When the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra takes the Memorial Union stage Sunday, Oct. 18, Madison audiences will have an opportunity not only to hear a great symphonic ensemble, but also the celebrated violin soloist Leonidas Kavakos and one of the world's most renowned conductors, Stanislaw Skrowaczewski. The program, furthermore, is challenging both technically and musically: the Beethoven Leonore Overture No. 2, Prokofiev's very tough Violin Concerto No. 2 and the monumental Symphony in D Minor, by César Franck.
Skrowaczewski is wonderfully down-to-earth and matter-of-fact about the difficulties of performing such works. "The Franck is a masterpiece of French music," he told me. "I'm coming back to it after about 15 years, I think." I asked about how he prepares himself to revisit a large work he knows so well. "A performance has to be alive," he said. "Of course I know it thoroughly, well enough to be able to write out the score if I had to. But we change with time, and it's not just a matter of rethinking my interpretation of these great works, but really trying to get to the heart of the musical matter from my new perspective. That means not only the interpretation, but the tempi, the particular sound of the orchestra, the work's musical gestures." This description only suggests the amount of work such a process entails. It has been some years since the last time I saw Skrowaczewski conduct, but what I remember is passion tempered by economy, inspiration mitigated by reason. It struck me as fitting in this connection that he includes the idea of gesture in his guiding concepts, because conducting is by nature a highly gestural form of communication. "Though it's hard to characterize in words," Skrowaczewski notes, "it's a question of contrasts and balances within the domain of what you can do under new conditions, new parameters."
A few years ago, the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra was in deep financial trouble. Executive director Steven Ovitsky stresses the future more than the past, however: "We've done well with philanthropy and retiring debt, and as for ticket sales, it's a matter of balancing the amount of music made available to the community." The MSO is currently playing about 200 concerts a year, 20 of them, like the Madison date, outside the home city. Most importantly, to judge by the last time I heard them here, the quality of the orchestra's playing has improved greatly in recent years, which suggests that music lovers will not want to miss the upcoming event.
Isthmus, October, 1998
Copyright 1998 Jess Anderson