By Elaine Schmidt
February 6, 2016
From introspective string sounds to a bold violin concerto and richly Romantic symphonic writing, the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra brought expressive interpretations to three very different pieces of music Friday evening.
Led by MSO music director Edo de Waart, the program featured guest violinist Jennifer Koh performing the Bartok Concerto No. 2 for Violin and Orchestra.
Koh gave an intense, dramatic performance of the concerto, blending the melodic simplicity of its folk elements with the musical complexity of 12-tone writing that remains stubbornly tonal, and some searing virtuosity.
Koh played with absolute conviction, vivid musical arcs and a constant drive that swept the listener through the piece. De Waart and the orchestra played as though continuing Koh's thoughts and intentions, telling their part of the musical story with ever-changing textures and hues, and constant grace and focus.
De Waart and the players filled the program's second half with Rachmaninoff's sprawling Symphony No. 2 in E minor, played with a forward-leaning energy that made the nearly hourlong piece feel like a much more compact work.
They brought a decisive clarity of sound and intent to the piece, deftly connecting phrases to form long, flowing lines and giving constant attention to blend and balance of sounds and sections.
They created compelling drama through nuanced ebbs and swells of sound over the piece's long, layered lines, as well as with beautifully executed solo lines from various players and some cohesive, declamatory section playing from the horns.
The program opened with a deeply sensitive performance of British composer Anna Clyne's "Within Her Arms," a lament for small string orchestra based on a touching poem of comfort written by Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh.
After a customary, preconcert warm-up period, the players left the stage to begin the Clyne piece with not just silence in the hall, but stillness as well.
De Waart led 15 string players through a moving performance of the sorrowful, affecting piece.
Blending sounds and reacting to one another nimbly, the ensemble made transparent lines and big, bass-anchored moments alike sound like well-played chamber music.
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