Tom Strini

Wild Night at the MSO

By - Mar 4th, 2011 11:58 pm
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John Adams. Margaretta Mitchell photo courtesy of

The tintinnabulations of bells and cymbals, tenors and altos tenors shrieking unabashedly and the sopranos an octave above them, bass drum banging and tattoos on the timpani, a riot in the orchestra. What a glorious racket, what an electric thrill rang through Uihlein Hall Friday night, in the climactic Wild Nights from John Adams Harmonium. Adams wrote it to sound that way, and music director Edo de Waart inspired the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra and Lee Erickson’s Milwaukee Symphony Chorus to detonate Harmonium, which de Waart commissioned in 1981, through the San Francisco Symphony.

An urgent, propulsive contemplation John Donne’s Negative Love and a spectral, static contemplation of Emily Dickinson’s Because I Could Not Stop for Death lead to the cathartic Wild Nights. The three parts form a perfect whole that accumulates the sort of meaning you can feel but not explain. So I will stop now and simply urge you to go hear music like no other.

De Waart and the MSO strings preceded Harmonium with Samuel Barber’s elegiac Adagio for Strings. De Waart kept its melancholia lofty at first, subject to a certain reserve. The inexorable rise of pitch and emotional and harmonic tension and subsequent climax occurred not as an outpouring of emotion, but as a reluctant and involuntary release. In addition to sorrow, the sentiment of the music incorporated courage under the stress. Catharsis arrived, we took a deep breath. The initial music returned, almost literally. But everything had changed, somehow, and become clearer and ennobled. The music went home again, but it went home changed by experience.

Given the way the MSO plays these days, I hardly need mention that the pitch and ensemble of the MSO strings were darned near perfect, their sound burnished, their phrasing nuanced. And they sounded glorious without their established star, concertmaster Frank Almond, and their rising star associate concertmaster Ilana Setapen. Jeanyi Kim sat first chair, Friday; give her some extra applause Saturday, for a job well done.

The MSO’s particular rhythmic vivacity made Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 more bright and bracing than usual. De Waart’s command and taste had everything to do with that. His clarity and great rehearsal technique yielded rhythms so precise you could feel the proportions locking in. His placement and weighting of accents were so deft and particular that phrases became articulate and witty. This is the “Eroica,” and it is heroic and all, but it’s also great fun, and De Waart polished its sparkling qualities. If this performance didn’t make you smile a lot, you weren’t really listening. I loved the way de Waart lingered a bit during the period of unmoored harmony in the development (just before the false recap that fools me every time). Beethoven, a master of suspense, lets the music dangle for a long, long time in no particular key. De Waart made us wait and wait for it to touch down, and that was exciting and fun.

The MSO played so vividly for him, from the groaning grace notes in the basses in the funeral march through the breathless Scherzo, which they played so fast and so quietly. That’s not easy, but it made the dynamic break-out all the more effective. Beethoven’s buffa wit comes to full bloom in the finale, a speedy theme and variations. De Waart and the MSO left no clever phrase unturned.

This program, given at Marcus Center Uihlein Hall, will be repeated at 8 p.m. Saturday, March 5. Tickets are $25-$95 (call the Marcus box office, 414 273-7206), with an $11.5o in-person student rush.

0 thoughts on “Wild Night at the MSO”

  1. Anonymous says:

    I am thrilled that the MSO is sounding so good under the baton of Music Director de Waart. John Adams has always been a favorite of mine and it’s a real kick to hear Harmonium conducted by the dedicatee.
    No surprise that (Associate Concertmaster) Ms. Kim did a fine job in her duties filling in for her absent colleagues. The MSO seems chock full of talented and devoted musicians in addition to the handful of ‘stars’ that the critics in Milwaukee seem so fixated on singling out week after week. The chemistry between de Waart and the ensemble is palpable; keep up the great work, MSO, Maestro, and chorus !

  2. Anonymous says:

    Hi Tom,

    Glad you liked the Harmonium. It’s a real bear but so worth it. John and JD, who usually aren’t wild about that level of complexity, thought it was amazing and cool and fun. My particular favorite moment is the glorious tympani riff near the end of the second movement, which Dean Borghesani played like a runaway train. What a pleasure and privilege to perform with MSO, playing at an extraordinary level. And Lee Erickson is peerless with the MSC. The entire ensemble has moved to a new and higher plane with Maestro de Waart.

    Thanks so much for the enthusiastic review!

    Mary Galbraith

  3. Anonymous says:

    Thanks very much, Leonard and Mary,for commenting. — Tom

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