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Varga, Gerstein and MSO's World-Class Talent

Classical Review

Apr. 18, 2011
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Recent travel allowed me to hear three orchestras in three cities on three consecutive nights. On Thursday evening I was in Leipzig, Germany, and heard the revered Gewandhaus Orchestra. A stunning all-Richard Strauss concert at the Munich Philharmonic was my Friday agenda. After a Saturday flight home I arrived just in time to hear the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. Earlier last week I heard the Czech Philharmonic in Prague. Obviously, the itinerary allowed for fascinating comparisons.

Not surprisingly, there were observable differences in styles of playing, interpretation, orchestral color, programming, presentation and audiences. From prior travels I already knew that musically the MSO stacks up pretty well with other major orchestras. What is always striking is the deficiency in venue in Milwaukee. The orchestras in Leipzig, Munich and Prague have great halls designed specifically for orchestra concerts. The multipurpose Uihlein Hall simply does not compare. What would the MSO become if it played continually in a hall worthy of it?

The less than wonderful acoustics of Uihlein Hall were all the more center stage Saturday evening because of the absence of the acoustical shell, damaged recently. A temporary solution had the enormous organ raised to appear behind the orchestra, with side walls on the stage. The sound was brighter without the acoustical shell. It's possible that somehow softer music was clearer in this temporary setup.

A lively spirit of invention pervaded the performance of Ravel's orchestration of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, led by guest conductor Gilbert Varga. There were many surprises in this very familiar music, but the large climaxes near the end were simply not loud enough for the piece to hit its power punch. Was this calculated containment? Would there have been more volume with the acoustical shell?

The terrific young Russian pianist Kirill Gerstein gave mature tone and phrasing to Beethoven's Concerto No. 1. Gerstein is a musician whose technique is so profound that it easily serves the musical aim, rather than being an end in itself. The concert began with American composer Steven Mackey's Turn the Key, a happy obsession over a short rhythmic motive.


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