By Elaine Schmidt
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
23 September 2016
Friday’s Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra concert was a feast of soulful music making.
The orchestra, playing under the baton of Music Director Edo de Waart, opened the morning’s program with a feisty, character-filled performance of Richard Strauss’ “Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks.”
De Waart and the orchestra gave Strauss’ programmatic piece a vivid, completely engaging, performance. From principal horn player Matthew Annin’s ringing horn lines to some beautifully executed, turn-on-a-dime shifts in character over the course of the piece, their performance was a highly evocative experience — a bit like hearing a film score and getting to imagine the scenes it should accompany.
Soprano Rachel Willis-Sørensen, who appeared the MSO’s “The Marriage of Figaro” performances last weekend, took the stage with a deeply stirring, beautifully crafted performance of Strauss’ “Four Last Songs.”
Willis-Sørensen mixed a warm, flexible sound with nimble, easy technical work, and fluid, expressive musical deliveries, supported beautifully by de Waart and the orchestra.
Pianist Emanuel Ax, who filled the program’s second half with Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2, apparently is built to play Brahms. From a gentle singing sound to declamatory, sometimes almost defiant musical statements, his was a performance filled with expressive intent and nuance, and tremendous musical character.
Part of the joy of hearing Ax’s performance was watching him listen to and interact with de Waart and the orchestra. He nodded and moved to their music when he wasn’t playing, trading ideas and statements with them when he was.
MSO principal cellist Susan Babini gave an exquisite performance of the long, lyrical cello lines that are featured in the piece’s third movement.
When Ax returned to the stage to answer a standing ovation, he brought along a piece of music. He motioned for Babini to come forward, and the two offered an achingly beautiful rendition of the third movement of Chopin’s Cello Sonata.
Both players moved gracefully from melody to accompaniment and back again throughout the sonata, picking up each other’s musical ideas like old friends finishing each other’s sentences, and giving a moving performance one hated to see come to an end.