Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra Holds ‘A Grand Opening’ With Opening!

This past weekend (October 1 through October 3 2021), the Milwaukee Symphony orchestra opened their 2021/22 season, held a grand opening of their new performance space, the Bradley Symphony Center, and featured a commissioned work, Opening!

So I have two responses to offer today, one on the program and one on the facility. So here’s my take on the program (and music director/conductor Ken-David Masur did a marvelous job putting this opening concert together).

It was wonderful to be back in person in front of a live symphony orchestra. Something that was sorely missed in my life. But the world class (and that’s not just local boy bias) didn’t disappoint with their opening weekend performance. I attended the Sunday October 3rd matinee, the first matinee I’d attended in years but there wasn’t a thing missing. And the orchestra level seating was nearly full!!!

Now as mentioned above, the symphony had commissioned a piece by American composer, Eric Nathan, and he named the piece Opening. So appropriately MSO opened the concert with…Opening! This piece is a joy to ears who enjoy 20th Century classical music. Just a bit of ensemble work, individual solo work, some playful dissonance, and a seeming variation in tempo….plus of course attention holding dynamics. Not unheard of but a bit unusual, Opening features solo instruments distributed around the hall. This provides for some very engaging call and response intervals and solos that used the very lively timbre of the hall effectively. It didn’t work as well when the entire symphony came into play and the solo instruments got a bit lost in the mix…and I was only five seats away from one of the violinists. The notes say “this piece was itself a willful act of hope”. And that emotion was evident as the orchestra played through…and again from the notes: “Opening begins with reverence and closes in celebration”. A much appreciated start for the season!

And then the MSO follows up with the North American premier of James B Wilson‘s Green Fuse. This 10 minute piece for strings is the perfect bookend for Opening. Composed in 2017 by the British born composer, this piece makes use of all of the voices available in a string orchestra. Again we have dynamics, slow to more rapid tempos, solo voices vs. ensemble playing, and just a bit of 20th Century minimalism a bit reminiscent of Steve Reich’s work. Particular interest toward the end when the violins trade voice, timbre, and rhythmic counterpoint with the cellos and basses. I hope that this is programmed again in the near future.

And then we have the piece that most of us were in the hall to hear: George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. And to show this rhapsody off properly, Mr. Masur invited Aaron Diehl to perform the piano portion. And oh my goodness, Mr. Diehl provided a far more jazzy rendition than that we are accustomed to…something akin to what I would think Mr. Gershwin intended when he wrote it…and it was simply wonderful! It almost seems like it was purely written with Mr. Diehl in mind. It certainly sparked a renewed interest the piece for me and let me hear it with ‘new ears’. Bravo Mr. Diehl and Mr. Masur!!!

Then after intermission, Mr. Diehl returns with Duke Ellington’s New World A-Comin‘. A bit of a surprise in the program but a perfect vehicle for Mr. Diehl and a engaging foil for Rhapsody in Blue.

Editor’s Note October 8, 2021: I was totally remiss in not mentioning Mr. Diehl’s absolutely delightful solo encore of Duke Ellington’s “Single Petal of a Rose”. What an incredibly delightful piece that brought out another side of Mr. Ellington and just clearly displayed Mr. Diehl’s mastery of the piano! (thanks to MARIE HOLTYN and AL BARTOSIK at MSO for providing this information)

And then the highlight for me! Igor Stravinsky’s Suite from The Firebird, 1919 Version). My favorite composer of all time…this piece was just perfectly conducted and played. I went home a very happy camper.

Now…some comments on the symphony’s new home.

It is absolutely beautiful. The art deco features from the original 1930 Warner’s movie palace have been retained and restored. I didn’t have time to explore on Sunday but will make time on my next visit or two.

And the sound is incredible. The Marcus Center certainly favored loud orchestral playing and the Bradley Symphony Center matches it note for note (take the pun anyway you are too…LOL). But the slower tempo and quieter passages at the Bradley are so much clearer and refined and they carry very very well. I was very impressed with that. A major improvement over the way the Marcus treats soft quiet passages.

What I didn’t like was: because the hall expressed the orchestra so incredibly well, the piano got lost at times when playing with the orchestra as opposed to when it is the featured voice. And sometimes more than lost, almost invisible. And with someone as emotional as Mr. Diehl, that was too bad.

Even after having moved the back wall out into 2nd Street by 35 feet, the stage seems shallow and moving the grand piano on and off stage seemed like a bigger chore than in the past.

And the stage seems higher. I had season tickets at the Marcus in row N of the orchestra and was high enough to see into the orchestra a bit. I like to watch the woodwinds because my son is a flute/piccolo player (not with the MSO). But sitting in row Q at the Bradley I found my eyes were at knee level with the cellos. That’s just me and isn’t actually a knock of the hall…I will get tickets further back in the future…so I have to adjust my viewing preferences and ticket selection to suit my whims.

And I picked up my tickets at will call. The MSO may want to rethink the assignment of the three ticket windows just inside the front doors. The today and future windows were less busy but they are the center booth and inner booth while will call was the first one inside. That resulted in that line snaking out onto the sidewalk at their busiest time before the concert.

I didn’t renew my subscription for this season…partly out of anxiety…partly out of concern for how the pandemic will play out this fall and winter…so as I select concerts to attend I can get more familiar with the facility, traffic flow, etc. And I am looking forward to my next visit!!!

Welcome back Ken-David Masur and the exquisite Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra!