A Journey Through Madison's Classical Music Scene
Sep 28, 2013
09:47 AM
Classically Speaking

Demonstrating What All the Fuss Is About

Demonstrating What All the Fuss Is About


John DeMain and the Madison Symphony

In recent days there has been much well-deserved celebration of the fact that John DeMain was about to launch his 20th seasons as music director of the Madison Symphony and Madison Opera. All we needed now was the music.

Friday night in Overture Hall, in a program designed to show off the ensemble he has skillfully and lovingly built, DeMain and the orchestra delivered on every level.

A packed hall greeted the maestro with an ovation more typical of the end of a concert, and just as one anticipated some pre-downbeat “bravos,” DeMain ignited his traditional first-night “Star-Spangled Banner.”

Usually of course, orchestras sell a great number of tickets by adding an international soloist and a crowd-pleasing concerto, but there was no shortage of fireworks or satisfaction in a slate of Copland, Wagner and Rimsky-Korsakov. We didn’t have to wait long to hear from one of the orchestra’s newest members, principal clarinetist Joseph Morris. His glowing tone floated above ethereal strings in Copland’s suite from the ballet Appalachian Spring.

DeMain contends that the string section is now the strength of the orchestra—when he came to Madison, the section was not full-sized and according to contemporary accounts, limited the repertoire choices. Now they are indeed the engine that drives this luxury vehicle. This is not the result of superior first-chair players such as concertmaster Naha Greenholtz and cellist Karl Lavine, but DeMain’s patient building of the sections. At times the cello section seemed to hum, their collective tone bereft of any hint of horsehair scraping strings.

If you do not have strings which can blend and soar, the result will be more “death” than “love” in the “Prelude and Liebestod” from Wagner’s music drama Tristan and Isolde. But DeMain swooshed and soared with his strings driving a work that demands a collective virtuosity, and on this reading alone one would judge that conductor and players have once and for all arrived at that promised land where they can tackle any repertoire they choose.

But if you’re going to let your orchestra take the spotlight usually reserved for a concerto soloist, you can hardly do better than to program Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade. The MSO has not played it since 1988—just a few years before DeMain’s tenure—and it is safe to say it was nothing like what was heard Friday night.

The stentorian motif of the Sultan roared forth, anchored by another new player, tubist Joshua Biere (he only had to best over thirty other applicants for the job, in case you hadn’t heard). Of course, the work is almost a mini-concerto for the concertmaster, and Naha Greenholtz spun effortless roulades, coy and aggressive by turns, in the sultry music of the title character.

In the end, nearly every first chair player gets at least one major moment in the forefront, but what makes the work special are the unexpected combinations that emerge from the pen of the master Russian orchestrator. One that stood out was the sequence in the final movement where collective strings strummed pizzicati, the harp fired off brilliant arpeggios (Karen Beth Atz who finally had a work to really show her considerable skills), and first trumpet John Aley triple-tongued his way through a thicket of rat-a-tat-tat notes.

The ovation lasted more than long enough for DeMain to acknowledge every one of the singular contributions. It was easily the longest ovation I’ve witnessed over the last three-plus seasons of the MSO, and deserved as the accolades were for the individuals taking their bows, the feeling was inescapable that this was a celebration of the whole. DeMain programmed a night designed to display every integral quality of his ensemble, and the MSO attacked it like a football team favored to win by two touchdowns. The best thing is that orchestras don’t play against a composer (hopefully!), and long after the next Super Bowl has come and gone, DeMain and the MSO will be dazzling us in the final concerts of his 20th season at the helm.

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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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