Tom Strini

Ohlsson’s great Chopin at the MSO

By - Apr 2nd, 2010 11:59 pm
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You might have to clap for a while to get Garrick Ohlsson to play an encore, if you attend Saturday’s Milwaukee Symphony concert. But do clap as long as necessary.



Friday night’s fans brought pianist back again and again after his performance of Chopin’s Concerto No.2, and Ohlsson rewarded them with as smart, jolly and witty a reading as you’ll hear of Chopin’s familiar Waltz in E-flat from Opus 18. Loved the trip-’em-up hesitations in the opening waltz and the way he made those descending scales harmonized in raucous seconds in the little second waltz sound for all the world like schoolgirls giggling.

Ohlsson brought no such hi-jinks to the concerto, but he did take expansive interpretive liberties precisely in tune with Chopin’s intimate brand of Romanticism. The concerto contains a great deal of rhetorical music that is barred and metered but meant to sound unbarred and like soliloquys in Shakespeare. Ohlsson parsed and phrased these passages eloquently, found their speech rhythms and expressed their tenderness or vehemence with great conviction.

Pianistic filigree also abounds in this piece, and Ohlsson released it into the air as if he were freeing handfuls of butterflies.

No wonder he got that great ovation.

Music director Edo de Waart (who Friday got a richly deserved five-year contract extension) conducted. Chopin’s orchestra part isn’t much, but de Waart and the MSO got everything out of it. Don’t miss the lovely final sigh of strings.

De Waart opened with the Overture to Berlioz’s comic opera, Béatrice et Bénedict, an eight-minute charmer that opens with a funny, thwarted, toe-stubbing waltz. (I wonder if Ohlsson was listening?) It’s a pastiche overture, drawn from themes in the opera, in the fashion of musical comedy overtures. The second-last bit is a pleasant strolling tune. As it develops, we hear martial brass calling out quietly, as if in the distance (lontano, we say in the trade). The brass theme gradually takes over, and the Overture ends with a rousing military march. It pretty cool, and de Waart handled the transition deftly.

Elgar’s Symphony No. 1 is this program’s heavyweight.

Elgar’s long, complex argument spans four substantial, thickly scored movements. It’s difficult to follow it, but not impossible. The stately melody, heard at the outset over a walking bass line, is the linchpin. It crops up periodically throughout and seals the deal as the stirring hymn at the end. Long, yearning melodies; low, growling motifs; chaotic orchestral boiling; a wildly disjunct melody suggestive of panic; and a brutal march are also important characters in this grand, dense, Victorian novel of a symphony.

De Waart understood those characters and the need to frame them distinctly, so they wouldn’t be lost in the general tumult. Listen closely and you can hear them and trace their adventures. Listen casually and you’ll get lost and maybe doze off. That’s Elgar, for you.

This program, given at Marcus Center Uihlein Hall, will be repeated at 8 p.m. Saturday, April 3. For further information, visit the MSO website. Tickets are available there, or you can call the Marcus box office, 414-273-7206.

0 thoughts on “Review: Ohlsson’s great Chopin at the MSO”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Thank you.

  2. Anonymous says:

    I enjoyed this concert as much as you did, Senor Strini, and for pretty much the same reasons –EXCELLENT REPORTING!

  3. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for the comments, Steve and Rebecca. — Tom

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