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De Waart Conducts a Transformed MSO in 'The Planets'

Feb. 28, 2017
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It must have been in the winter of 2009 that Edo de Waart first conducted the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, in the season before he began as music director. Gustav Holst’s great orchestral suite The Planets was on that program. It came around again this weekend, with De Waart again conducting it eight years later.

De Waart’s take on this music hasn’t changed. He has a sure-fire, dead-on sense of the right tempos for every movement; a quality he brings to all music. His distaste for sentimentality or imposition of a personal interpretation on anything is well known to us by now. His aim remains to let the score speak. What has changed in eight years is the MSO. As I’ve written before many times, the player changes instigated by De Waart, along with his technical insistence, have transformed the orchestra. This exciting and refined performance of The Planets couldn’t have happened in 2009. What we thought was good back then has become beyond better than good.

The Sunday afternoon audience was primed for it. I noticed lots of young folks—probably musicians—excited about hearing Holst’s famous suite. The performance delivered the expected spine-tingling moments: the big climax of Mars when you welcome feeling clobbered as a listener; the final time through the stately chorale tune in Jupiter that makes you feel noble for a minute; the chilling entrance of the off-stage women’s voices that conjures the mystery of Neptune.

Flutist Sonora Slocum cast a magic spell in the low, sensual solos in Claude Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun. The subtleties of the performance were ear-tickling throughout, clearly revealing this masterful score. I loved the short swells of lush sounds, like a swoon.

The music of Dutch composer Rudolf Escher (1912-’80) isn’t familiar to most of us. This was my first time hearing his Musique pour l’esprit en deuil (Music for the Spirit in Mourning), composed during World War II. It persuasively travels from foreboding doom to a peaceful conclusion. Highlights were Margaret Butler’s expressive English horn solos and the handsome, brief trumpet solos of Matthew Ernst. 

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