A Journey Through Madison's Classical Music Scene
Nov 11, 2013
09:19 AM
Classically Speaking

“Con Vivo!” Goes Large, and a Maestro Goes Mini

“Con Vivo!” Goes Large, and a Maestro Goes Mini


Members of con vivo! last year at Carnegie Hall

con vivo!…music with life is the flexibly sized chamber ensemble run by Robert and Kathy Taylor. For eleven seasons they have filled the First Congregational United Church of Christ with stimulating chamber repertoire. To open this season this past Friday, they decided to go big—"Baker’s Dozen" was the theme, as both major works required thirteen players. While using smaller forces than a chamber orchestra, the Siegfried Idyll of Wagner, and Mozart’s Serenade No. 10, “Gran Partita,” usually require a conductor.

con vivo decided to combine bicentennial celebrations of Wagner with the 20th seasons that John DeMain is enjoying with the Madison Symphony and Madison Opera. It was not his first such appearance: Two seasons ago DeMain led a performance of The Soldier’s Tale by Stravinsky.

The Siegfried Idyll is Wagner for those who hate Wagner—intimate, unpretentious and gorgeous from end to end of its nearly twenty minutes. DeMain led an ensemble of players mostly familiar to him from his larger ensembles, and was predictably comfortable and sensitive with the reduced forces. Better still, this was the original version as Wagner composed it; it is not unusual to hear this played today with large chamber orchestras. But to experience it in the warm and spacious acoustic of the First Congregational sanctuary with just one string player per part was memorable.

DeMain then went to the keyboard to accompany violinist Olga Pomolova in a thoroughly obscure rarity of Wagner’s, the “Albumblatt.” This was an arrangement by Wilhemj, possibly of an original for string quartet that apparently was a Christmas gift to wife Cosima, as the Idyll had been. The more salient point is that this is not the stuff of Valhalla-storming Valkyries, but a quasi-generic romantic reflection that Pomolova and DeMain delivered with appropriate passion.

The "Gran Partita" of Mozart is nearly symphonic, so again it is instructive to hear the seven-movement work with the required thirteen players, and a conductor who knows how to coax the expressive details that flit from one pair of players or section to another. The third movement “Adagio” gave the work added popularity in the manner in which it was featured in the film Amadeus, but in DeMain’s and con vivo’s reading every movement bubbled with unique characteristics.

The night was a wonderful counterpoint to the sprawling canvasses DeMain has painted with the MSO this season, and last weekend’s thrilling Tosca from Madison Opera—and another reminder that con vivo! holds its own in creative programming, which is saying something in this town.

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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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