A Journey Through Madison's Classical Music Scene
Nov 12, 2011
08:27 AM
Classically Speaking

Madison Symphony: 1+1+1= ?

Madison Symphony: 1+1+1= ?

What do Haydn, Ravel and Shostakovich have in common? They share space on the Madison Symphony Orchestra program this weekend. That’s all I can figure, and there was a bit of time invested in trying to discern the link among them.

Perhaps we’ve been wrongly conditioned to find a “theme” in nearly every concert program; obviously there doesn’t have to be one. And then there are those—yours truly not included—who have complained about the conservatism and predictability of the MSO over the years.

But here’s the bottom line from Friday night’s concert: the last of Haydn’s 104 symphonies packed a persuasive reminder, a Ravel chestnut was polished up and found to be of great value, and last but certainly not least, Midori proved that perhaps only an artist of her stature can pull off a tough and unfamiliar concerto in lieu of the standard flash and dash flare.

In the nearly two decades since the MSO performed Haydn’s Symphony No. 104, his and Mozart’s symphonies have had far more performances in a chamber orchestra setting. John DeMain and his fifty or so friends flipped that trend, and in so doing, provided a welcome reminder. When a chamber orchestra plays a Beethoven symphony, for example, the resulting relative clarity and transparency remind us of his Classical roots. But when a group like the MSO performs a 1795 Haydn symphony, the inevitable lushness and added power reinforce what we used to know better: the elder “Papa” Haydn was an inescapable influence on Beethoven.

OK, literate listeners, that might seem like a classic “duh!” statement. Nevertheless, the MSO reaffirmed it in the glow and grandeur of the slow introduction to the first movement, and the unexpected outbursts of the “Andante” second movement. The “Menuetto” might have lacked for a fully natural whimsy and playfulness, but the finale was every bit its “spiritoso” label.

Ravel’s paean to Johann Strauss, Jr. and the Vienna of the mid to late nineteenth century, “La Valse,” doubled the orchestra in size, and a more distinct shift in style from Haydn could hardly be engineered (OK, maybe some Schoenberg…). But again the MSO provided a “re-revelation.” This work has never been one of my personal favorites, and Friday night I think I discovered why: I’ve rarely heard it played live. Ravel’s subtle (and irresistibly splashy) orchestration demands a live acoustic for all the details to emerge and to be savored. Add in DeMain’s dramatic sweep and the orchestra’s responsiveness to his nuances of tempo fluctuations, and the result was this season’s first confirmation that Madison’s maestro is inching ever closer to having the virtuosic ensemble he envisions.

If you want to sell tickets to three performances in a venue like Overture Hall, then you bring in the big name soloists (which the MSO never has a problem doing) and pair them with a Top 10 concerto (which is often the case). Make this weekend the exception.

Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No. 1 has never been played by the MSO before, and for two good reasons: It is one of those mostly tough, introspective works of the Soviet artist, and its demands are considerable, even if it lacks the obvious pyrotechnics that result in push-button standing ovations.

But Midori is no stranger to the loftiest of artistic goals in general, or to this work in particular. In the opening “Nocturne”—a seemingly endless weave of melody—Midori produced a sound so still and pure as to make us disbelieve that a bow of horsehair was actually being rubbed against gut strings. Despite the relative quiet of the movement, this is darkly restless music, but Midori had the house rapt in short order.

The third movement offers a similar, if more fully developed emotional agenda, but the second and fourth movements unleash the technical mastery that may still go unappreciated for those whose ears are itching for Tchaikovsky or Mendelssohn. Then of course, there is the lengthy cadenza that bridges the final two movements, virtually an operatic monologue without words. We can have our warhorses most other times; Midori and DeMain are to be thanked for walking the aesthetic high wire on this occasion.

As a footnote, it is time to mention the always edifying program notes of J. Michael Allsen. This set was particularly well-detailed and contained nice personal touches. Allsen is equally gifted in highlighting easily overlooked niceties, such as the fact that the strings remove their mutes one at a time in the Ravel, or in defining literally and practically such elusive terms as “formalism,” that favorite technique of the Soviet autocrats to denigrate their artists. Even if you don’t go at all this weekend (or miss other programs), it’s a great and enjoyable investment of your time to read his notes at madisonsymphony.org.

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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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