A Journey Through Madison's Classical Music Scene
Mar 11, 2013
06:09 PM
Classically Speaking

Madison Symphony Delivers an “a la carte” Feast

Madison Symphony Delivers an “a la carte” Feast

Pardon me if you’ve heard this one before, but programming an orchestra season can be a very tricky business: Tchaikovsky and Mozart sell all the time (until the more seasoned subscribers whine that they’re bored and want something a little more adventurous), while even now-standard repertoire of names such as Stravinsky and Schoenberg can scare off too many prized patrons. If you do manage to strike a balance, then you come to the point of trying to put together individual programs that seem to make some sort of larger sense.

John DeMain has done a great job of handling this high wire act, keeping most of us (very) happy most of the time, particularly in the last two seasons when I’ve been paying exceptionally close attention. I can’t say for sure how he came to put this past weekend’s plan in place, but a hearing of the Madison Symphony's Sunday matinee in Overture Hall begged the obvious question: what do Mozart and Shostakovich have in common? In the case of a slender violin concerto (preceded by a slenderer overture) and a mammoth, post-Stalin symphony, the answer would seem to be: nothing at all.

That is, unless you want to make the case that, regardless of diametrically opposed styles and forces employed, the two halves of the concert enjoyed superb musicianship and a near-capacity hall reaped maximum enjoyment.

Little touches matter, too: with an opening slot for an overture, and about a dozen Mozartean specimens to choose from, DeMain opted for an overture road less traveled, “The Impresario.” A kindred spirit to the sprightly bounce of the more famous Overture to “The Marriage of Figaro” (and composed around the same time), it was a treat to hear something other than the tried and true. Better yet, it was clear even from this five-minute gem that the Madison Symphony players had their Mozart “ears” on; the sound was bubbly, balanced and transparent.

And that last group of adjectives would prove crucial in the ensuing Violin Concerto No. 4 of the then-19-year old Mozart. The obvious draw to this weekend’s concerts was the return of Norwegian violinist Henning Kraggerud. Making his third visit in six years, it is hard to believe that the MSO would lose any subscribers if Kraggerud was booked for every season. In January 2011 he performed a minor miracle, taking one of the ultimate warhorses, the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, and making it all seem fresh and urgently new—without the obvious tactic of willful interpretation.

One’s memories of his lucid but penetrating tone and breathtaking precision on that occasion still glowed, even as one realized the same approach would not work for the delicacies of a Mozart concerto. Never fear; Kraggerud consistently applied the silken sound of his 1744 Guarneri del Gesu as one might add a gold gilt edge to a rich but supple base. His sound has both the sweetness and clarity of drawn butter, and DeMain and his suitably reduced forces were true partners in another memorable object lesson in the application of technique in the service of art.

Come encore time, Kraggerud paid tribute to both a famous countryman and a Madison connection with the “Fantasy on an Original Theme” of Ole Bull. Bull was the sensational 19th-century Norwegian violinist who married a Wisconsin lass and lived in Madison for a time late in his life. One’s only complaint was we were still left wanting more from Kraggerud.

The orchestra more than doubled in size after intermission, and DeMain tackled Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10 for the first time since 1999, early in his tenure here. It would be fascinating to be able to hear what that earlier performance was like; that precedes my time in our fair city, and I can’t help but believe the orchestra has grown in its musicianship since then.

Certainly that long, brooding opening to the sizable first movement portended a solid reading: just under the surface of the gloomy strings is a nascent tenderness, and DeMain, along with supple solos from flute and clarinet, patiently nurtured that would-be healing spirit. The brief scherzo is a brutish affair, purportedly a portrait of Stalin, if one believes the account in Shostakovich’s posthumously published Testimony. All that really mattered here was that every section fired—literally, it seemed at times—on all cylinders.

Then the structure in a way repeats itself, a long third movement that surprises briefly with a sense of jaunty playfulness, and a shorter than expected finale that, yes, brought most of the audience to its feet quickly. Perhaps in the end that was the most encouraging thing: The Sunday afternoon audiences (and I’ve found this as true in New York, Boston and Los Angeles) tend to be the oldest attendees in a series of programs. Not only had they stayed after the star power of Kraggerud and Mozart had had their say, but they truly appreciated the orchestra and Shostakovich. It will be intriguing to learn this Friday what Maestro DeMain has slated for next season. Stay tuned.

Photo: Henning Kraggerud, courtesy Robert Romik.

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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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