Big finish, big ovation for Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra's opener

Jeremy Denk
Milwaukee Journal

The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra's season-opening concert Friday night at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts led to a big finish and an equally big ovation.

The orchestra, led by former music director Andreas Delfs and joined by pianist Jeremy Denk, opened with Aaron Jay Kernis' introspective "Musica Celestis" (Heavenly Music) for string orchestra.

Delfs and the players brought life and focus to the piece's shadowy, ethereal strains and poignant swells of sound and energy.

Denk took the stage with Franz Liszt's dramatic "Concerto No.1." Although Denk captured the power and drama of the piece, his performance was about far more than the piece's biggest moments.

The piece's small, internal details proved as compelling and important in his interpretation as the stormy chords and sweeping crescendos.

Taking just a pinch of rubato at the top of a phrase or a quick, light release of the end of a passage, he drew his audience into the details of the piece. He moved from soulful, lyrical playing to a jaunty playfulness in this articulate, yet wordless, explanation of the piece.

Tchaikovsky's "Symphony No.4" is high on the list of standard orchestral repertoire. From the stirring horn lines that open the piece and expanding into powerful sounds from the full brass section, to flowing string passages and gorgeous woodwind solos, the symphony is beautifully constructed and deeply moving.

Delfs and the players brought focus and clarity to what we know to be Tchaikovsky's musical tirade against fate, despite a few uncertain entrances and transitions. A broad dynamic range and informative shifts in tempo were part of the performance's power.

The real heart of the performance lay in the big, well-blended string sounds and the equally effective delicate string moments. Equally important were powerful, cohesive brass playing, driving percussion passages and some wonderfully expressive woodwind playing, particularly oboist Katherine Young Steel's opening lines of the second movement.

The audience responded to the Tchaikovsky with a loud, long standing ovation, calling Delfs back to the podium several times and offering shouts and cheers to individual players and entire sections as the orchestra members took their bows.