Tom Strini

Gaffigan and Almond shine

By - Apr 7th, 2012 01:54 am

James Gaffigan. Peter Weinberger photo courtesy of the MSO.

A swelling undulation rocked and surged through the first movement of Dvořák’s Symphony No. 6 Friday (April 6). Under James Gaffigan’s direction, it was not the heavy heaving of the sea that roiled the Milwaukee Symphony, but waves of exhilaration, more like joyous, expansive breathing. For a stretch of the development, Gaffigan just swayed along with it and more or less stopped conducting. The orchestra was feeling it, so why not let them go with the flow? The non-gesture fit the music and the moment exactly. I’m sure it allowed the musicians to enjoy the feeling of the music rather than worry about the particulars, which in any case remained firmly in place.

This moment was the exception on this program, the young conductor’s fourth with the orchestra over several years. The rule, for Gaffigan: Energized gestures drawn very specifically to both clarify things technically and to embody the sentiment, weight and momentum of the moment. Thus the difference between the exuberant joy of the first movement and the high drama of the second, the thrilling precision of massed strings at high speed in the finale, and the expressive details that made Dvořák’s Sixth vivid and engaging through all four movements.

I’m thinking especially of the trio, in the middle of the third movement. Though barbed with syncopations, the trio was far more relaxed and legato than the intensely driven furiant that precedes and follows it. Jennifer Bouton played the charming piccolo solo that connects the trio to return of the furiant, and she and Gaffigan lingered and lingered over it. It was as if Dvořák paused on a trek through a forest to listen to a bird sing.

The MSO should play more Haydn. The pithy Symphony No. 26 (“Lamentatione”) projected well into Uihlein Hall. Gaffigan’s brisk, crisp reading etched Haydn’s rhythmic wit and verve on our ears. An unusually stentorian minuet and first and second movements driven by walking bass patterns were among the many nifty surprises in this piece — which, incredibly, the MSO had never performed before. I very much liked Gaffigan’s Handelian take on the Adagio, which read as a dignified processional.

Frank Almond, MSO concertmaster.

Glazunov’s 1904 Violin Concerto in A minor is the sort of swooning, late-Romantic music that makes you think a Bette Davis tearjerker is on TV in the next room. Even in 1904, it was corny and old-fashioned. It exists for two reasons: To make the violin sound gorgeous and to make you say wow.

The way Frank Almond sustained those long, long lyric lines in the first two movements — to die for. The way he tossed off that virtuoso filigree — amazing. The topper came in the cadenza, with its melody and counter-melody crowded onto the same fingerboard. Almond, the MSO’s concertmaster, didn’t just survive this bit, he made it beautiful and expressive.

Effortless, ravishing sound has always been Almond’s calling card. But even for him, the richness of tone was especially transcendent Friday. Almond, Glazunov and the Lipiniski Stradivarius came together in some metaphysical tryst that lifted this sentimental old show-off piece to a special plane.

This program will be repeated at 8 p.m. Saturday. For tickets and information, visit the MSO website or call the Marcus Center box office, 414 273-7206.

Display image on A&C page: Wilhelm Carl Zimmer (1853-1937), “The Orchestra, Biergarten.” Public doman via Wikipedia Commons.

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0 thoughts on “MSO: Gaffigan and Almond shine”

  1. Anonymous says:

    I agree. Almond nailed the cadenza.

  2. Anonymous says:

    I’m just going to say, the Friday night concert may have been some of the the best I’ve ever heard the MSO play. The Dvorak was perfect.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for commenting,Paul and Kyle. — Strini

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