The crowd at Friday night’s Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra was smaller than I can remember seeing at any recent concert. It might have been the snowy weather. It might have been the cancellation of featured pianist Radu Lupu. It might have been a program that included some late 20th-century music. Those who didn’t go missed a remarkable set of performances.
Lupu’s replacement, Israeli-born Enon Barnatan, played the Brahms Piano Concert No. 1 with the command of a much more experienced musician (he’s in his mid-30s). From where I sat—15 rows back, just off center--the piano didn’t ring out over the orchestra tuttis when it should have, but generally Barnatan and conductor Edo de Waart communicated beautifully through the music. The pianist took the third movement at a breakneck pace, with no loss of clarity or delicacy when it was needed. And when the stage was all his, Barnatan displayed a wealth of style and personality in the concerto’s romantic melodies and its cadenzas.
The first half of the concert opened with Robert Schumann’s “Manfred” Overture, drawn from music composed for Lord Byron’s dramatic poem. De Waart found orchestral richness in the 12-minute piece, adding another argument against the common assertion that Schumann was a less-than-capable orchestrator.
But it was James MacMillan’s The Confession of Isabel Gowdie, that showcased the MSO’s sonic richness. Composed in 1990, MacMillan’s piece—a career-making cause celebre in its time—commemorates one of the many women who were executed as witches in 16th- and 17th-century Scotland, the composer’s homeland. MacMillan calls it “a single, complicated act of contrition” that “craves absolution and offers Isobel Gowdie the mercy and humanity that was denied her in the last days of her life.” As such, the piece thunders with percussion and various percussion effects—high-pitched toms and slapped bass strings among others. But the most striking effects were the simplest. The opening and finale featured sustained, loosely clustered tones that undulated and rippled through the orchestra, as if a single idea was expanding and morphing into a sentient being. The piece drew a deserved ovation.