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Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2010

John Lill, Soloists Shine at Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra

Classical Review

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A year and a half since its acquisition, the new Steinway piano at Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra has quickly become a welcome friend. I was again reminded of the instrument’s quality of sound and touch in John Lill’s performance of Tchaikovsky’s Concerto No. 1 last weekend.

A veteran British pianist with a career spanning 50 years, Lill plays with a master’s control. His technical accomplishment is deep enough that he hardly works up a sweat in meeting the demands of this famous concerto. Lill created insightful voice leading and refined tone at any volume level. Tempos were a little on the slow side, which stressed deliberateness and clarity. If I missed anything it was a sense of romantic passion and abandon.

William Bolcom (b. 1938) is one of only a handful of American composers born in the 1930s and after to have become a permanent part of the repertory. He is most known for his operas, performed at major houses, and his art songs, piano works and chamber music. We rarely encounter a Bolcom orchestral work such as Commedia for (almost) 18th-Century Orchestra, composed in 1972. Written for the then new St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, the piece stresses small combinations of instruments, wittily tilting the familiar musical vocabulary of the era of Mozart and Haydn gently askew. Such sounds save it from the obscurity of most of the deadly dull, atonal, academic music written in the 1960s and ’70s.

Guest conductor Rossen Milanov selected the Bolcom work undoubtedly as a companion to the commedia elements in Stravinsky’s Petroushka. It proved to be a deft choice. Milanov led both works with a light and graceful touch that encouraged chamber-like playing from the MSO. Petroushka (heard here in the composer’s 1947 revision) sparkled with transparency on Saturday evening. The many magical colors of the orchestration came through like a parade of beguiling treats. I admired the agile, sharply drawn crispness of the performance. Several soloists rose to the occasion with heightened playing, including Wilanna Kalkhof on piano, Mark Niehaus on trumpet, Jeani Foster on flute and Todd Levy on clarinet.

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