Ken-David Masur Debut Auspicious For Milwaukee SO

Ken-David Masur, 42, makes an impressive debut as music director of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra as plans for a new home at a once opulent movie palace, the Warner Grand Theater, are on schedule for next season. (Photo by Jonathan Kim)
By Wynne Delacoma

MILWAUKEE – For the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, the 2019-20 season will be one of warm welcomes and a perhaps not-so-fond farewell.

On Sept. 13-15, Leipzig-born conductor Ken-David Masur, 42, made his debut as MSO music director with a festive program of Wagner, Schumann, Richard Strauss and contemporary composer Detlev Glanert. Masur succeeds Edo de Waart, music director from 2009 to 2017 and now MSO music director laureate. After two seasons of mostly guest conductors, audiences at Masur’s concerts in Milwaukee’s Marcus Performing Arts Center seemed thrilled to once again welcome a permanent music director to the podium.

Masur is steeped in the German Romantic tradition. (Adam DeTour)

He won’t be on that particular podium for long, however. If all goes according to plan, 2019-20 will be the orchestra’s farewell season at the Marcus Center. Opened in 1969, the complex was designed as a home for various Milwaukee performing groups, but the orchestra has long faced scheduling and acoustical problems in its largest multi-purpose space, Uihlein Hall. In September 2020, the MSO will move to the Warner Grand Theater, a once opulent movie palace in downtown Milwaukee. An Art Deco gem built in 1930 and closed and decaying since 1995, it will become the symphony’s new home after a nearly $90 million restoration and renovation.

Masur made his MSO debut as a guest conductor only last year, but judging from Sunday’s matinee, it’s clear why he was the unanimous choice of the orchestra’s music director search committee. Tall and slim, Masur is commanding on the podium, but his sweeping gestures have none of the look-at-me theatrics affected by some conductors. The son of a distinguished maestro, Kurt Masur, and steeped in the German Romantic tradition, he brought deep thoughtfulness to the introspective hush of Glanert’s Brahms-Fantasie, subtitled Heliogravure for Orchestra, and to the slow movement of the Schumann Piano Concerto in A minor with soloist Nicolas Namoradze. But the Prelude to Wagner’s Die Meistersinger glittered with exuberant pomp and high spirits, and the 1945 version of the Suite from Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier was full of merry good cheer.

The MSO is a virtuoso ensemble fully capable of giving Masur whatever he wants. Principal oboe Katherine Young Steele was a standout in solo passages, especially in the Schumann concerto and the Rosenkavalier Suite. Her tone was powerful and clear, but touchingly eloquent in Strauss’s gently melancholy melodies.

Nicolas Namoradze, who performed the Schumann Piano Concerto,  is also a composer. (Nathan Elson)

Namoradze, a rising young Georgian pianist and composer, was similarly eloquent in the Schumann concerto. Lingering over Schumann’s tender, singing melodies, shading each phrase with precisely chosen color, he drew us into an intimate universe. In its virtuoso flights, his sparkling runs and chords flashed by like quicksilver. In the opening movement, however, the orchestra sounded more prosaic than Namoradze, Masur’s more four-square phrasing not quite matching the soloist’s poetic breadth.

Detlev Glanert (

Yet there was poetry aplenty in Glanert’s Brahms-Fantasie, an utterly engrossing piece composed in 2012. [In the work’s subtitle, “heliogravure” refers to a two-part photographic process in which the original image is subjected to transformation.] Masur and the orchestra, especially the lustrous violins, explored every dark, atmospheric corner of Glanert’s vision of Brahms viewed through a hazy overlay. With their steady, ominous rhythms, the MSO’s double basses stalked in the background like shadowy figures in a film noir. Orchestral phrases appeared and melted away, their textures constantly shifting.

In brief gracious remarks during the concert, Masur spoke about his commitment to both the orchestra and the city. Next season he will be on the podium for 13 weeks, and his long-term plans include both new music and deep exploration of standard repertoire. His family will move to Milwaukee, and he intends to become involved with the community far beyond the concert hall. He will be a presence in Chicago as well, as the newly named principal conductor of the Civic Orchestra, the Chicago Symphony’s long-established training ensemble.

Founded in 1959, the MSO is a distinguished ensemble, and it’s exciting to find it on the brink of a potentially transformative chapter. Unlike many orchestras, its budgets are balanced, and having its own theater will mean more convenient concert dates for a growing audience. Several orchestras have moved into renovated movie palaces with great success, including the St. Louis Symphony. Their home, Powell Hall, is a converted theater originally designed, like the Warner Grand, by the famed movie palace architects Rapp and Rapp.

Wynne Delacoma began her career as an arts critic at the Milwaukee Journal. She is the former classical music critic for the Chicago Sun-Times and adjunct faculty member teaching arts criticism and reporting at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. As a freelance arts writer and lecturer she has worked with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Lyric Opera of Chicago, and the Ravinia Festival. Her criticism appears in outlets including the Chicago Sun-Times, Musical America, and Chicago Classical Review.