The Impact of Edo de Waart

Last weekend’s concert was a testament to how he’s improved the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra

By - Apr 13th, 2015 01:58 pm
Edo de Waart

Edo de Waart. Photo by Jesse Willems.

Edo de Waart first came to my attention, when I was a music student in the ’70s, as the conductor of the Netherlands Wind Ensemble. His recordings of the Mozart wind serenades are high-water marks for both wind ensemble playing and for conveying the simplicity of Mozart. Maestro De Waart has much clarity in his hands, and he is an obedient servant to the score, making Mozart’s musical desires obvious. After all, there is no need to improve upon Mozart with “interpretations”; de Waart understands that what Mozart composed is perfect.

A case in point was the second half of this past weekend’s Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra concert, which was devoted to Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K. 550. It was performed with precision and charisma, as the strings played with energy, and the woodwinds and horns contributed with tremendous ensemble playing, showing off fantastic intonation, balance, and surefooted virtuosity. De Waart has developed a reputation as an orchestra builder and it is clear to me, from the listening side of the baton, that he has done his work effectively here in Milwaukee. The orchestra, under de Waart, plays with all of the hallmarks of a great ensemble. The personnel additions on his watch have all proven to be strong musicians who contribute to a cohesive whole that is a true pleasure to hear.

The concert opened with what felt like a warm and loving embrace, as the MSO, its chorus, and de Waart stood wrapped in silence after performing the beautiful fourth movement of the Brahms German Requiem—“How lovely is thy dwelling place.” The work was sung to honor the memory of colleague Nicolas Sluss-Rodionov, an MSO chorus member who recently passed away. There is no easy way to find comfort for a wound like this, but the balm of Brahms’s music, sung so sweetly, was a perfect way to begin the healing for the terrible loss felt by the MSO family.

After that tender, respectful moment, the buoyancy of Robert Schumann’s Concerto in A minor for Piano and Orchestra, Opus 54, did much to lift spirits in Uihlein Hall, particularly due to the deft and effervescent touch of pianist Inon Barnatan. Schumann’s popular concerto, composed in 1845 for Schumann’s wife, Clara, is a sparkling conversation between the solo piano and the orchestra. Themes in the piano are passed to the orchestra and back again in a constantly running dialogue. Schumann, instead of featuring the piano as something to be accompanied by the orchestra, weaves an organic tapestry out of the two entities that is powerful, playful, charming, and, with Barnatan at the keyboard, was astonishing.

Barnatan’s performance was incredibly athletic. He was able to pull a massive sound from the piano as easily as he tapered his sound to a whisper. From beginning to end, Barnatan’s interpretation of the Schumann felt like great chamber music. Sharing phrases with the orchestra with obvious attention to a partnership of the artistry he was creating, Barnatan’s technique was clear and accurate, and his stylistic intent was so natural that I wondered for a moment if he didn’t have Clara Schumann’s direct number.

Katherine Young Steele. Photo courtesy of the MSO.

Katherine Young Steele. Photo courtesy of the MSO.

In the first movement, principal clarinetist Todd Levy leapt lightly across big intervals, and Barnatan responded with charm. Oboist Katherine Young Steele also contributed elegant phrases. The second movement was marked by Barnatan’s sensitive phrasing and the luxuriously warm sound of the MSO cello section. The third movement segued from the second into a rollicking tempo in which Barnatan’s fingers danced and sprinkled sonic glitter to dizzying effect.

The concert’s second half kept the momentum going with that wonderful performance of the Mozart. This was de Waart’s last weekend with the orchestra for this season, and he is going to be here for only two more seasons before it is someone else’s turn. Music director candidates must excel in a broad list of qualities that the search committee will examine and consider, but the orchestra that de Waart passes on to the next music director will be a high-performance ensemble that yearns to be led by someone with great skill. Pay close attention to the guest conductors who stand in front of the MSO during the next two seasons. One thing is for sure: this orchestra will appreciate someone who truly knows how to drive such a well-tuned machine.

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