The MSO, de Waart and cellist Joe Johnson
A luxuriant nostalgia rose from the Milwaukee Symphony’s strings Friday, in the firelit glow they drew from the harmonies in Fauré’s Pelléas et Mélisande Suite.
Fauré was a generation ahead of Debussy and Ravel, and his harmonies do not go as far as theirs. But Friday, you could hear Impressionism coming in Fauré’s high regard for beautiful sonority for its own sake. Music director Edo de Waart and the players shared that regard and tuned and balanced the chords to bring them to full, fragrant bloom.
Joseph Johnson, the orchestra’s soon-to-depart principal cellist, was the replacement soloist for violinist Masafumi Hori, who bowed out late last week. Johnson played Saint-Saëns’ Concerto No. 1.
The concerto brims with lovely materials within taut, crafty structure. Its three connected movements flow one to the next in satisfying fashion. The fleet, florid principal theme returns at the very end of the piece to provide a big finish and tie up loose ends. The ardent, very beautiful second theme returns in various guises, notably as lyrical cello comment above the busy little minuet in the middle movement. Saint-Saëns looked backward and was not a musical adventurer, but he was a clever composer.
When I interviewed Johnson Tuesday, he asked me to see if I could detect a difference in his sound. In December, he obtained a 1774 Juan Guillami. I doubted my ability to hear subtle differences between two cellos without comparing them directly.
The difference is not subtle. The Guillami is a monster. Not only does it sing out over the orchestra in the crucial high registers, but also on the C and G strings, where many cellos can get small. Of course, the cello doesn’t play itself. Johnson showed effortless command of a concerto he hadn’t played in three years. His grasp of and full commitment to the drama in the music made it convincing in every bar.
Long episodes in which the pot simmers, heats up, boils over, simmers down, fades away and then gives way to a new idea abound in this symphony. Without fail, De Waart paced these passages and measured the dynamics to make them complete and set the stage for the next build-up.
Lots of people in the music business think of Tchaikovsky as cheap melodrama. If you play him right, he’s more like Shakespeare.
This program took place at Marcus Center Uihlein Hall. It will be repeated at 8 p.m. Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday (April 24-25). Tickets are $24-$77 Friday and Sunday, $25 to $93 Saturday. Call the Marcus center box office, 414-273-7206, the MSO ticket line, 414-291-7605, or visit the MSO website .