Because of working abroad, last Saturday was the first opportunity this season I’ve had to hear the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra (MSO) conducted by Edo de Waart. Every music director sculpts an orchestra over time. Through player changes and insistent technique, De Waart has transformed the MSO. Though any orchestra is likely to perform best with its music director on the podium, this is especially pronounced with the MSO. It’s almost a different orchestra with De Waart conducting, as opposed to a guest conductor. The playing is noticeably more precise and refined; the musicmaking aspires to a higher plane and attains it.
To say that the MSO has never sounded better is almost too obvious a statement. The orchestra heads into its May 11 Carnegie Hall appearance at the top of its game, with guest principal artists on flute and oboe making significant contributions to the orchestral sound. Last weekend was a first preview of the New York program, with performances of two of the three featured pieces. (The third will be played this coming weekend.)
Both Messiaen’s Les offrandes oubliées (The Forgotten Offerings) and Debussy’s La mer (The Sea) are more about sophistication, transparent texture and subtle- ty rather than power. De Waart gave a master’s touch in pacing to the infrequent moments of arrival. These pieces emerged with persuasive clarity, the one quality needed above all others.
Though in a romantic German style, Bruckner’s Symphony No. 6 (not on the upcoming Carnegie Hall program) obtusely shares an abstract quality with the French pieces on the program. In this performance delicate detail was as much in evidence as orchestral muscle, though there was plenty of opportunity for that. (It’s not Bruckner’s fault that Lawrence of Ara- bia inescapably comes to mind at the end of the first movement.) De Waart’s stated philosophy is to resist imposing “interpretation,” but rather to attempt to be true to the score and let the music speak. It takes enormous insight to allow a large-scale work to be realized fully in this clear-eyed way. De Waart is an undisputed expert at it. The irony: Emotion emerges from a conductor who shuns overt emotion.