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It made for "evening of expert musical storytelling."

Wit and elegance went head-to-head with ecstatic romanticism this weekend in the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra’s first classical concert program of 2017. The concert marked the return of JoAnn Falletta, who started her career as the MSO’s associate conductor in the late 1980s. She showed why she’s one of the most respected American conductors working today.

Falletta has been a champion of composer John Corigliano for years, and she was clearly an asset to help the MSO negotiate his dense and playful Phantasmagoria, an instrumental take on his 1991 opera The Ghosts of Versailles. As she explained from the podium, the opera itself is a fantasy involving Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais—the playwright who brought the character of Figaro into the world—Marie Antoinette and assorted characters from Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro and Rossini’s The Barber of Seville.

The 25-minute orchestral suite is sonically rich, conceptually dense, and a helluva lot of fun. The scene is set with ethereal harmonics, including ghostly overtones courtesy of the strings and crotales—small cymbals that really raise the hair on your neck when played with a violin bow. The music then morphs into a gleeful mashup of familiar motifs from both operas, including Rossini’s signature 6/8 patter, and even a few measures of oompah polkas.

Falletta led the MSO through this daunting joyride with precision, never skimping on its irreverence and outlandish fun. There were moments of pastoral beauty worthy of Copland or even Messiaen (the woodwind birdsong over the liquid unison cello line). And wackiness worthy of Bugs Bunny and Porky Pig, who are no strangers to the world of Beaumarchais.

Zuill Bailey

It was a fitting contrast to the simple elegance of Camille Saint-Saens’ first cello concerto, played with an easy familiarity by Zuill Bailey. As Bailey explained in a pre-concert talk, he first played the concerto when he was 14—his orchestral debut. And his performance Friday night seemed like a reunion of old friends. The first section is often played with a restless urgency, but here the music was spirited and breezy. Bailey’s tone—particularly in the middle register—has the warmth and richness of a human voice, perfect for the gorgeous, lyrical waltz at the center of the concerto. Here, he phrased his line like a seasoned jazz balladeer, hanging behind the beat of the delicate orchestral background. But he drove hard and showed off his considerable chops in the pell-mell finale.

A daunting piece like Phantasmagoria can take up a lot of rehearsal time, so it shouldn’t be too surprising that Falletta and the MSO struggled a bit with the familiar orchestral showcase, Rimsky-Koraskov’s Scheherazade. In her pre-concert talk, Falletta confessed a love for the undulating rhythms that evoke Sinbad’s sea journey—one of the stories “told” in Scheherazade’s music. 

Early on, her baton seemed to push hard for that oceanic lilt and drift—shifting tempos and stretching phrases in ways that sometimes left the ensemble at sea. But by the third movement, the orchestra and conductor found the groove and rallied behind Rimsky’s thrilling orchestral writing.

Of course, there was much thundering brass and rhythmically charged ensembles. But I’ll remember the quieter sections most: the beautifully phrased strings that open the third section, punctuated by the liquid mini-cadenzas by Todd Levy (clarinet) and Sonora Slocum (flute). Frank Almond’s readings of Rimsky’s well-known interludes sounded so fresh that they seemed improvised—just the right spirit to sit at the center of an evening of expert musical storytelling.