A Journey Through Madison's Classical Music Scene
May 11, 2012
10:10 PM
Classically Speaking

Madison Symphony Season Closes with Gobs of Gershwin

Madison Symphony Season Closes with Gobs of Gershwin

For all the wonderful music John DeMain has brought to Madison via the Madison Symphony and Madison Opera, we’ve never had the chance to enjoy one of his signature achievements: Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess.

A young DeMain laid a cornerstone of his reputation in 1976, when Houston Grand Opera produced the first uncut staging of Gershwin’s masterpiece as part of their American bicentennial celebrations — over forty years after the work’s premiere.

DeMain and the MSO had offered the Robert Russell Bennett concert arrangement ten years ago, and the orchestra presented it again Friday night, to open the season’s final concerts at Overture Hall.

This is a sizable chunk of the three-hour opera, with thirteen vocal numbers and two orchestral swatches. DeMain of course enlisted the Beverly Taylor-trained Madison Symphony Chorus, and soprano Laquita Mitchell and baritone Michael Redding.

The singers cover songs from different roles, and both artists proved highly versatile, deeply expressive, and possessing instruments of extraordinary depth and power.

From the first phrase of “Summertime,” Mitchell displayed a voice of consummate control, from a sotto voce phrase-beginning to a blooming crescendo that easily carried (without a mic, of course) over a full and resonant orchestra.

Redding could have been playing a game of “can you top this,” for not only did he offer similar vocal gifts, first apparent in “A Woman Is a Sometime Thing,” but in “It Ain’t Necessarily So” and “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’” exhibited an irresistible gift for physical characterization and vocal inflection.

With short pauses between some of the vocal numbers, one had the sense that more than a few in the packed house were ready to interrupt with applause. At the end of the utterly convincing duet “Bess, You Is My Woman Now,” one patron let out a “whoo!” and the ice was broken for an impromptu ovation.

The chorus was not only wonderful on its own terms, but gave a glimpse to any in the audience unfamiliar with the full opera how rich a fabric Gershwin wove; “Gone, gone, gone” and “Overflow, overflow” were two compelling examples.

The first half presented three welcome staples: Cuban Overture, An American in Paris and Rhapsody in Blue. Gershwin gives us a real taste of Havana (he might have been of Russian-Jewish parentage, but then again, a bunch of French composers wrote some of the best “Spanish” music), and from the opening bars, the MSO sounded rested, relaxed and rich in sectional blend.

More than once, in the Overture and An American in Paris, the strings as a whole struck one with their warm and blended sound.

But while the orchestra maintained its panache for the Rhapsody, Martina Filjak, the piano soloist, gave a reading sprinkled with some nice touches — and marred by the occasionally careless blurring and banging. She did not erase any memories of Ilya Yakushev, who simply electrified the Capitol Theater back in October with Andrew Sewell and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra.

DeMain and troops did their part of course, but here’s a key difference in the two halves of Friday’s concert: Filjak got a standing ovation of the “push-button” variety (yes, it was exciting at times, and the Rhapsody is one of those pieces that almost have the ovation built in), but the Porgy forces compelled the audience to stand in approbation. It was so good that I would have applauded for forty minutes, if they would have performed for forty more in return.

But the secret to this season-closing success could be found in the illuminating comments DeMain made prior to the Porgy passages. He recounted how, back in 1976, the opera had fallen into some disfavor among both black performers and “leading personalities.” But by the time he performed it at Wolf Trap, outside Washington, D.C.: “Todd Duncan, our ‘Porgy,’ came out and the first thing he said to the audience was ‘It’s so black.’ How a white boy from Youngstown, Ohio managed that I don’t know — actually, I do: I treated the score with integrity.”

And that is why DeMain has and does matter to Madison (or for that matter, Seattle, Chicago and everywhere else he conducts): he treats the score with integrity, and here in Madison has made it his goal to build up an ensemble equal to what he finds in the music.

Here’s to next season…

Photo: George Gershwin, courtesy of Madison Symphony

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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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