Tom Strini

The MSO, de Waart and cellist Joe Johnson

By - Apr 23rd, 2010 05:12 pm
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Edo de Waart in action, earlier this season. MSO photo by Todd Dacquisto.

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.

Joseph Johnson

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.

De Waart, too, showed great dramatic instincts and awareness in Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 (Pathetique). He resisted the temptation to make scenery-chewing melodrama of it and maintained the music’s dignity even as he plumbed its passions. I admired his patience, starting with the long pause he took between the first and second statements of the low bassoon solo (nice work, Ted Soluri) at the beginning. De Waart gave us plenty of time to let the strangeness of the passage sink in.

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 .

Categories: Classical

0 thoughts on “Review: The MSO, de Waart and cellist Joe Johnson”

  1. Anonymous says:

    The magnitude of the area’s loss of Joe Johnson was very apparent Friday when he gave us that marvelous rendition of Saint-Saens concerto. I’ve heard him play several times and he was never disappointing but his new cello takes him a big step up.
    My dad used to get teary-eyed whenever he’d listen to the Pathetique;
    after hearing it Friday, I think I understand why.
    Another fine crtique, Tom.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Hi g,
    Thanks so much for your comment. Joe is outstanding. — Tom

  3. Anonymous says:

    It’s not that the cello made the difference in the playing; the cello lets us hear what Joe can do…remember, the instrument doesn’t play itself. We’ll all miss Joe, but it was great having him here in Milwaukee for these few years, and I hope he’ll be back under less stressful circumstances to play as soloist again!

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