Friday morning, Edo de Waart stepped in front of a Uihlein Hall audience for the first time in five-and-a-half months. But there was something to think about even before he picked up his baton.
Upon entering the hall, the audience was greeted by a large video screen hanging above the stage. I thought, perhaps, it was time for one of Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra’s fund raising appeals. But when the lights dimmed and the screen lit up, there was de Waart, sitting comfortably in casual clothes, talking about Chopin’s Second Piano Concerto and Brahms' Second Symphony, which he would conduct in a few minutes.
While not explicitly about fund raising, you might say that this addition to the concert format has something to do with the general plight of orchestras across the United States, and particularly with the MSO’s recent announcement of financial troubles. It’s one way—a new way—of making classical concerts more accessible and audience friendly, something that is certainly part of the MSO’s strategy to survive in troubling times.
And it’s a good one. The “controversy” over a less “formal” approach to presenting classical music has been buzzing around orchestra circles recently. (I talked about it to both MSO Assistant Conductor Francesco Lecce-Chong and MSO President Mark Neihaus over the summer.) For this program, de Waart’s comments were charming, insightful and personal. I’m sure they added to the experience of many audience members, even if they ruffled the feathers of a few hard-core traditionalists.
When the music started, it was hard to imagine the MSO was having any trouble attracting audiences of any kind. De Waart opened the program with the Midwest premiere of Michael Ippolito’s “Nocturne” for orchestra. The 28-year-old composer writes in his notes that he was inspired by Joan Miro’s 1940 painting of the same name, and the music matches the painting it its dreamy delicacy. There’s a mood of gentle settling in the first part of the piece, with quiet glissandi in the strings and fluttering woodwind figures. The low strings play a steady walking bass figure as percussion and harp color the upper register. It crescendos into brass bell tones, and a rumbling that gives way to big majestic chords. And it eventually quiets with a playful dialogue between solo violin and the flute (which quotes a figure from one of Chopin’s Nocturnes), then fades out to a whisper of echo-ey string sonorities.
The Chopin nod was appropriate, of course, a tease for the next piece, his Second Piano concerto played by Argentine pianist Ingrid Fliter.
Fliter has recorded Chopin several times, and it was easy to understand why she is sought out as a Chopin interpreter. Playing here, she displayed both technical mastery and soulful lyricism. Chopin’s filigreed ornamentation was crystal clear, but never marred the sense of the melody line. Chopin was at his best in the short piano pieces that comprise his “Greatest Hits,” and there isn’t much development or intellectual meat in the concertos. But Fliter played with such effortless grace that the three movements were entrancing from beginning to end.
There is plenty of intellectual meat in Brahms’s symphonies—or at least development and invention in his treatment of some lovely motific melodies. De Waart offered a version of the Second Symphony that was beautifully controlled, a headier rival to the graced lyricism of the Chopin concerto. The easy pace of the first movement, with it’s familiar “lullaby-like” motif, allowed the orchestra to showcase the varied shifting colors as the melody moves from violins to winds to cellos. The gentle exploration goes on for some time, until the music moves into a grittier development section, with just a touch of angst from the brass section. The justly famous third movement was played with crystal clarity. De Waart’s effortless time-signature transitions perfectly captured the movement’s easy playfulness. And in the final movement, when the music finally calls for magnificent heft, the MSO brass delivered.
Video introductions are nice, but when music is played like this, it should sell itself. Let’s hope it does.
The concert will be repeated again Saturday night.