Four stellar guest artists
Tectonic plates move slowly, so slowly we can’t detect the motion. Then there’s an earthquake.
Act 1 to Wagner’s Die Walküre, which the Milwaukee Symphony and guests performed Friday, is like that. Nothing much seems to happen for a long time. But if his pace is geologic, so is his force. Pressure builds; Friday, it finally escaped with devastating power. But Wagner didn’t do it alone. Without conductor Edo de Waart’s canny management of the build-up, without an orchestra that was intent and energized throughout, and without three singers capable of driving the music over the top and sustaining tension on the way there, Wagner would have been so much droning tedium.
Andrea Silvestrelli’s bass is a force of nature, just the massive blunt instrument to embody Hunding, the brutish husband of Sieglinde. Silvestrelli also happens to be a big man and a sinister presence, which helped the character to play in a concert setting.
Silvestrelli, soprano Margaret Jane Wray, tenor Clifton Forbis and whoever directed them handled the acting intelligently. Acting is a dicey business in Wagner under the best circumstances and even moreso in a concert setting. They moved minimally and made no contact until the very end, but their faces helped their voices and the music tell the story. They sang from memory and remained in the moment while singing or silent, and their restraint carried the day.
The MSO and Wray begged the audience’s indulgence via a pre-concert announcement stating that she was ill but soldiering on as best she could. Wray, as Sieglinde, sounded just fine to me — big, rich, expressive, accurate. Every singer should be so sick. Forbis, as the hero Siegmund, has that true heldentenor brilliance, intensity and power, but he only brings it out at climactic moments. His transformation from a vocal Clark Kent into Superman drove the climax of the whole piece. It also showed that Forbis is one singer who understands context and knows that his voice is not the most important thing. His singing served Wagner’s grand plan. When Forbis, Wray, de Waart and the MSO took the music over the top, the earth moved.
Big-time pianists have played Beethoven piano concertos in each MSO German Festival program, of which this is the last. Friday, Emanuel Ax took on the Fourth, the most explosively virtuosic of all Beethoven’s piano concertos. Wild piano runs dash about the themes in the first movement. Ax’s bracing clarity, rhythmic, astonishing speed and utter accuracy would have been enough. On top of that, Ax added a world of nuance at high speed, particularly fascinating shifts between elegant legato and a staccato delivery and specific as machine-gun fire.
The massed strings yell rhetorically to start the second movement. The piano answers with a gentle chorale. The strings bellow again; the piano extends the chorale. And again; this time, Beethoven and Ax answered with an exquisite theme in which each note is as perfect and touching as a teardrop. The strings reply quitely; music has soothed the savage beast. The vigor, momentum and spectacular virtuosity of the finale got the audience to its feet for a wild ovation. Ax eventually responded with Schumann’s sweet, calming Des Abends, Opus 12 No. 1 from Schumann Fantasiestücke. (Thanks, Stefanie Jacob, for identifying the encore.)
This program, given at Marcus Center Uihlein Hall, will be repeated at 8 p.m. Saturday (Feb. 5). Tickets are $25-$95; call 414 273-7206. Student rush is $12 for the best available seat one hour before concert time.