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After the final decisive cadence of Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances splashed across Uihlein Hall Friday afternoon, the members of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra looked like a smiling bunch of students just back from their senior class trip. It’s been quite a year, their faces seemed to say. It’s great to have so much fun as it […]

After the final decisive cadence of Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances splashed across Uihlein Hall Friday afternoon, the members of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra looked like a smiling bunch of students just back from their senior class trip. It’s been quite a year, their faces seemed to say. It’s great to have so much fun as it draws to a close.

And fun it was. Conductor Gilbert Varga helped the orchestra tap into the joy of these high-stepping symphonic miniatures. He had a pretty good time too, at times seeming ready to caper off the podium and break into a Skočná himself.

The eight Slavonic Dances are rhythmically playful and sonically rich, the sort of piece your audiophile uncle would put on his stereo to show off his new speakers. They are also familiar territory to most orchestra musicians, known mostly as individual curtain raisers or encores. But it’s quite unusual to play together in a single stretch.

I won’t say Varga made a case for them as an orchestral suite—even the liveliest dance rhythms can wear you down after 20 minutes or so (and Dvořák loved the sound of a monotonously pinging triangle a little too much). But he and the orchestra managed to turn the eight dances into the 19th-century equivalent of a great party mix tape—splashy, brilliantly textured, and head-bobbingly fun.

Before the class party, however, we heard one of the star students’ final project for the year, Principal Cellist Susan Babini’s reading of Robert Schumann’s Cello Concerto. This is the first time I’ve heard Babini as a soloist, and her performance showed why she is held in high regard as a chamber musician. She sailed through some of the technically demanding passages in the final movement, but the highlights of the piece came in the early movements, where Babini’s burnished tone and emotionally intense phrasing made the most out of Schumann’s contemplative lyricism.

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The concert opened in a pastoral mode, with Varga leading the MSO strings in a charming and tender reading of Edward Elgar’s E minor String Serenade.

The concert happens again on Saturday night and Sunday afternoon. 

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