A Journey Through Madison's Classical Music Scene
Mar 10, 2012
09:03 AM
Classically Speaking

Madison Symphony Guests Sizzle and Dazzle

Madison Symphony Guests Sizzle and Dazzle

If it felt like a long time since the Madison Symphony had brought the acoustics of Overture Hall to life (January 22 was their last concert), it will be still longer before we hear them under John DeMain. But with returning guest conductor Carl St. Clair in charge, an enthusiastic and noticeably attentive audience Friday night found plenty to cheer about.

The guest soloists gave much to look forward to, but it was St. Clair who was really the star of the show. In an interesting and effective bit of programming, the featured concerto was left to the second half, and the night opened with the Symphony No. 3 of Brahms. Under St. Clair’s urgent direction, we quickly learned that the MSO strings certainly haven’t suffered from any time off;, in fact, they sounded as if they missed playing together.

From about a minute into the opening movement, the MSO seethed and surged, yearned and whispered, and we were treated to a cogent reminder that Brahms was not always the wizened bachelor we imagine from those photos of him late in life, but a passionate and persuasive Romantic of the first order.

The fact that Brahms is the opposite of everything-but-the-kitchen-sink orchestrator, unlike most of his contemporaries (only tympani for percussion, use the trombones sparingly and forget about any unusual winds, save a contrabassoon) simply gave the MSO players an uncluttered palette from which to glow and preen.

Most often the concerto on a given night features a big name artist; this time it was one big name and four great artists, namely the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet. Fortunately there is a glorious work written for such an ensemble with orchestra, the “Concierto Andaluz” of Rodrigo. He is also the author of the most-played solo guitar concerto (“Concierto de Aranjuez,” and there is no close second!). So, is the “Andaluz” four times the fun?

Of course there is no quantitative way to measure such a fanciful notion, but it can be said that one gains the considerable pleasure of marveling at John Dearman,  Matthew Greif, William Kanengiser and Scott Tennant collectively, and having numerous opportunities to savor them findividally. St. Clair and a pared-down MSO proved amiable partners in illuminating the sunny melodies and crisp rhythms that populate this Spanish landscape. The foursome returned for an unaccompanied encore of an arrangement of Manuel de Falla’s well known “Ritual Fire Dance.” The LAGQ released all of the heat of the original ballet excerpt, and gave a crystalline illustration of the kind of x-ray transparency that results when an orchestral gem is reduced to a leaner ensemble.

It was only in the night’s concluding offering , the splashy “Capriccio Espagnol” by Rimsky-Korsakov, that the audience was given the full forces of the MSO. The quarter-hour work is a veritable romp of virtuosic display as it tours a variety of Spanish dance forms. It was the best opportunity so far this season to audit the sparkling gifts of the orchestra’s first-year concertmaster, Naha Greenholz. But of course there was no lack of successful fireworks from both first-chair players and sections alike.

It will be fascinating to compare the orchestra’s sound when DeMain remounts the podium for the next concert…and this time we’ll only have to wait three weeks.

Photo: Los Angeles Guitar Quartet

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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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