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Isn't It Romantic?
The emotions of MSO's Bruckner and Fitzwater's Piaf.

Leslie Fitzwater in "Edith Piaf on Stage." (photo by Mark Frohna)

That Anton Bruckner is such a tease.

Throughout his 4th Symphony—dazzlingly played by the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra Friday afternoon—he takes the listener toward a climactic resolution, only to return again to a new beginning. He'll start with a quiet string passage, add winds, and then lay in the horns and the rest of the brass, until the ultimate Wagnerian brass choral—with Megumi Kanda and her trombones leading the way—builds to a crashing cadence. Then silence. On Friday, the chord resonated in the hall for a moment, and the journey started up again. 

These almost discreet sections—big blocks of musical material that are laid dramatically into place—suggest why Bruckner is considered the most architectural of the 19th-century composers. And with his 4th Symphony, called “The Romantic,” he builds one of his most inspiring edifices, and one of the great challenges of the 19th-century repertoire. But the MSO and De Waart rose to the occasion and offered one of the most stirring performances of the season. Individual sections—violas and cellos, in particular—brought substance and elegant lyricism to Bruckner’s long melodic passages. And the full ensembles—save the occasional moment when the brass resounded a bit too much—were rich and precisely balanced. De Waart drew on the music’s full dynamic range, whisper-quiet tremolos to those thundering brass chorales, and relished the full breadth of Bruckner’s imagination.

A generous sense of ensemble was also evident in the first half of the program, in which Joseph Kalichstein played Mozart’s 22nd Piano Concerto.

Kalichstein is hardly a flashy player, which is probably why he’s not better known. But he’s a generous and sensitive collaborator, which is probably why he’s a frequent soloist with de Waart. His attention Friday was directed more toward the orchestra than the audience. Throughout the piece, the piano and woodwinds carry on a dialogue in alternating sections. Accordingly, Kalichstein’s attention was directed toward the wind section, sometimes looking for cues, and sometimes simply appreciating the sound. His cadenzas had a keen sense of dynamics—without grandstanding, he found ways to build intensity and give sense to the dramatic structure.

The program will be repeated Saturday night.

*  *  *

A different kind of Romanticism took over the Broadway Theatre Center Friday night—the bittersweet music of French chanteuse Edith Piaf. Leslie Fitzwater, who first sung a Piaf song more than 25 years ago, opened the latest incarnation of her popular one-woman show, Edith Piaf on Stage.

Expanded for the larger stage of the Cabot Theatre, the newest version (and final one—she has said she won’t perform it again) of Fitzwater’s show offers more music and a very Parisian sounding four-piece band, lead by pianist Paula Foley Tillen. But the star of this show is still Fitzwater and her uncanny ability to channel the voice and spirit of the great French singer.

Fitzwater’s script—and director Jim Butchart’s fine staging—cannily weaves the key elements of Piaf’s life story into the evening, while mostly avoiding dramatically inert “then this happened… ” narration. The evening works brilliantly because it takes its title seriously—most of the time, we are watching Piaf as she appeared on stage: First at the Paris cabaret where she made her professional debut, then at New York’s Versailles Club, where she appeared after hearing that boxer Marcel Cerdan (“the love of my life”) had been killed in a plane crash. And finally, at a sort of command performance—a “dream” engagement.

Fitzwater knows that Piaf’s appeal as a singer was her simplicity, and she gives us emotionally direct, unvarnished melodies and a simple but powerful, stand-and-deliver stage presence. And beautiful, resonant music that captured her troubled, dream-fueled life.

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