Milwaukee Symphony enchants with 'Scheherazade,' Saint-Saens

Marcelo Lehninger
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

By Elaine Schmidt

If you've never read "One Thousand and One Nights" (a.k.a. "The Arabian Nights"), this weekend's Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra concert is likely to send you off in search of a copy.

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's "Scheherazade," inspired by the book of tales, filled the second half of the orchestra's Friday evening concert in Uihlein Hall.

The piece is divided into four movements, as opposed to the undivided form of many tone poems. Although there are distinct Middle Eastern flavors throughout the work, there also are moments that are purely Russian.

It also is unabashedly Romantic, brilliantly orchestrated, sweeping music that captivates an audience. And those are exactly the qualities of the piece that the MSO and guest conductor Marcelo Lehninger delivered Friday evening.

This was a team triumph for the orchestra, from the dark, ominous brass lines that opened the piece; to Frank Almond's lyrical violin solos, Susan Babini's equally elegant cello solos and Danis Kelly's articulate harp interjections; to a host of string section colors and textures, and character-filled wind lines.

Lehninger led the players through a performance as captivating as the stories on which the piece is based. He used tempo variations, some subtle and some bold, along with deftly handled transitions to give the piece shape, while giving expressive freedom to the solo voices within the ensemble.

Pianist Sean Chen joined Lehninger and the orchestra for a thrilling performance of Camille Saint-Saëns' Piano Concerto No. 2.

Chen's take on the piece was a step beyond commanding, into a realm of exuberant, aggressive playing. He brought an enormous sound from the instrument in the concerto's biggest moments, using captivating dynamics and color changes to draw the audience into the piece's more intimate moments.

Flawlessly executed fast, running passages combined with a clearly conveyed musical concept of the piece, the performance of which received a cheering, standing ovation.

Lehninger and the orchestra responded with lively, taut playing, supporting Chen beautifully.

The evening opened with a crisp, nicely sculpted performance of the four vignettes of Igor Stravinsky's "Suite No. 2 for Small Orchestra," despite a few unconvincing interchanges within the orchestral voices.