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What'll Ya Have?
The MSO Plays the Pabst Theater
The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra looked a bit cramped wedged into the stage at the Pabst Theater this weekend. But appearance wasn't necessarily the thing on most minds. Given the chance to hear the orchestra in a venue different from the sometimes acoustically challenging Uihlein Hall, how would the orchestra sound?

The part of the answer came in the first few phrases of Stravinsky's Concerto in D for Orchestra, which opened the concert. Where I sat--the 10th row on the main floor--the strings were livelier, more forward. They had more personality. Part of that was due to Stravinsky's deft play with syncopated rhythms, the way he tossed little motifs around among the string sections. But it was also, obviously, because I was so much closer in a smaller space.

That's not always a good thing. An orchestra needs space to meld the sounds of all its instruments, and here the sound was vibrant, but not always cohesive. The limitations of the Pabst space became particularly apparent during the first movement of Beethoven's "Eroica" Symphony, when the trumpets seemed to detach from the ensemble and float over the orchestral harmonies when the should have been blending in.

Still, Edo de Waart and the MSO delivered a masterful reading of Beethoven's great symphony. The MSO music director is generally a conductor who opts for precise, regular tempos, but here he surprisingly treated the second movement "Funeral March" with a fluid sense of phrase. As the movement grew more complex in its fugal development, he kept all the voices clean and clear. And added a surprising, off-kilter flourish at the movements close. The liveliness of the strings was an asset to the finale, in all it's complex, multi-faceted glory.

The MSO paired the Eroica with a relatively new piece by John Adams, featuring saxophone virtuoso Timothy McAllister, for whom it was composed. It's a daunting, virtuosic piece of work, a half-hour long, two-movement piece that allows the soloist almost no rest for its duration. Adams was a clarinet player, and grew up in a household where jazz saxophone was a fixture (his father played alto sax in a jazz dance band). In notes and interviews, he has said he took much of the material for this piece from fragments of jazz solos, and you could hear traces of great players throughout the piece: the lyricism of Stan Getz, the virtuosity of Charlie Parker, and the angles and odd rhythms of Thelonius Monk sidemen like Charlie Rouse and Johnny Griffin. Played in a "classical" style, however, the motifs blend together in a uniform tone, devoid of the soloist's signature sound. McAllister's signature sound, however, is gorgeous--smooth and liquid--very similar to a clarinet in the middle register, and only a touch meatier at the bottom and top. The musical ideas, thus, blended into a stream of musical ideas, cascading arpeggios, off-centered riffs and sweet jazzy arias.

The program repeats several times this weekend at the Pabst Theater.

Homepage image via Shutterstock.

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