Tom Strini
MSO German Fest 1

Sly Brahms, sparkling Beethoven, epic R. Strauss

By - Jan 22nd, 2011 12:35 am
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Ronald Brautigam. Photo by Marco Borggreve, from

The MSO’s midwinter festival of music by dead Germans is not the sort of daring leap to set the heart racing in anticipation.

But the likes of Brahms, Beethoven and R. Strauss had music figured out in the 19th century, when the “modern” (i.e., Romantic) orchestra evolved into its present form. German music of the period is essential to the orchestral repertoire for very good reasons, many of them obvious at the festival opener Friday night.

Music director Edo de Waart launched it with Variations on a Theme by Haydn, an ingenious Brahms confection that gets played just now and then. Brahms chose a dignified chorale from a Haydn wind octet as his subject, and plays it straight. Then eight progressively more developmental variations go where Haydn did not. Each step of the way sounds plausible and connected, but by variation five you’re in another world. The piece is like an engrossing conversation that moves logically from one related topic to another until the relation becomes distant. De Waart shaped each variation lovingly, and the orchestra played warmly for him. I especially loved the maestro’s subtle shaping of the undulations in the seventh variation, which sounds as sweet as a warm May breeze through new leaves.

Dutch pianist Ronald Brautigam joined de Waart and the MSO in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3. This is not the grand, fist-shaking Beethoven of the Ninth Symphony, but rather the virtuoso who knew how to have fun with music. That comes out, for example, in the structure of the finale. The rondo form veers off the tracks into a full-blown development, hesitates to suggest a proper return to the A section, but takes a left turn into a cheeky little coda. Brautigam, who grew up playing fortepianos in Holland’s busy early music movement, brought some of that sensibility to the concerto and the MSO’s Steinway grand. His playing was clear, fleet, civilized and witty in the outer allegros and exquisite in the slow movement. Brautigam got Beethoven’s jokes, but he also got the delicacy of the piano filigree that is crucial in the tender Largo.

The Brahms and the Beethoven are substantial but intimate. They draw you in. Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life) bowls you over. Strauss’ symphonic poem is as sprawling and epic as Dr. Zhivago, and comes complete with a battles, love scenes and philosophical musing.

Conductors earn their money with music like this, because it won’t make sense unless it is prodded, coddled, hastened along, held back, stifled and released just so, to maintain some overall momentum and to aim the whole thing at the proper climax. It also takes a responsive and highly skilled orchestra, because it’s just plain hard to play.

De Waart’s unwavering energy kept the music alive even when quiet and meandering. The orchestra’s very good ensemble discipline and pliancy allowed the conductor the expressive flex that is essential to this late Romantic style. The many exposed solos, most notably Frank Almond’s brilliant reading of the fantastical, sustained violin caprice at the heart of Ein Heldenleben, came off beautifully and spoke to the great skill and heart of the MSO’s principals.

This program, given at Marcus Center Uihlein Hall, will be repeated at 8 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 22. Tickets are $25-$95 at the MSO website, the MSO ticket line (414-291-7605) and the Marcus Center box office, 414-723-7206.

Categories: Classical

0 thoughts on “MSO German Fest 1: Sly Brahms, sparkling Beethoven, epic R. Strauss”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Saturday night concert goers should plan to attend the pre-talk at 7. William Barnewitz, french horn player emeritus, gave a moving tribute to his colleagues Friday night and is likely to repeat Saturday night.

  2. Anonymous says:

    I have attended MSO concerts since moving to Neenah in 1984 and it has been thrilling to hear the orchestra’s evolution over these years. It is hard to imagine how they could improve from here. Last nights performance – January 22, 2011 was memorable. The clear articulations, the sense of spacious breathing, the continuous line of ideas from beginning to end…this is now a world class orchestra.
    My father was a member of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra for 40 years and I grew up attending concerts and am quite familiar with last nights repertoire. It is a tribute to the artistry of the conductor and musicians that it was still fresh, new and full of nuances that brought this wonderful music again to life. Bravo ! Bravissimo !

  3. Anonymous says:

    I was sitting in the balcony of this concert and it was mindblowing, and really loud. Sitting a few seats to my right were two very prominent MSO musicians: Mr. Steve Bassoon, former principal bassoon, and William Barnewitz. If they weren’t engaged in conversation, I would’ve went up to them and told them how much I appreciated their tenures in the orchestra. The balcony must really be the best spot in the house, because these guys could sit anywhere they want.

    Two things of note. What’s the story behind Laura Love’s purple bow hair? Also, I found the exit, in the middle of Ein Heldenleben, of the trumpeters to be rather humorous, even if it wasn’t supposed to be. Anyone who had never heard this piece was completely lost, for sure.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for your comments, Michael, Gizell and Kyle. The purple bow hair is news to me. Must be from a purple horse. As for the trumpeters’ exit and re-entry, that’s just one of those quirky Strauss things; it’s in the score that the trumpets should sound from off-stage. He was after the effect of hearing them from a distance. You know, war clouds gathering beyond the horizon. I’ve never thought it was worth the trouble, but it’s there and you have to do it. — Tom

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