A Journey Through Madison's Classical Music Scene
Feb 9, 2013
11:34 AM
Classically Speaking

Madison Symphony Delivers Three Proofs of an Old Artistic Axiom

Madison Symphony Delivers Three Proofs of an Old Artistic Axiom

When we sold bumper stickers back at the New England Conservatory some 35 years ago that read “Live Music Is Best,” I thought we were just trying to raise some scholarship money.

Friday night in Overture Hall, the Madison Symphony Orchestra delivered three different examples of why the slogan is so true.

The most obviously compelling example came courtesy of the return of cellist Alban Gerhardt (once again I run to the confessional and declare that this was my first encounter with him, even though he’s graced our city with his mind-boggling mastery in recent years).

It is one thing for a world-class soloist to come in and reinvigorate the romantic strains of Dvorak or Schumann, but few have the nerve—or the surpassing technique — to tackle the Sinfonia Concertante of Prokofiev. Oh sure, you can run out and find a number of representative recordings—and quite possibly find yourself lost somewhere in that enormous central movement. What the live performance gave us was the chance to be undistractedly immersed in a turbulent sea of sound, often equally wowed by Gerhardt’s prowess and the orchestra’s contributions.

When encore time arrived, Gerhardt gave us the flip side of virtuosity: the pure expression of a movement from one of the Bach suites for unaccompanied cello. Great music exists to give expression where no words can suffice; some performances (and performers such as Gerhardt) likewise leave us a little speechless.

John DeMain had opened the evening with an MSO first, the Rapsodie Espagnole of Ravel. Now here is music many of us have enjoyed many times, but again, I can recall recorded experiences where concentration flagged. This is of course, no “sing-along” opus; this is Ravel at his most impressionistic, swaths of color illuminating a perfumed evening, the splashes of a festival day.

Our director makes no secret that he has been proudly building the virtuosity of our local band, and many such tests have been passed in recent seasons. The test of an impressionistic masterpiece is the blend of the sonic brushstrokes: The MSO had the individual colors right, lacking only a finished sense of collective subtlety. But it was another encouraging step.

The second half was given over to one of the relatively overlooked Beethoven symphonies, No. 4. The spirit of the opening movement was akin to those old Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland backyard musicals: “Hey kids! We can put on a Beethoven symphony!”

DeMain and his charges by turns found the unbounded romp and frolic of the outer movements and scherzo, with a rugged explosiveness and bright clarity that swept the listener along. In the Adagio, clarinetist Linda Bartley anchored the weightless progression of the tender themes with limpid solos; indeed, the woodwinds throughout the evening were superb.

Ovations of three curtain calls are usually reserved for soloists, or the big splashy orchestral extravaganzas. DeMain and company earned theirs the old-fashioned way, and come to think of it, I’ve never stood and applauded for a recording.

Photo: Alban Gerhardt. Courtesy of Canetty-Clarke, Hyperion.

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About This Blog

Years before I contributed my first classical review to the Los Angeles Times in 1988, I started a class in music appreciation for adults that had one aim: to put a few cracks in the “ivory tower elitism” I found pervasive in the classical music world since my boyhood days. Whether as a critic, program annotator or band director, that goal has never changed. After all, Mozart and Beethoven and the gang wrote their music for people like you—not critics or professors!

After growing up in the suburbs of New York City, and spending twenty years in and around Los Angeles, the last twelve years here leave me more amazed than ever at the musical riches of Madison. I’m a cheerleader at heart, because I always think more people would become classical fans if they’d give it a chance—but I’m also quick to tell you when you’re not getting your money’s worth. Classically Speaking brings you as much news and as many reviews as possible, and I hope you’ll join me for a fabulous musical journey.

–  Greg Hettmansberger
Follow Greg on Twitter @ghettmansberger

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