A Journey Through Madison's Classical Music Scene
Oct 19, 2013
12:48 AM
Classically Speaking

Madison Symphony Program Suggests a “New Normal”

Madison Symphony Program Suggests a “New Normal”

Bernard Martinez

Philippe Bianconi

It was just three weeks ago that John DeMain opened his 20th season with the Madison Symphony in an all-orchestral program that demonstrated the ensemble had reached a new level of excellence. This past Friday night in Overture Hall the question was: Could the group maintain those new heights?

The short answer is: mostly yes. In observance of the centennial year of the birth of Benjamin Britten, DeMain opened the evening with the “Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra.” In the context of last month’s concert, DeMain might have dubbed the work “All Persons Guide to My Orchestra.” After all, the seventeen-minute work is a section by section, player by player guide to the orchestra via variations on a theme of the 17th-century English great, Henry Purcell.

While the MSO has played it on a number of youth concerts, this was its first offering for a subscription event. And why not? I can’t recall ever hearing it live, and I’ve adored the colorful and charming work for most of my life. It’s fun to watch and hear the expanded percussion section—and, as is so often the case—catch details in a live hearing that apparently elude even the finest recordings. A splendid time was had by all, in and outside of the orchestra, and the night’s first ovation (punctuated by all the necessary solo bows) rivaled some concerts’ endings.

Then DeMain turned to the area of repertoire that still seems to challenge the MSO the most, French impressionism. Debussy’s three-movement tone poem, La Mer (The Sea) is one of the iconic examples of the style, and in recent seasons the orchestra has not quite succeeded in producing that elusive sense of tonal gauziness, that overlapping sonic ambiguity that permeates these scores of Debussy and Ravel.

For the first few minutes at sea, musically speaking, one wondered if we would indeed experience a greater degree of translucence, a buoyancy of tone. Then concertmaster Naha Greenholtz wove the first of two silken solos, and the orchestra seemed to blend and melt convincingly. The audience response was warm, but not overwhelming.

The second half brought the first of the season’s soloists, and a returning favorite at that, pianist Philippe Bianconi, in his fifth appearance here since 2001. The vehicle was the antithesis of French romanticism, the mighty Piano Concerto No. 2 of Brahms. A virtual symphony (not just four movements instead of a concerto’s usual three, but expansive to the point of lasting fifty minutes), the orchestra is almost exclusively required to play as one—and to partner more deeply with the soloist.

In the opening movement Bianconi almost seemed to be trying too hard to deliver an extra measure of depth and breadth, and the ubiquitous sequences of thirds and sixths and octaves betrayed a smudge here and there. With the second movement Scherzo, Bianconi appeared to relax, and we were treated to a good half hour or so of unforced unanimity, DeMain and soloist working hand in glove nearly every moment.

The one time an orchestral soloist is called for is in the opening and close of the slow movement, and principal cellist Karl Lavine delivered exquisitely phrased lines of rich tone. When the finale’s last bars were reached, it did not take long for most of the patrons to stand, and Lavine too received hearty approbation. Bianconi did return for an encore and brought us back to the first half, with a limpid, drops-of-sunlight reading of Debussy’s prelude, “The Girl with the Flaxen Hair.”

If you’re scoring at home (as they say in baseball), the Britten was a predictable hit, the Debussy reveals an ensemble inching closer to an elusive goal, and the MSO demonstrated its versatility in the burnished warmth and power of Brahms. If you want to verify it for yourself, the program will be repeated Saturday night at 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2:30 p.m.

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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
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