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Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2008

Musical Truths

Classical Review

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Dominick Argento, a wise man and a major American composer, once said to me, “I’m a better person than I could ever be when I listen to Mozart.” His statement of personal musical truth resonated in me instantly. I thought of that 25-year-old memory during Todd Levy’s inspired, poetic performance of Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto at Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra on Saturday night. For 20 minutes it felt as if heart and mind were elevated and in perfect balance.

This concerto was written just a few months before Mozart’s death, and has an air of noble humanity and subdued joy. Levy, principal clarinetist at MSO, is an ideal interpreter. He plays with vocal, sensitive and effortlessly agile qualities that match accounts of Anton Stadler, the original performer. Levy can somehow begin a tone with no noticeable attack. That distinctive, magical launch of Todd Levy sound enhances every shapely phrase he creates. It allows him to play with ethereal softness, as in the second movement. This adagio moved many to tears, including me. Levy’s encore, an unaccompanied arrangement of a tenor aria from Mozart’s opera Cosi fan tutte, cast a spell over the hall, extending the mood. We know what to expect from regular guest conductor Nicholas McGegan: buoyant energy, tightness, lightness, lilt, and highlighting of selected details. All were heard in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1. McGegan found some drama in a quick transition from the end of the fast, scherzo-like minuet of the third movement to the stately beginning of the finale.

The concert began with 16 musicians tackling one of the most difficult pieces in contemporary repertory: John Adams’ Chamber Symphony (1992). This rather unfriendly music does not have the harmonic clarity of most Adams. Its complex denseness is a reaction to Arnold Schoenberg’s 1906 Chamber Symphony. There is little room for interpretation in all the intricate rhythms and layered counterpoint.

You either nail it or you don’t. These MSO players nailed it. Frank Almond delivered the blazing solo in the final movement. Balance could have been better throughout. In general, the strings and the synthesizer were covered by the winds and percussion.