There’s a lot of push-pull in Tchaikovsky’s beloved Symphony No. 5. The great Russian master composed it fully ten years after his last symphony — at the height of his fame — and was eager to create music that was of his country, but also of the greater musical world—simultaneously “Russian” and “European.” He felt committed to the symphonic form, but wanted to honor the creative impulses that called him to push against its restrictions. He clearly expressed an “idea” in this symphony — what he called “the inscrutable designs of Providence,” the so-called “fate motif” — but it is contained (barely) within a traditional symphonic structure.
But there was no “containing” Karina Canellakis and the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra Friday afternoon. The American-born conductor — who is likely one of the top candidates to become the new MSO Music Director — led the orchestra in a fierce and full-blooded reading of one of the canon’s great Romantic symphonies.
The distinctive approach was apparent from the opening theme. Canellakis took substantial breaths between the piecemeal phrases that make up the Fifth’s main motif. They were played beautifully by clarinetist Todd Levy, but the halting momentum was unsettling. By the time the whispered cadences closed the section, it seemed like the music would simply slip into silence. Even as the second theme arrived with it’s steadier rhythm, it was inflected with a bittersweet anxiety, a musical mind still gathering its resolve.
When it arrives, of course, that resolve is thunderous. Canellakis helped the orchestra with precise control of the dynamic hills and valleys. The quiet harmonies that open the second movement were lush and warm-blooded, and Matthew Annin found a touching ache and longing in the familiar French horn melody, and the piece gathers momentum from there, building to a rousing finale.
Canellakis opened the concert with two distinctive, and little known, pieces. Nico Muhly’s Mixed Messages, composed in 2015, features gently chugging, post-minimalist string rhythms that are irregularly interrupted by percussive bursts and melodic shards from elsewhere in the orchestra.
Jennifer Koh gave a dazzling performance of Karol Szymanowski’s Second Violin Concerto (1933) to end the first half of the program. Koh’s full, rich sound was perfect for this rarely heard piece, which boasts a substantial orchestra behind the soloist. Like the Tchaikovsky symphony, it starts quietly, but builds to bravura passages by the soloist, including a cadenza that is a technical marvel of double stops and combinations of plucked and bowed strings.
Go See It: The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra at Uihlein Hall in the Marcus Center (929 N. Water St.); 8 pm, Sat., Nov. 11; 2:30 pm, Sunday, Nov. 12.