Brahms, Schumann, Beethoven
Conductors don’t make their reputations with Schumann’s Symphony No. 3. It’s not flashy and the rhythms are straightforward. But a lot can go wrong; Schumann scored it so densely it can turn heavy and dull. If the conductor fails to sort out the balances just so, no light can escape from it.
Friday night, Edo de Waart and the ever alert and eager Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra made it shine from within. De Waart even coaxed some rhythmic buoyancy from it. Despite the thick scoring, the main theme of the first movement played out as a lofty dance, and de Waart somehow carried its momentum through the darker second theme. The cellos helped a lot through all this. They intermittently accompanied with a rising, rapid ostinato; they couched it perfectly against the meter and made it sound like a ricochet off the downbeat. That went a long way toward putting a spring in Schumann’s step.
This symphony begins optimistically, continues to one of those Romantic hike-in-the-country scherzo/pastorales, then grows more introspective through two slower movements. The first blooms with an almost unbearably sweet nostalgia. In the second, a blazing dawn in the brass finally ends tortured brooding. Friday, the entire symphony read as a novel of existential crisis ending in affirmation after a dark night of the soul. The hearty, energized finale turns on melodies not so distant from the hearty student songs in Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture, which opened this second of three MSO German Fest weekends.
Brahms was having fun and showing off in the Overture, and de Waart approached it in that spirit. He charged ahead and urged brilliance in the fast passages. He sprung the student songs on us like punchlines of jokes.
Garrick Ohlsson, one of the grand figures among international pianists, has come to be identified mainly with Chopin over the last decade or two. He’s played a lot of Chopin here over the years.
After an especially boisterous and jolly finale — what a trickster Beethoven was, promising a Rondo then spinning off into a crazy development halfway through — Ohlssohn rewarded his cheering audience with an encore. No, not Chopin; this is German Fest. Instead, he cast us into reverie with a performance of the Adagio cantabile from Beethoven’s “Pathetique” sonata. Very satisfying.
The MSO will repeat this program, given at Marcus Center Uihlein Hall, at 8 p.m. Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday. For tickets, call the Marcus box office, 414 273-7206.