Ascher Fisch and the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra find some surprising qualities in timeless classics.

Expecting the unexpected isn’t necessarily a safe motto for symphony orchestra concerts, but Asher Fisch and the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra had some subtle surprises in the first half of this weekend’s MSO concert at the Marcus Center.

It opened with music of Arnold Schoenberg, the early 20th century modernist conventionally thought of as spare and cerebral. His Chamber Symphony No. 1 is an early work, composed in 1907 before he developed his “unharmonic” 12-tone system. But it nonetheless can be spare in its own way—composed originally for “15 solo instruments”—and, in fact, is considered one of the masterpieces of the 20th century for its innovative concision. 

Playing the expanded, full-orchestra version (arranged by Schoenberg in 1936), Fisch and the MSO offered a reading that linked it more to contemporaries like Richard Strauss than to the composer’s future experiments. There were sparkling sonorities and crystalline textures. This is a piece that has been endlessly dissected and analyzed for its innovative structure and harmony, but Ascher offered a reading ripe with many pleasures beyond the rigors of music-theory.

His reading of Richard Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder might have surprised listeners as well. Think Wagner & soprano, and you’re bound to conjure a helmeted Valkyrie calling to the Teutonic hills. But Ascher and soprano Tamara Wilson offered a version that reflected the songs’ origin as lieder written for voice and piano—tender and intimate.

Tamara Wilson

You can take that approach to this music with a singer like Wilson, whose clarion tone let the melodies soar above Ascher’s accompaniment, even when her voice dropped to a whisper. This is beautiful, breathlessly romantic music (Wagner was working out his ideas for Tristan und Isolde in these songs), and Wilson’s dynamic sense found rapture in both the held-back phrases and the occasional thunderous climax.

There were no surprises, however, in the main event–a dynamic, thundering reading of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony. Fisch played the familiar opening theme with a slower, statelier tempo than most, which allowed the MSO brass to shine. And to his credit, he didn’t allow the brass to overwhelm the rest of the orchestra in subsequent full-tilt passages. The strings sang with beautiful dynamics in the Andantino, and held fast in the challenging pizzicato Scherzo. Fisch brought this most Russian of Russian symphonies through its roller-coaster fourth movement to a satisfying conclusion.

Fisch conducts the same program Saturday night at 8 p.m.