A Journey Through Madison's Classical Music Scene
Mar 31, 2012
09:58 AM
Classically Speaking

Madison Symphony Wins the Battle

Madison Symphony Wins the Battle

The penultimate concert of a season is a great time to measure the progress of an orchestra, and Madison Symphony music director John DeMain set his sights on a major target by programming Richard Strauss’ epic tone poem Ein Heldenleben. And as the work occupied the second part of Friday night’s concert at Overture Hall, in many ways the near-capacity audience found the best had been saved for last.

But the night opened with a brief foray into the work of a contemporary composer, “Inspiring Beethoven” of Kevin Puts. In brief, it is a musico-emotional landscape of the creation of the opening motif of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7.

Every serious music lover likes to play mind games about how this theme or that sprang from a given composer’s mind, and Beethoven provides amply fertile ground for such an exercise: He left voluminous sketchbooks that reveal the laborious, often years-long process that eventually evolved into some of his most famous works.

Puts makes it clear from quotes in J. Michael Allsen’s program notes that his work does not represent any genuine glimpse into a mind such as Beethoven’s, but he essentially plays with appearances of the jaunty dotted-rhythm theme in a musical fabric sometimes dark and dissonant, meant to represent the larger emotional backdrop of Beethoven’s life c. 1812.

But one listener at least realized that before the signature tune re-emerged near the end of Puts’ twelve-minute opus, that it was Puts’ own sound and music that had become the focus, and makes one want to search out more of his work. So a “thank you” to DeMain for introducing this composer to Madison audiences — and it should be noted, as DeMain has been occasionally, and perhaps with some justification, faulted for not programming more 21st-century music — that going back a season and looking ahead to next, the MSO has programmed Harbison, Adams, Puts and Higdon, along with some of the meatier 20th-century masterworks from the likes of Prokofiev, Bartok and Shostakovich.

Real Beethoven was next, the Piano Concerto No. 4, with a returning favorite, Philippe Bianconi, as soloist. Not having audited Bianconi’s earlier — and highly acclaimed — Madison appearances, I can now say I know what all the fuss is about. Not only does Bianconi command a lucidly singing tone and transparent technique, but his interpretation is full of the kinds of subtle touches that refresh even the best known repertoire. Unfortunately, there were two or three moments in the first movement where Bianconi and orchestra were not of one mind in the ending of phrase or the link to another. But in the final two movements we experienced true partnership.

In the central Andante, Bianconi produced a sound that can only be described in metaphysical terms: with a tone so liquid and alive, it was as if you were watching water being poured into a pitcher, and then somehow the process was slowed down before your very eyes. The rondo finale found Bianconi fully capable of moving from the “snap-crackle-pop” of the main theme to glimpses of moonlight in the lyrical episodes.

An insistent ovation led to a solo encore that by itself was worth the price of admission. Unannounced by Bianconi, some help from new marketing director Henry Peters gave us the knowledge that it was “Warum?,” the Op. 12, No. 3 “Fantasiestucke” of Schumann. An incredibly attentive audience held its breath to savor the lingering of the final notes.

And so we came to the test of Strauss’ “A Hero’s Life.” Once upon a time (my sophomore year in college) I wrote a paper purporting this to be the greatest of Strauss’ ten tone poems. Nineteen-year olds can be forgiven such impetuous judgments, as they are easily swayed by an orchestra of triple woodwinds, seven or eight horns and basses, a virtual mini-concerto in the middle of the work, and a battle scene that influenced John Williams and every other film score composer worth their salt.

It is a gloriously bombastic, absurdly proportioned work that flickers and blazes — and a great test of an orchestra’s collective mettle, particularly when an ensemble has not tackled it since 1985.

The opening theme launches from the basses and cellos and barely pauses for breath for over one hundred bars; the MSO was off and running, and generally treating the sprawling score as a romp. One of the great stretches is the third section, in which the concertmaster portrays the hero’s loved one. If anyone needed further evidence of why Naha Greenholz now occupies the celebrated concertmaster’s seat, this was it — after all, this extended series of solos was part of the audition process over a year ago when the seat was open. Greenholz was properly capricious but never careless, and full of a richly seductive tone for the moments when the passion blossomed.

As for the battle, let’s say that the orchestra has earned their medal of valor, and equally impressive to the many sectional highlights and first-chair solos was the fact that the overall energy never flagged. Of course, they have to play it again Saturday night and Sunday afternoon. I think they’ll survive.

Photo: Philippe Bianconi, courtesy of Jean Michael Sabat

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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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