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Mid-Century Moderns in Top Form at MSO Concert

Jan. 23, 2017
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Two mighty works from the mid-20th century showed the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra in top form on Saturday evening. This was challenging listening, but what looked to be nearly full first floor of concertgoers took it in with focused attention. I felt proud to be part of that Milwaukee audience.

The great opera, vocal and choral composer Benjamin Britten wrote relatively few instrumental works in his vast output. His Concerto No. 1 for Violin and orchestra was composed in the consequential year of 1939, after the pacifist Britten left Europe for first Canada, then the U.S. The concerto is one of the major works of his few American years. Both technically and musically, it is very difficult. Soloist Elina Vähälä was as good in the piece as I’ve ever heard, playing with a warm, silvery sound. She expressively broke through the surface iciness of the music and found earnest beauty in it. The last movement emerged as mournful and heart wrenching.

Dmitri Shostakovich and Britten were friends and greatly admired one another, so it was deft programming to put them on the same concert. Shostakovich’s profound Symphony No. 10 was written in 1953, the year of Joseph Stalin’s death. The turbulent, sometimes disturbing music communicates the turmoil of its time. The music of Shostakovich is continually fascinating, in that he found a way to say so much within the Soviet confines that limited his style.

I was listening so closely to the score itself that I was not often aware of guest conductor Carlos Kalmar. That is meant to be a compliment. He gave this great work structure, and the orchestra responded with a huge range of expression, from wilting sorrow to raging power.

It was a wonderful opportunity to hear the new first bassoonist of the MSO, Catherine Chen, who played with an elegant, buttery tone. So many soloists deserve mention for terrific playing: Sonora Slocum (flute), Todd Levy (clarinet), Kevin Pearl (oboe), Matthew Annin (horn) and Frank Almond (violin). I could go on. MSO brass continues its consistent evolved blend and balance. The viola section sounded so lush in a featured spot. 

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