The MSO Music Director's penultimate concert also featured Susan Babini as soloist in Ernest Bloch's "Schelemo."

If Anton Bruckner had an “elevator speech,” it might go something like this. “I am a simple man. I try to compose old-fashioned symphonies for the glory of God. I build them like cathedrals, and I like them big and brassy.” Today, gossipers might add that he was a bit of an oddball, and that his works are cool musical edifices–more analytical than impassioned.

I doubt Edo de Waart is one for gossip, but he certainly doesn’t regard Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony as remotely cool or analytical. As he showed this weekend, leading the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra in his penultimate program as music director, Bruckner’s music is rigorous and challenging—for both performers and listeners–but it is also warm, inviting and glorious.

This weekend, much of that quality came from the MSO’s strings, which have never sounded better. From the opening of the first movement—the cellos reaching upward in the noble first theme—the strings were rich and full-blooded. De Waart doesn’t dawdle or over-Romanticize Bruckner’s arching melodies. He phrased the themes with feeling, but never lost the sense of Bruckner’s magnificent architecture.

This isn’t just a string symphony, of course. Bruckner—paying tribute to his mentor, Richard Wagner—beefs up the already expansive brass section with four Wagner tubas (think of an elongated French horn)—which provide that extra heft for the symphony’s thundering climaxes. Balancing that formidable brass section with the orchestra’s winds and strings is one of the great challenges here, and de Waart and the orchestra were masterful. The full, harmonies were well balanced across all the sections—you never lost the string or woodwind filigrees beneath the wall of brass. In the fourth movement, when Bruckner tosses themes back and forth between strings, winds and brass, de Waart treated it as a series of puzzle pieces—distinct as first, but eventually melding the parts into a dazzling and satisfying whole.

MSO cellist Susan Babini.

The concert opened with fireworks of a different kind. Ernest Bloch’s Schelomo (“Solomon”) is an impassioned meditation on the book of Ecclesiastes, writings traditionally attributed to King Solomon. Called a “Hebraic Rhapsody,” it traverses a wide emotional range in its 22 minutes, and soloist Susan Babini—the MSO’s principal cellist—delivered an intensely introspective reading. Her tone was full and dark, and her playing resonated with barely contained power. In one of the piece’s many cadenzas—spun over an almost inaudibly low contrabassoon note—she cascaded up the range of the instrument, only to strike the bottom note hard with the bow, letting the tone rattle with emotion before it faded out. De Waart’s orchestra never got in the way, despite some full-throated explosions that highlight the dark fervor of Bloch’s music.

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It was a powerful program, but only whetted the appetite for de Waart’s final performance, next week’s concert featuring Gustav Mahler’s Third Symphony.