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Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2009

Edo de Waart’s Vibrant MSO Debut

Classical Review

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Standard repertory is often performed in a generalized mix of style and tradition. Even good results are undistinguished as a result. A better, higher route is fresh and vibrant consideration. This requires rehearsal time, but also intellectual insight and evolved aesthetic taste. Edo de Waart has both those qualities and more. In his conducting debut as music director of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra last weekend, Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 5, composed in 1902, sounded vibrant and new.

De Waart is an unsentimental conductor. Where others may gush and embrace enveloping sweep and volume at the price of nuance and detail, de Waart seems constantly and technically aware of all the components building the sound at every moment. The quality I admired most in Saturday night’s performance of this 70-minute epic was restraint. That’s not something I ever thought I would say about a Mahler symphony. Tempos moved along throughout. The fourth movement “Adagietto” was a fast nine minutes; some recordings are more than 11 minutes. But de Waart’s tempo felt right, and kept the melody from being stretched to destruction.

The conductor reportedly put the orchestra through an unusual number of rehearsals this week, including sectionals. It showed. Always good in the past, the strings came to exciting new life, with unified sectional blends not heard before. The brass maintained balance even in the loudest sections, which were reined in rather than blasting far above the rest of the ensemble, a historical danger with this section. Similarly, the woodwinds had ensemble restraint, as did the percussion. Throughout, each musician onstage seemed to be working at newfound awareness of playing together.

Once assistant to Leonard Bernstein, de Waart created a program with a tribute theme to his mentor. Bernstein was the towering Mahler interpreter of his era. The concert began with Bernstein’s Symphony No. 1 (“Jeremiah”), composed in 1943 at the age of 25. It’s almost unbelievable that this piece had never before been played by MSO. In movements titled Prophecy, Profanation and Lamentation, the Jewish-themed symphony culminated in a moving finale with vocal solo elegantly and sympathetically sung by mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke.