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Barreling Through Beethoven

Jan. 10, 2009
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Barreling Through Beethoven

Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, one of the icons of Western art music, should have a sense of occasion about it. The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra performance last Saturday night fell short of that. The guest conductor, Lawrence Renes, obviously had a theory about the historical period of the piece, evidenced by a reduced string section and a smaller chorus than usual. One would expect a scaledback performance stressing tight transparency based on this approach. This did not happen.

Renes barreled through the music. Willful speed, without a corresponding quality of lightness, seemed to be his sole priority, at the expense of clarity, phrase, shape and expression.

I can only conclude that whatever pure, historical ideas Renes has about the symphony, he was unable to execute them. The only revelation was his encouragement of big drama in the timpani rolls of the first movement. Renes invited timpanist Dean Borghesani to let it rip, and boy, did he. After that unexpected, extreme touch of drama I waited for similar effects in the remaining three movements. They did not come. The third movement, an adagio that should emerge with timeless spaciousness, was so fast that it was impossible for the solos on clarinet and horn to make their mark.

They only sounded rushed. The finale movement, with chorus and soloists, suffered from the same relentlessly fast approach. By the time the score arrived at the vocal quartet—always a nearly impossible challenge— one did not need a crystal ball to know it was going to be a mess. It was. As is often the case with a masterwork, the audience responded to the music itself more than the performance. The concert was saved by the curtain raiser, principal bassoonist Theodore Soluri’s lovely account of the Mozart Bassoon Concerto.

Soluri’s taste, evenness, sense of phrase, and singing tone were a sorely needed balm to the evening. He quoted the aria “Porgi, amor” from The Marriage of Figaro in the second movement cadenza, an aria which borrows its first notes from the bassoon theme. It made me smile and sigh.


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