A Journey Through Madison's Classical Music Scene
Apr 7, 2014
09:45 AMClassically Speaking
When DeMain Is Away, How Does the Madison Symphony Play?
PHOTO COURTESY OF MADISON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
Julian Wachner, who conducted the MSO in John DeMain's absence this past weekend.
I hope no one is surprised to learn that, while Madison Symphony Orchestra music director John DeMain is in the midst of his twentieth season with the orchestra, he is still very much in demand in other places. So while DeMain is hopping flights to and from Virginia Opera (getting his usual strong notices for Carmen) and laying the groundwork for Madison Opera’s upcoming Dead Man Walking, Julian Wachner took his place for this past weekend’s concerts at Overture Hall (which had been the plan all along).
Wachner’s resume indicates he is a rising star very much risen already, particularly in the choral world, with his positions as Director of Music and the Arts at Trinity Church (the famed colonial building on Wall Street) and music director of the Washington Chorus. His performance Friday night gave more than ample evidence that his reputation should remain on the rise for some time.
The MSO players didn’t seem to mind that Wachner conducts without a baton, having no problem realizing a blistering “Slavonic Dance No. 1” by Dvorak. But the big number of the first half gave all concerned varied opportunities for color, nuance and expression—with no lack of the big moments.
The work was the Symphonie Concertante for Organ and Orchestra of Joseph Jongen, a piece that was given the honor of the first work performed on the Overture Hall organ in 2004. The 1926 opus is a fascinating composition, in the opening movement treating the organ mostly as a special musical spice, and not giving any clues as to stylistic influences on the composer.
But soon enough organist Nathan Laube had plenty of knuckle-busting (and ankle-wriggling) passages, beginning with the ensuing “Divertimento.” Here and later, one can hear wisps of Debussy, Respighi and other post-Romantic voices. But Jongen created a fabulous showpiece all his own, and every section of the orchestra had a chance to revel in a glorious palette of textures. The audience response was to immediately come to their feet, and in the course of three curtain calls, the applause intensified when the orchestra was asked to stand. And it must be said the performance made a strong argument for some of us (I’m first in line) to make a point of getting to next month’s last—or any of next season’s—organ performances at Overture Hall.
The second half was an opportunity to showcase the Madison Symphony Chorus and four vocalists, some of whom are already known for fine work here in town. The Requiem of Mozart is, of course, that famously unfinished work, shrouded in mystery and misinformation. But even when sorted out neatly in J. Michael Allsen’s always cogent and delightful program notes, it cannot deliver as complete a dramatic impact as some later works of the genre.
But the problems on this occasion were more pedestrian, and seemed to result from a miscalculation of the seating arrangement: With the four vocal soloists well behind Wachner, they did not always produce lines that were hand-in-glove in sync with Wachner and the other forces. This was particularly noticed in the “Recordare,” but later everyone was on the same page (even if Wachner wasn’t using a score!).
Wachner favored a big and bold canvas for the work, befitting the large chorus and modern instruments (although the clarinet players appeared to be playing basset horns—a nice touch). The famous “Dies irae” was furious, but later in the “Lacrymosa” the violins provided a haunting, suitably weeping, motif.
Soprano Emily Birsan and contralto Daniela Mack are no strangers to Madison, and it was a pleasure to hear their continued artistic growth and fine shadings of vocalism. They were joined by tenor Wesley Rogers and bass Liam Moran, and the foursome was nicely matched in timbre and balance. The MSO Chorus, expertly trained as always by Beverly Taylor, provided all the impact Wachner asked for without sacrificing clarity and beauty.