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Fluent in French

Classical Review

Jan. 24, 2008
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It is irresistibly interesting to speculate what goes on in guest conductor rehearsals with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. Were ideas persuasively delivered, spoken or unspoken? Was there a lack of communication and unity? Was the orchestra carrying a disinterested conductor? Ultimately, the performance result is all that matters (although some musicians feel that their process is as important). A guy everyone likes might deliver blandness. An acerbic challenger might spark unusual sharpness. Or vice versa, and a thousand other possibilities. Guest conducting might be the deepest enigma in the mysterious art of conducting.

I have no idea what guest conductor Ludovic Morlot said to the orchestra in rehearsals, but it was apparent that something distinctive was going on from the first notes of Hector Berlioz’s Le Corsaire Overture, particularly in the incisive detail of the violins. The surefire effect of the piece left one wondering why it had not been performed at MSO for 27 years. The answer is probably that few conductors know what to do with French romanticism. Morlot does.

Paul Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, immortalized in Disney’s Fantasia, was based on a satirical tale by Goethe, and conjures its own magic and was another success for Morlot and the orchestra. The otherwise all-French program was interrupted by German composer Ferdinand David’s Concertino, featuring MSO principal trombonist Megumi Kanda. She deserved the attention, finding every color and timbre of her instrument, from lyrical horn-like playing, to agile passages, to biting baritonal theatrics. Those were the warm-ups for the headliner: Morlot leading Ravel’s complete 55-minute ballet score Daphnis and Chloe. Though recorded, the complete version is rarely performed, instead represented by two suites. Morlot’s fluency in this sophisticated score was remarkable, as were the results the orchestra achieved. The performance brought to life Ravel’s amazing color and texture, subtlety upon subtlety, spelled by sudden extroverted bursts. The piece has the Gallic quality of drama that is emotional but not wholly stated. This thrilling performance of a seldom-heard masterwork was the high point of this MSO season. I wanted to move into this orchestral landscape and stay forever.


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