The MSO’s big opening night
You could feel the weight and effort the Milwaukee Symphony brought to bear on Beethoven’s big gestures at the outset of the Symphony No. 9 Friday night, at the MSO opener. Edo de Waart led his musicians to play those gestures and the rhetorical principal theme as if they were winding some massive spring.
Respite came in a second theme that, by contrast, sounded positively angelic in its delicacy. But it was only respite. The pent-up energy of the first movement gave impetus to the work. It set up the cathartic release of the Ode to Joy in the choral finale, which the Milwaukee Symphony Chorus, soprano Pamela Armstrong, mezzo Meredith Arwady, tenor Vinson Cole and bass Oren Gradus sang with great ardor and accuracy.
De Waart shaped the Ninth’s arc — chaos to argument to desperation to passion to revelation to determination to transcendence over four movements — with a sure hand. This Ninth accumulated meaning and thus drew you in as it went on. Telling details and vivid episodes peppered the dramatic flow. In the development of the first movement, for example, the principal theme built to particular vehemence; suddenly, the whole orchestra dropped to a concentrated hush. It was as if Beethoven had stepped down from his soapbox, stopped shouting and started muttering to himself quietly, intensely and — given the repetitive nature of this remarkable passage — obsessively.
I had never heard that in the Ninth before. That sort of thing makes de Waart a special interpreter of Beethoven, and that’s why Uihlein Hall was packed Friday night.
In Tromba, trumpeters Dennis Najoom and Mark Niehaus called out to each other from opposite corners of the stage, behind the rest of the orchestra. Beneath them, basses and cellos groaned and metallophones shimmered. At the end, those instruments died out and left a soft-focused, indistinct chord in the high strings. It was there all along, but consciously perceived only when standing alone at the end, as a lovely little surprise.
Copland wrote Appalachian Spring for 13 instruments, as a dance score for Martha Graham. I prefer that version, but de Waart tuned and balanced the MSO to get close to the transparency and piquancy of the chamber setting. Pointed accents and the sense of rebound in the syncopations conveyed the bounding energy of Graham’s dances for the husband character. Outstanding rhythmic precision captured the antic buoyancy of the four churchwomen and the preacher they adore. Graham heard expansive yearning in Copland’s poignant, disjunct melodies and reached as if to section the whole sky. But you didn’t have to know the dance to feel that yearning Friday night. It was right there in the music.
This program will be repeated at 8 p.m. Saturday and 2:3o p.m. Sunday (Sept. 25-26). Details here.