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A Musical Summit
The MSO delivers in the first concert of its Beethoven festival.

At their best, symphony concert programs make an interesting connection or even create synergy between the different pieces. At this weekend's Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra program, the synergy was powerful and even profound.

The big draw of this concert is, of course, Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, one of the towering achievements of classical music (and not incidentally, a big audience draw). But Edo de Waart is pairing this and other Beethoven symphonies - presented in a three-week mini-festival - with the work of contemporary composer John Adams, with whom de Waart has championed since the conductor's days at the San Francisco Symphony.

For this concert, the orchestra began with Adams' The Wound Dresser, his setting of Walt Whitman's Civil War poetry. And the juxtaposition was powerful. Adams sets an excerpt of Whitman's Drum Taps poems, brutal and vivid recollections of his days as a nurse in makeshift Civil War hospitals. The lines are introspective and descriptive, yet powerfully forthright, as if taken from an intimate letter or diary entry. Baritone Christopher Maltman was direct and unaffected, embracing the conversational lyricism of Adams' writing, but grounding the music in the direct observation that is the hallmark of the poetry. Maltman's voice was always in the foreground - de Waart and the orchestra enveloping it in a shimmery ether of sound that occasionally swelled (or was punctuated by a ghostly battlefield trumpet), but mostly hovered like a dense fog over a bloody battlefield.

Twenty minutes of intermission separated it from the Beethoven, but hearing the first, ethereal strains of the Ninth Symphony's first moment, it was easy to make a strong connection. Harvey Sachs, who is in town to give pre-concerts talks, wrote this about the opening moments in his book The Ninth: "As early as 1815, [Beethoven] had written, in a note to himself, that 'refined music is not to be thought of in these times,' and the rawness, hollowness, fragmentariness of the Ninth's opening bars, their grim-gray colors, their amoral brutality or brutal amorality, demonstrate that Beethoven had taken that idea as far as it would go." The connection to Whitman and Drum Taps is obvious, but while Whitman dwelled in particulars - the (literal) visceral responses to war, death and dying - Beethoven latches onto the universals and soars with it into the heavens.

De Waart and the MSO were right there with him. Never a sentimental interpreter, de Waart kept the pulse defined right from the ethereal opening moments of the first movement,  relishing even the subtlest syncopations, which made the articulation of the thunderclap of a theme all the more dramatic.

In the development, de Waart got the most of the dueling first and second violins by moving the second violins to the left front of the orchestra (typically where the cellos live). Despite the gravity of the themes, the texture here was clean and almost transparent - more Mozart than Brahms. De Waart's sense of balance made the frequent woodwind passages, lead by the beautiful playing of Katherine Young Steele, all the more dynamic.

Clarity was the guiding principle as the symphony's ideas unspooled. But de Waart didn't stint on emotion or depth. In the opening of the adagio, he coaxed a breathy legato out of each violin phrase. In the fourth movement, the unison bass and cello line - a recitative-without-words, really - had the naturalness of speech, building as if the music was a great piece of rhetoric, leading up to the dynamic declarations of Schiller's call to universal brotherhood.

It was particularly moving to first hear that call from Maltman, who earlier had cataloged the human suffering of Whitman’s Civil War observations, and now was positing a world where such scenes would no longer exist. In Beethoven’s opening salvo, Maltman was stirringly assured, yet still conversational. And as de Waart added the elements of Beethoven’s grand statement—the almost comical military band, the glory of the superbly balanced MSO Chorus, and the swirling vocal quartet that seemed to embody a world of different voices—he drove the grand statement of the Ninth to inspiring heights.

The MSO repeats this program Saturday night and Sunday afternoon. The Sunday concert will be simulcast on Wisconsin Public Radio. But you’ll want to be there in person.

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