me out cold; I didn't know tonguing could be that fast and electric. The string section was in top form; I can't help but think that it must rate highly among American orchestras.

Canadian pianist Louis Lortie displayed enormous technique and emotional reserve in Chopin's Concerto No. 1, hitting excitement in the third movement, though the blunt edge of his melody tone in the first and second movements was troubling. Lortie reportedly refused to allow the new Paul Chihara orchestration commissioned by Andreas Delfs a few seasons ago. The original orchestration was used.

Almond had another noteworthy night earlier in the week at Frankly Music. He clearly has a special affinity for the music of Brahms. This thoughtful program about the relationship between Clara Schumann and Brahms included pieces by both. The stirring performance of the Brahms Piano Quartet, Op. 25, with William Wolfram (piano), Edward Arron (cello) and Toby Appel (viola), was one of the highest points in Almond's many years of illustrious chamber music in Milwaukee.