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Frenzy and filigree in MSO's Russian bill

Sarah Chang
Milwaukee Journal Sentinal

The music of two passionate Russian composers, speaking entirely different musical languages, filled the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra's program Friday evening.

Violinist Sarah Chang and conductor Rossen Milanov joined the orchestra for performances of Dmitri Shostakovich's enigmatic Concerto No. 1 in A minor for violin and orchestra and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's familiar, accessible "Scheherazade."

The Shostakovich opened the evening. From the long, weeping phrases of the opening bars to a lengthy, gripping cadenza later on, Chang was completely mesmerizing.

Playing with an enormous, ringing sound, her aggressive, physical style filled the piece with the raw emotion and fierce power it demands. She used colors, both bold and subtle, to give meaning to the smallest of musical details, never allowing her sound to be lost in even the densest orchestrations.

Chang's interpretation was forward moving - even frenzied at times - but never out of control. Milanov and orchestra matched that sensibility, putting the fascinating textures of Shostakovich's score in the spotlight throughout the piece. The performance won an immediate, cheering, standing ovation.

From the edgy, often tragic sounds of the Shostakovich that filled the program's first half, the orchestra turned to the melodic, lavishly orchestrated "Scheherazade" for the program's second half.

A spirited, character-filled reading, dotted with beautifully played solos and clean, artful section work from within the orchestra made the piece an absolute treat to hear. Milanov and the players gave it a reading that was urgent and compelling but never rushed or hurried.

Frank Almond's always-fascinating, soulful restatements of the piece's signature violin solo, soaring horn solos from William Barnewitz, meaningful clarinet passages from Todd Levy and a host of other solo voices gave the piece fire and color. Warm waves of string sound, cleanly executed tutti cello passages, ringing brass sounds and articulate section playing across the orchestra were all part of the recipe.

Conducting without a score, Milanov gave the piece a cohesive, thoughtful interpretation that allowed the players of the orchestra freedom to shine.