MSO program brings fire to Wagner, cohesion to Bartok

Asher Fisch
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

By Elaine Schmidt

Nothing starts the morning quite like a Wagner overture.

The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra played its first Friday morning concert of the new season under the baton of guest conductor Asher Fisch.

Fisch and the orchestra brought both fire and finesse to Wagner's "Overture to 'Der Fliegende Hollander' (The Flying Dutchman)," letting the piece's most dramatic moments soar and casting light on its smallest details.

They handled the piece's big, striding passages with power and simplicity, creating an unrushed effect of grandeur and dignity with the familiar phrases.

But it was the details that really sparkled in this performance.

Wagner's leitmotifs — the musical phrases he assigned to individual characters and ideas throughout this his operas — are the backbone of the piece. Fisch and the players layered and spotlighted those melodies and melodic fragments in a seamless, beautifully detailed interpretation.

The program's second half was filled by Bartok's always-fascinating "Concerto for Orchestra," which the composer completed almost exactly 60 years ago.

Bartok labeled the five-movement piece a concerto to reflect his soloistic use of individual instruments and sections within the orchestra.

Fisch and the orchestra, functioning variously as soloists, chamber musicians and section players, created a huge palette of music. The string sections moved from ghostly, thin sounds and warm murmurs to occasional biting attacks and rich, full-section sounds, including some particularly lovely section viola passages.

A brass chorale, horn section passages, wind solos and wind choir moments, two harps, and a prominent melody delivered by the tympani are all part of Bartok's score, and all figured strongly in this well-crafted performance.

Fisch and the players brought more than a lineup of well-played parts to the performance. They played with musical motion that linked the seemingly disparate elements of the piece into a thoroughly engaging whole.

MSO principal clarinetist Todd Levy closed the first half with a colorful, facile reading of Mozart's Concerto in A Major. Fisch and the orchestra supported his tempos and dynamic choices beautifully.