MSO breathes new life into Memorial Chapel

Justin Jones

Though the chapel and its acoustics aren’t suited for every occasion or performance, it is undeniably a remarkably musical space. The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra capitalized upon that musicality in their concert Friday, April 1.

An internationally renowned and critically acclaimed ensemble, the MSO was a wonder to see and hear. Their program, though relatively long and comprised entirely of Russian music, seemed to fly by and I was left wanting more.

They began the evening with a rendition of Shostakovich’s “Festive Overture.” Though grand overtures such as these tend to take on a somewhat arrogant tone, the MSO managed to keep the number light and buoyant. The brass in particular sounded spacious and bright, reveling in the grace that the chapel lent to their tone.

The orchestra then embarked upon a seamless performance of Shostakovich’s “9th Symphony,” a serious undertaking in and of itself. Yet, under the baton of Stuart Chaftez, each movement took on a life of its own, disposing of any preconceptions I’d had of Russian music.

The players functioned like one well-oiled machine, yet they sounded completely organic with each section passing lines to one another with tact and elegance. The solo lines, particularly in the winds and brass, were scintillating, yet always sounded conscious of the work and the orchestra as a whole. Chaftez’s conducting seemed rather tedious at first but over the course of the night he proved himself a subtle and rather intelligent musician in his own right.

The orchestra then gave a nuanced performance of the familiar overture to Russlan and Ludmilla by Mikhail Glinka. Though their performance was artful, the piece itself still sounded somewhat loping and predictable.

They then played two sections from Prokofiev’s satirical opera “Love for Three Oranges,” the “March” and “Scherzo.” Chaftez’s intellectual sense of humor was in full swing as he led his players in a restrained but entertaining parody of the stereotypical royal march.

Following these two lighter selections came the brooding, ominous “Russian Sailor’s Dance” from Gliere’s ballet “The Red Poppy.” Chaftez showed off the full range of his orchestra with this number, highlighting the vigor of the cellos, basses and low brass, and the lightness and precision of his violins and winds.

They rounded out the program with a renditions of Tchaikovsky’s waltz from “The Sleeping Beauty”and his “Cappricio Italien.” The waltz was played nimbly but still underscored the MSO’s wonderful legato and sense of phrasing. Chaftez then led a remarkably expressive performance of the “Cappricio Italien.”

By the end of the piece, the restated themes, rather than sounding dry and predictable, had accumulated new, and often unexpected meanings. The ability to present a piece like the “Capriccio” as a cohesive musical idea that matures and expands throughout a performance is, for me, the mark of true musicianship.