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Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2009

MSO, Renes’ Emotional Bruckner Symphony No. 8

Classical Review

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When guest conductor Lawrence Renes was last at Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra he led a questionable account of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9. Based on that, I did not know what to expect with his return to MSO last weekend to conduct Anton Bruckner’s Symphony No. 8. I happily report that any doubts were swept away by the performance.

Of the major symphonists, Bruckner has always been the composer who eludes me. I admit that I probably project expectations about dramatic arch, present in other large symphonies, that are not there in the same way in Bruckner’s work. For years I have repeatedly tried to come to Bruckner freshly, with new ears. I’m getting better at it. I was impressed at how intently and quietly, without restlessness, the audience listened to this 80-minute work.

Renes coaxed full-blooded color from the orchestra on Saturday evening, pushing expression to an intensely emotional heart-on-the-sleeve quality, stressing dynamic contrasts. While not as technically refined as the MSO under Edo de Waart, an admirable, gutsy, darkly hued orchestral tone emerged in this symphony, reminiscent of Andreas Delfs performances of German/Austrian music. Renes was especially good at gracefully stopping the music for dramatic pauses, with an acute sense about how long the pause should be.

William Barnewitz, principal horn, made the most of his solos, supported by wonderful horn choir sounds from the expanded section. Trumpets, trombones and tuba played with richness that filled out the piece without overwhelming it.

For now MSO has apparently abandoned the enhancement amplification put into the hall at its redesign more than a decade ago. I spent a good bit of the concert weighing what I was hearing. Depending on seating location, at times I have been aware of and sometimes vaguely disturbed by amplification in the past. It is more difficult to pinpoint its positive benefits. With the amplification off I notice a more natural blend to the sound, but it is also a bit less lively. In the acoustics of Uihlein Hall there is certainly not a perfect solution in either of the choices.

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