Revelations in Schumann, Berg and Strauss: Conductor Asher Fisch with the MSO

Asher Fisch
Express Milwaukee

By Rick Walters

The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra is at such a high level as an ensemble that a guest conductor can create something remarkable, despite limited rehearsal. So far this season Asher Fisch is the only guest conductor who has conjured distinctive results. His performances with MSO last Saturday evening were a profound revelation of the music performed and of what this orchestra can sound like under him. 

There are few conductors with Fisch’s depth of talent. He drew nuanced fluidity from the players; each phrase felt spontaneously fresh. His conducting seemed an artful combination of structured discipline and freedom. The orchestra sounded precisely together as an ensemble, sculpting the air with sharp details. But along with the precision, the playing was flexible and freely expressive. The orchestral tone bloomed with ease, no matter what the volume level. Fisch knows how to lead the musicians, but he also knows how to simply let them play at times, especially instruments or sections in spotlight focus. An orchestra as good as the MSO responds well to that kind of respect and trust. 

All these comments apply to all the music performed in this concert of substantial German-Austrian repertory. Robert Schumann’s Symphony No. 2 in C Major emerged as a great statement, moving from brooding gloom and restlessness to triumphant light over four movements. The cutting-edge rhythmic energy of the second movement Scherzo was especially exciting, the third movement fervently poignant. Mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung is an ideal interpreter of Alban Berg’s luscious Seven Early Songs. With a rich, brilliant, voluptuous voice, DeYoung has the presence of a great concert singer. She captured both the intimacy and the grand romantic sweep of these amazing miniatures. 

By the last selection on the program, Richard Strauss’ Tod und Verklärung (Death and Transfiguration), I knew to expect something sublime from the combination of Fisch and MSO. I was not disappointed. The harmonic tension mixed with sweet tenderness, essential qualities of Strauss, came through in long, sigh-inducing phrases. Only a talent as insightful as Fisch’s could create transcendent ecstasy in the dramatic final section. It was quite a concert.