A Journey Through Madison's Classical Music Scene
Sep 17, 2011
10:05 AM
Classically Speaking

Madison Symphony Disturbs, Comforts … and Sizzles

Madison Symphony Disturbs, Comforts … and Sizzles

The calendar usually says October when the Madison Symphony returns to Overture Hall to open a new season, but Music Director John DeMain felt strongly about starting earlier—if he could find a composition that would suitably honor the tenth anniversary of the attacks of 9/11/2001.

He didn’t have to look far: John Adams’ “On the Transmigration of Souls” was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic for the very first anniversary of that dark day, and the haunting work won both the Pulitzer Prize and a Grammy. DeMain of course is quite familiar with much of Adams’ work, having led the world premiere of his 1989 opera, Nixon in China.

But “Transmigration” is cut from quite a different cloth: in addition to the orchestra, the work calls for full chorus and a girls’ choir, and uses a recording of sounds and voices in its 25-minute tapestry. It is not about musical themes or development in the traditional sense, but neither is it “minimalist” in the same way that some of Adams’ other works are.

It is not any kind of literal depiction of the attacks themselves—Adams prefers to call it a “memory space”—but it is undeniably gripping, ultimately forcing the listener into an emotional realm of the kind of sadness and at times despair that comes from staring straight in the face of utterly unanswerable questions.

The piece opens without a downbeat—only a soft recording of distant sounds: quiet city traffic, footsteps on a sidewalk, sirens, then a voice repeating “missing …” Soon hovering, static strings lay a plush foundation for the chorus, whose text is taken from posters that were put up around the site of the World Trade Center in the days following the attacks. Names of the victims are spoken on the tape, just a few of them, repeated again and again. Part of the eeriness of the performance was due to the installation of nearly twenty additional speakers in Overture Hall, with sound design by Buzz Kemper of Audio for the Arts. Kudos to the Symphony management for investing in the additional equipment and labor—there was a two-track option for the recording, but in that case the overall effect of disembodied voices would have had little impact.

The music slowly rises in intensity, yet one hesitates to call it a climax, and indeed, there is no catharsis in it at all. The work dies away gradually, piano and harp adding a celestial touch, with the last words clearly heard “I love you.”

DeMain had asked in his brief opening comments that there be no immediate applause, but silence to allow a continuation of each listener’s inner response. It is possible that the audience would have been stunned into silence without his request, but in any case the resulting stillness seemed as thick and utterly encompassing as the smoke that seemed to cover all Manhattan for days after that fateful morning. When DeMain finally went offstage to bring on Beverly Taylor and Michael Ross, directors respectively of the Madison Symphony Chorus, and Cantabile of the Madison Youth Choirs, the applause, while warm and sustained, seemed less an approbation, then a wordless “thank you.” Only then did DeMain throw a cue to the snare drum and launch into a more fervent than usual "Star-Spangled Banner," which usually precedes the orchestra’s program.

Grieg’s ubiquitous Piano Concerto, Op. 16 has never seemed so warm and fuzzy as it did following the searing emotional experience of Adams’ work. Soloist Andre Watts is every bit the technical master he has been since his late teens, roaring through the cadenza, but equally capable of the Chopinesque moonlight of the slow movement. This was no “let’s just toss off this warhorse” performance by Watts or the orchestra: there were numerous subtle touches of phrasing and tempo shadings not always encountered in such time-worn works.

The second half was given over to perhaps the most famous of all symphonies: Beethoven’s Fifth. DeMain opened with a brisk tempo that stopped short of frantic, and if the strings failed to produce real bite in their attacks, they offered a beautiful blend instead. Having said that, the closing pages of the first movement did ratchet up the intensity, and the momentum carried over naturally into a true Andante for the second movement.

The Scherzo could have used a greater sense of mystery, both in the third movement itself and in its famous return midway through the finale. But overall the orchestra sounded in mid-season form, and it is worth noting that it was also the regular season debut of the Symphony’s new concertmaster, Naha Greenholtz.

But in the end, both the Grieg and Beethoven were cast in a refreshed light by the opening Adams: the audience was led from a tragedy of our own lifetimes that was uncomfortably close, to an old friend of a concerto that acted on this occasion like a security blanket, and ended with one of the great statements of triumph ever penned. Beethoven, living through Napoleon’s nearly complete despotic rule, and dealing with his growing deafness, said “no” to despair and “yes” to an unshakeable belief in the ultimate victory of the human spirit, individually and collectively.

I hope you’re curious enough to experience this program for yourself Saturday night or Sunday afternoon—but word is that single ticket sales are at a fever pitch. Go to madisonsymphony.org or call the Overture Center box office molto presto.

Photo of Andre Watts courtesy of the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

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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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