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Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Andreas Delfs’ MSO Legacy

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A few weeks ago I said that more than any other composer, Brahms is the sound of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra during the Andreas Delfs era. Last Saturday night's performance of Brahms' Symphony No. 1 supported that statement. The combination of Delfs and the MSO has reached a level in Brahms that is in a league with noteworthy recordings of the last 50 years by the greatest conductors and orchestras.

Next weekend Delfs leads his final performances as music director of MSO, a special event with Mahler's enormous Symphony No. 8. The concert of last weekend, comprised by Brahms and Mozart's final symphony, is the end of more characteristic concerts by Delfs. As someone who has attended almost every MSO classical concert for the last 25 years, I am grateful to him for raising the level of the orchestra, transforming it from inconsistency to a high standard.

Player changes directed by Delfs have been a large part of the change. The musicians know that they have a good orchestra now. Delfs' ear created an orchestra with a warm and glowing tone. He grew as a conductor in his 12 years here. In his early years Delfs sometimes seemed to try to force a result on the podium; surely this was out of frustration. About midway through his time here, when his orchestra building was more accomplished, conductor and orchestra hit a stride of assured, expressive freedom, particularly in German/Austrian repertory.

Not all music directors are good at public relations, nor do they always participate effectively in fund-raising. Delfs has been good at both. Programming has been another strength. After some early experimentation the programming settled into interesting, solid concerts with audience appeal, strategically including premieres and less often encountered music at times. Delfs was better in some pieces than others, naturally. A music director must conduct a broad range of music, after all. But any performance of the last six or seven years, whether especially compelling or not, never went below a level of evolved quality. Sometimes there has been too frequent repetition of familiar repertory, but even in that it was clear that Delfs has had a strong sense of what he, the orchestra and chorus could do well.

The MSO future is bright under Edo de Waart, but we will not soon forget Andreas Delfs, quite possibly the most loved music director to have served in Milwaukee.