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Frank Almond's Rich Sounds at MSO

Apr. 10, 2012
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The music of Russian composer Alexander Glazunov (1865-1936) is not much encountered these days. His deceptively difficult violin concerto, heard last weekend at Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, has a few prominent recordings, but has fallen out of the core repertoire. Perhaps it's because of the old-fashioned, generally cheerful romantic character of the music. Despite enormous demands on the violinist, the piece ultimately comes off as pleasant and more than lovely, but rather lightweight.

As soloist, MSO concertmaster Frank Almond created wonderfully rich sounds in the low range of the marvelous Stradivari violin he plays. His sure sense of tuning, his evolved tone and his singing lyricism have always been his calling cards. These were shown to good advantage. Almond continually conjured elegant, expressive phrasing. One could play this music with more extroverted romanticism, but Almond's restraint and taste are part of his character as a musician. I heard both the Friday and Saturday performances. A few virtuoso spots were a bit labored on Friday evening, but became more assured on Saturday. Guest conductor James Gaffigan could have given Almond a little more phrase space here and there. In the third movement the orchestra sometimes unnecessarily covered the soloist.

As a programming choice, Haydn's Symphony No. 26 was more historically interesting than satisfying. It was written during Lent, which is surely why it was chosen for Holy Week, and has a subdued and somber aspect. It deliberately lacks a boisterous final movement. For a group like MSO, good as it is, to suddenly become a refined chamber orchestra is tricky business. Nothing about the performance was deficient, but it could have been enlivened with more period style, probably an unrealistic expectation.

While I admit that Dvorák's Symphony No. 6 may not be my favorite piece of standard repertoire, it invited the MSO to play the kind of music it was made to perform. The orchestral tone and basic sound of the ensemble is at a high level. Gaffigan was good at building the overarching structure of the music, sweeping to convincing moments of arrival. The brass especially had the opportunity to shine.


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