MSO: Goulding golden in Sibelius Violin Concerto

Caroline Goulding
ThirdCoast Digest

By Tom Strini

Caroline Goulding ratcheted up the energy ever so gradually at Friday’s matinee, as she unfurled the probing opening theme of Sibelius’ Violin Concerto with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. The yearning in that theme grew  gradually more urgent, compelling and eloquent, as the young virtuosa parsed Sibelius’ phrases and managed the melody’s ebb and flow.

This concerto comes loaded with one exposed technical challenge after another and carries a high degree of difficulty. In that remarkable opening passage and throughout, Goulding sailed over those issues. Her big, beautiful sound also sailed above the orchestra in a piece where balance can be a problem.

Goulding grasped the dramatic nuances of this deep, complex concerto. She found, beneath the melancholy weight of the second theme, a hint of a waltz flickering here and there between the beats. We heard that elusive waltz as we might glimpse a moonlit nymph flashing among ancient trees in some primeval forest. She made the main tune of the second movement a hymn, sung with noble piety. Goulding turned the middle section, with its more active melodic twists and turns, into a more private matter, the doubts and fears stirring beneath the public faith.

She and her close, alert collaborator, guest conductor Jun Märkl, treated the finale of this 1905 concerto as a precursor to the likes of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring or Bartók’s Allegro Barbaro — that is, a sophisticated take on primitive savagery. Goulding changed her tone to match the bite and snarl of it and thus topped a triumphant performance with visceral thrills.

Sibelius likes sweeping gestures that build over time and explode at the end. Goulding delivered them with a bang, and so did the orchestra. Märkel helped the MSO a great deal with this. Such gestures often begin in one section of the orchestra and later explode in another. The conductor’s own selection of sweeping gestures made it easy for his players to join the waves as they swept through the ranks.

Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 filled the second half.

The Fourth might be the hardest Tchaikovsky symphony to bring off, because the first movement alone can exhaust an orchestra’s energy and sonic resources. The brasses play an awful lot of fortississimo in the first of the four movements. Their fierce fanfares represent, in Tchaikovsky’s mind, fate as an implacable enemy of human happiness.

The MSO’s superb brasses made fate formidable, as they nearly blasted the chandelier off the Uihlein Hall ceiling in that first movement. I wondered whether enough would be left for a convincing stinger at the end of the fourth. It speaks to both the reserves of power this orchestra possesses and to Märkl’s shrewd management of that power that the brassy gauntlet of fate fell with an even heavier hand at the end than in the beginning.

In between, Märkl and his players drew many vivid characters and scenes from the music and thus freshened Tchaikovsky’s familiar score. You could really hear the binding force of fate in that in the first movement. The 9/8 main theme wants to waltz, but it never quite can quite glide across the floor. Tchaikovsky keeps tying the rhythm across the first and second beats to fetter it. That’s a little technical, but it has the real emotional effect of thwarting an impulse, an effect Märkl heightened through emphasis and very subtle stretching of time in the middle of the bar. I really like the way clarinetist Todd Levy reacted to that, by playing up the second theme’s klezmer element of comic resignation to the vagaries of fate.

Oboist Margaret Butler and, later, bassoonist Ted Soluri endowed the main theme of the slow movement with the irresistible innocence of a simple syllabic folksong. Märkl and the orchestra gave the pizzicato scherzo and its antic woodwind trio the sparkle of a ballet character dance — you could have taken it for something out of The Nutcracker. That unfettered happiness gave way to the desperate, carnival-music fun at the start of the finale, suppressed by another blast of fate.

You know, if you really listen to a good performance of Tchaikovsky, you can hear a lot.