MSO, conductor Rossen Milanov, pianist John Lill
Soloist John Lill’s subtle, telling way with rhythmic placement, for example, gave a regal detachment to the glamorous theme of the substantial introduction, as if the noble piano line were floating high above the orchestral fray. I thought of it again when the first theme of the second movement came around. That tune sounds like folk music, and Lill endowed it with utter simplicity and innocence via a gentle touch and placement exactly dead-center on the beat.
Lill was also up to the showy vehemence of the music, and gave whiplash accents to the syncopations in the wild, Russian-dance finale, taken at a breakneck pace. Tchaikovsky’s First is heroic, passionate, virtuoso music just made to prompt standing ovations. Lill hurdled its challenges with room to spare, and that was not lost on Friday’s audience. Milanov conducted ardently and specifically, and the Milwaukee Symphony brought great vigor to its part in this over-familiar concerto.
Milanov opened with William Bolcom’s C0mmedia for (Almost) 18th-century Orchestra, a frothy brew of anachronist quotes and styles, crunchy modernist dissonance, fragments of Mozart and who knows who else. Most of it is scored, but substantial stretches are left to the players to improvise within boundaries. The MSO, reduced to about 20 players for this piece, pounced on the aleatoric bits. They also nailed the tricky rhythms and abrupt changes of pace. They made the music witty, which is the whole point. Commedia was lots of fun to hear, but it must be the devil to play.
Stravinsky’s Petrouchka is formidable, too, but the orchestra brushed its challenges aside and delivered a vividly theatrical reading. They played as if they knew the ballet intimately (for a background story with links to a video of the ballet, click here). This applies not only to the many great solos, most notably Mark Niehaus’ account of the Ballerina’s trumpet dance and Wilanna Kalhoff’s superb and numerous piano solos, but also to the section playing. The orchestra responded with alacrity to Milanov’s gestures, which deftly illustrated the musical and theatrical moment.
Milanov’s body language and posture projected altertness and energy throughout the concert, and the orchestra picked up on that. Milanov knew what he wanted from these three very different scores and conveyed his intentions clearly. He is athletic and entertaining to watch without being flamboyant. True, these musicians play well no matter who’s in front of them, but I thought they gave Milanov got a little something extra.
This program, given at Marcus Center Uihlein Hall, will be repeated at 8 p.m. Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday (Feb. 6-7). For tickets call the Marcus box office, 414-273-7206, the MSO ticket line at 414-291-7605, or visit the MSO website.