After all the belt-tightening this year, it was nice to see the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra fill up the Uihlein Hall stage this weekend. But even with close to 80 musicians suited up and tuned up, the orchestra had formidable competition from the electric energy of violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg.
In a concert of stunningly played, 20th-century orchestra showcases, Salerno-Sonnenberg’s reading of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No. 1 was a highlight. And I mean a once-in-a-lifetime, “I-remember-when” kind of highlight.
Salerno-Sonnenberg is a player of formidable technique, but the power of her performance went far beyond virtuosic display.
As with much of his music, Shostakovich’s concerto is made of up extreme swings in emotion and style. Salerno-Sonnenberg played the opening movement, an impassioned, dark-night-of-the-soul Nocturne, with heavy, almost harsh vibrato and a dynamic range that made some passages recede into almost total silence. The Scherzo that followed was a rollicking tirade of pastiche and parody, and the soloist tackled it with a brazen energy. During one orchestral tutti, she looked out at the audience with a mock “you ain’t heard nothin’ yet” glare.
And it was true, in the famously difficult cadenza that separates the third and fourth movements, Salerno-Sonnenberg created a little symphony unto itself—extreme tempos and long moments of silence separated the motifs and built to an explosive entrance into the crazed energy of the fourth movement, a “Burlesca” that further showcased her technical bravura. She was a treat to watch as well as hear, at times stomping her feet like she was leading a Soviet square dance, and other times turning to face the orchestra as if she was “jamming” with them, Grateful Dead-style. With all the talk about “loosening up” the classical music experience lately, it seems like one obvious solution is to feature performers like Salerno-Sonnenberg, who literally embody the music without a trace of affectation.
Edo de Waart and the MSO found riches in the other pieces on the program. Samuel Barber’s 10-minute Essay No. 2 uses tense, angular motifs that suggest the anxious years surrounding its composition in 1942, but it is an orchestral showpiece nonetheless, and the MSO brass and winds rose to the occasion. Rachmaninoff’s “Symphonic Dances” was composed only a year earlier, but it’s mood is lush and romantic, in spite of its occasional quotes of “Dies Irae” from the medieval Mass for the Dead. There is nothing funereal about the melodic material here, and while the piece is a showcase of orchestration, the MSO strings carried the day. De Waart shaped the violin melodies in the opening movement with restrained warmth, and the fire glowed brighter and brighter as the motif gathered more and more strings into its spell. With all the pyrotechnics from the brass and percussion through the rest of the piece, the rhapsodic spirit heard in these early moments carried resonated through the rest of the performance.