Of the three programs selected by Edo de Waart to wrap up his tenure as music director of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, this weekend’s was the most curious. The symphonic guns are still to come—Bruckner and Mahler. But this weekend, de Waart chose the most reserved of all the Beethoven concertos, and a symphony of Englishman Edward Elgar, not usually thought of as a symphonist in the great European tradition.
But never second-guess de Waart, who led the MSO in a dazzling and memorable concert Friday night.
The Elgar was a savvy choice, for it served as a bookend to de Waart’s Milwaukee tenure. I didn’t hear it when he conducted it in his first season with the MSO (April, 2010), but I can’t imagine it had the same coherence and majesty as it did Friday night. There’s something very English about the stately opening theme, but de Waart gave it a little extra punch by sharpening the staccato beats. It paid off gloriously as the theme blossomed into a full orchestra tutti.
From there, Elgar goes into full Richard Strauss mode, and the orchestra found all the dazzling colors—noble brass choruses and light-as-air strings. It’s a big symphony with a lot of big sound, but the music was never muddy–always articulated clearly with ear-catching balances that highlighted Elgar’s genius as an orchestrator. Elgar took a risk by writing a symphony in a time when programmatic tone poems were the rage, but de Waart showed how drama and formal integrity are happy companions. For example, listen to the beautiful transition between the second-movement allegro to the gentle third-movement adagio. It’s a marvel of subtle transformation.
Ronald Brautigam is a compatriot and frequent collaborator with de Waart, and their synergy showed in an elegant reading of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto. Even the usually tense second movement–pitting ominous strings against calm piano responses– seemed comparatively mild-mannered. It’s a concerto filled with breezy arpeggios and piano runs, and Brautigam played them deftly.
And gently. Rather than ending runs with a flashy nudge, he often let them trail off into a whisper. It was a performance full of delicate filigrees and sensitive interplay between pianist and orchestra, a fitting contrast to Elgar’s majestic reach. The understated elegance of Brautigam’s playing, however, didn’t fail to highlight the genius of the music, which traverses through countless unusual cadences in search of new harmonic possibilities. The pianist’s phrasing gave each change a little punch of recognition, a “check-this-out” acknowledgement of Beethoven’s searching experimentation. It was fresh, original, and not easily forgotten.
De Waart opened the concert with another blast from the past, a spot-on, delightful reading of Mozart’s overture to Don Giovanni, recalling the stellar series of Mozart-Da Ponte operas he’s conducted over the last three seasons.
The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra performs this program again Saturday at 8 pm, at Uihlein Hall in the Marcus Center.
Two more late additions to the list of May arts events:
If you’re fond of watching the emotional boil-over of town hall meetings, which seem to have become a regular part of our collective news feed, you need to grab your picket signs and head to Only We Know Best, the latest original musical by Jason Powell. Powell is the dry-as-bone wit behind Fortuna and Temptation’s Snare, and his take on the current political climate promises “surprising ideas, unconventional attitudes, and unexpected points of view.” It’s produced by the fine group, Milwaukee Metropolitan Voices. Through May 21 at the Next Act Theatre Performance Space, 225 S. Water St.
Speaking of wit, the wittiest concert title of the year goes to Milwaukee Musaik, which is calling its season finale Yes, Yes, Nonets! That’s nonets as in chamber music for nine musicians, and Alexander Mandl has put together a fine program with excellent musicians. It includes music by Maurice Ravel, a rarely heard piece by 19th-century Frenchwoman Louise Farrenc, and the original nonet version of Johannes Brahms’s glorious Serenade No. 1 in D Major. May 22, Schwan Concert Hall on the campus of Wisconsin Lutheran College.