Home Town Hero

MSO clarinetist Todd Levy stars as soloist in varied program featuring works by Nielsen, Tchaikovsky and Liszt.

By - Feb 2nd, 2015 02:52 pm
Todd Levy

Todd Levy

One of the many benefits of having a major symphony orchestra in town is the opportunity to hear world-famous guest artists grace the stage. So far this season the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra has treated listeners to the generous gifts of several great artists—notably, but not exclusively, pianist Richard Goode, conductor/composer John Williams, jazz proselytizer and trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, and soprano Michelle DeYoung. We can look forward to pianist William Wolfram, as well as a special evening with violinist Itzhak Perlman.

Not all great artists come from out of town, though: just behind the proscenium is an orchestra bursting with exceptional musicians.

At this weekend’s MSO concert, its principal clarinetist Todd Levy was dazzling in his performance of the Carl Nielsen Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra, Opus 57. Levy’s tone was smooth, dark, and never abrasive. As he played Nielsen’s very difficult concerto, Levy spun melodic, stream-of-consciousness phrases that covered the extreme registers of the instrument while highlighting both his technical mastery and amazing dynamic control. Levy’s playing is facile, intelligent, and polished. The orchestra’s bassoonists Theodore Soluri and Rudy Heinrich and hornists Gregory Flint and Joshua Phillips added beautiful color to Nielsen’s slightly thorny concerto, making the accompaniment as compelling as Levy’s own artistry. Percussionist Robert Klieger added brilliant bursts of snare drum that played cleverly witty asides to the solo clarinet lines.

After intermission, the orchestra got to flex its collective muscle with two romantic show pieces. The first, Tchaikovsky’s lush “Romeo and Juliet, Overture Fantasy,” delivered a Valentine to the audience. With sweeping musical gestures created to make women swoon and give men courage, the strings leaned into the gorgeous tension-and-release of climbing suspensions in the work. Margaret Butler’s English horn playing sang a love letter, and Danis Kelly’s harp playing sparkled glitter on the billet- doux.

Franz Liszt’s “Les Préludes, Symphonic Poem No. 3,” is an orchestral barnburner. Each section of the orchestra is called upon to show off, and show off they did. Booming, rich brass and horns, charming woodwinds—including another opportunity to hear Butler shine, this time on the oboe—and warm, exuberant string playing rounded out the piece. Guest conductor James Feddeck gave the orchestra free rein to be expressive, although from where I sat it seemed as though the orchestra was playing so well that the Tchaikovsky and the Liszt would have been thrilling with or without him.

The opening work, “Valse triste” from Kuolema, Opus 44, by Jean Sibelius is an understated waltz with a patina of pathos. In this work, Feddeck achieved a much greater musical command with rubato and pauses that were just right.

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