By Elaine Schmidt
January 18, 2014
Listening to a piece of music by one great composer that has been orchestrated by another great composer is a bit like hearing the music through that second composer's ears.
The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra and music director Edo de Waart presented two pieces that offered just that chance on Friday evening, along with the heartbreaking Concerto for Violin and Orchestra by Alban Berg, inspired by the death of his friend's daughter.
Violinist Jennifer Koh delivered an emotionally searing, uncluttered performance of the concerto. She gave a commanding performance, playing with absolute clarity and control as she conveyed the aching grief at the heart of the piece.
De Waart and the players of the MSO matched Koh's sensitive reading of the piece with an interpretation that brought moments of warmth and musical meaning into the spotlight, as well as passages that voiced wrenching pain.
The program opened with the "Ricercare No. 2" from Bach's "Musical Offering," in an orchestration written by Anton von Webern nearly 200 years after Bach's death.
De Waart and the orchestra let the audience hear the musical vocabulary of both composers, giving articulate shape to Bach's original lines as they contrasted and blended orchestral colors Bach could not have known.
The musicians used the timbres and textures of the orchestration to trade and layer phrases deftly, one player finishing the phrase another had begun, like old friends telling a story together.
The evening ended with a thrilling performance of the piece often called Brahms' Fifth Symphony, even though Brahms wrote it for piano quartet.
Feeling dwarfed by the genius of Beethoven, Brahms didn't complete his first symphony until he was in his 40s. He finished the Piano Quartet No. 1, arguably a piece of symphonic proportions, in his late 20s.
Seventy-six years later, composer Arnold Schoenberg took up that argument and scored the work for an orchestra of more than 80 players.
Brahms and Schoenberg soared in the hands of de Waart and the MSO, as beautifully crafted phrases melted into one another, in a full, rich orchestral sound, well-blended section playing and finely honed solo passages.
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