Just up the road from Chicago is Milwaukee, a city that can lay claim to an orchestra which, while not as famous as its neighbor’s, is also an ensemble of consummate artistic quality. That artistry was on fine display in this week’s concert that amply demonstrated the orchestra’s noteworthy talents.

Fabien Gabel © Gaëtan Bernard
Fabien Gabel
© Gaëtan Bernard

The proceedings were directed by Fabien Gabel in his debut appearance with the MSO. Gabel’s program included two French showpieces – a natural choice for this Paris-based conductor – as well as a famous piano concerto plus an early Bernstein ballet.

Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 5 in E-Flat Major, Op. 73 opened the program. A perennial audience favorite, not only does it represent the pinnacle of Beethoven’s concertante writing, arguably it is the bridge between Classical and Romantic concertos.

No matter how familiar the “Emperor” Concerto may be, the music is always fresh and interesting to hear. Tonight’s performance featured the young Swiss pianist Louis Schwizgebel, who delivered a performance that was winsome in many ways. While his isn’t a particularly muscular pianism, technically he has all the chops for turning in a note-perfect performance along with bringing out the lyrical qualities of the piano.

Schwizgebel’s interpretation of the “Emperor” seemed more akin to the Classical approach one might expect to hear in one of Beethoven’s earlier piano concertos. On balance, my impression was that the rendition was a little anodyne. In the opening flourish of piano notes, we didn’t get quite the sense of majesty that one would hope to hear. But the entrance of the orchestra was brilliant, and as the first movement unfolded Gabel and the Milwaukee players offered finely balanced support to the pianist. Special mention must be made of the French horns, whose important contributions throughout the concerto were particularly impressive.

The second movement (Adagio un poco mosso) was very special, as Schwizgebel and the orchestra conjured up a trancelike atmosphere. The ending Rondo movement was delivered with bright sound – a fine conclusion to a meritorious presentation of this concerto. I’d like to hear how Schwizgebel’s conception of the piece evolves in the ensuing years; I suspect it will become more characterful as he builds on what he’s accomplished to date with his interpretation.

With the Bernstein centenary upon us, many American orchestras are featuring music by this iconic personality. Gabel chose to program music from Bernstein’s early-career ballet Fancy Free. It was a very good choice – music that’s highly representative of the kind of compositions Bernstein did best: rhythmic, tuneful and irreverent. The core of the music is the three “dance variations” (a galop, a waltz and a Latin American-inspired danzon), which Gabel and the Milwaukee players delivered with just the right dash of panache. Throughout the MSO’s cracking performance the conductor bounced and bobbed on the podium – a visual that was completely in keeping with the music.

Rounding out tonight’s concert were two contrasting French tone pictures from the time of World War I. Friends and fellow composers Maurice Ravel and Florent Schmitt were two of the most influential French creators of the early 20th century. Schmitt’s Rêves, composed in 1915, is a fascinating piece that depicts a hallucinatory dream sequence, with sonorities carrying the listener through a wide range of emotions. Indeed, one can presume that the tribulations of wartime were weighing on the composer’s mind when he created the piece. Gabel chose to conduct this music without his customary baton, conjuring up the brooding, unsettled emotions to masterful effect while bringing forth the rich orchestral colors for which this composer is so justly famous.

La Valse is a different sort of musical creation, sketched out in 1905 as a kind of homage to the city of Vienna. By the time Ravel returned to the work in 1919 – and from the vantage point of France being the recent victim (again) of Teutonic testosterone – unsurprisingly, waltzing in Vienna was no longer viewed in quite the same light. Consequently, Ravel’s creation took on a more sinister quality, ending in a cataclysm that’s full-on apocalyptic.

Intended for the Ballets Russes, reportedly Serge Diaghilev declared the music “undanceable”, whereupon Ravel brought it forth as a concert showpiece he described as a “choreographic poem” – which is exactly how Gabel and the Milwaukee players presented it. Unlike some overly “symphonic” interpretations I’ve heard of this piece, Gabel’s approach emphasized the underlying rhythmic pulse while avoiding extreme or jarring variations in tempo that can make this music sound too episodic. The result was a very special performance that maintained the music’s forward propulsion even as it ushered the audience through a wide range of emotions. By presenting these Ravel and Schmitt creations, Gabel and the MSO gave us fitting reminders of the extraordinary inventiveness emanating from Paris in the early 1900s. Magnifique!

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