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Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra Adrift in Shostakovich, Mozart Works

Classic Review

Nov. 11, 2009
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Orchestral repertory, dominated by long-dead masters, seems static, but gradually evolves. A universal change in recent decades in the often programmed literature of all professional orchestras has been the full acceptance of the 15 symphonies of Dmitri Shostakovich, the greatest symphonist of the 20th century. Last weekend the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra (MSO) performed Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 11, composed in 1957 to commemorate the victims of the failed 1905 revolution against the Russian Czar. It is a solemn 55 minutes of continuous music. Even its explosive sections have an air of doom.

The young South Korean conductor Shi-Yeon Sung had the unenviable position of being the first guest conductor in this MSO season. In all other concerts before this, including regional touring, the musicians have essentially been through a bracing orchestral boot camp led by new music director Edo de Waart. The discipline and ensemble improvements in balance, blend and incisiveness of recent weeks were simply not there with Sung on the podium.

The MSO certainly did not play badly for Sung, but it was the sound of an orchestra adrift. Symphony No. 11, which can have the impact of great tragedy, became a bit of a listening challenge on Saturday evening, with something off about its pace, shape and intensity. The performance felt a mismatch of conductor, symphony and orchestra.

There was even something not quite right about the concert opener, Mozart’s overture to The Marriage of Figaro, conducted with gestures that were too big and heavy-handed, weighing the music down and inhibiting playful fleetness. I was less aware of the conductor in Mozart’s Concerto No. 27 (K. 595) for piano, withJeremy Denk as soloist. He played with great energy, lovely tone, infallible evenness, and a strong sense of singing melody. Occasional soft passages were the most magical color I’ve heard from the Steinway acquired by MSO a year ago. Despite these admirable qualities I found some aspects of the performance unsatisfying. Denk indulged in contrasts that seemed too extreme for this music. The tempo of the second movement was disturbingly unsettled at times.


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