The Well-Tempered Ear

MSO ‘Overtures’ CD wins on all counts | September 3, 2009

By Jacob Stockinger

It’s a perfectly conceived, perfectly executed and perfectly named CD.MSO-CD cover

“Overtures from Overture Hall” by the Madison Symphony Orchestra, released this summer on the ION Records label and available at local stores as well as on-line, is likely to fill a special niche in your music library.

It is a generous CD, with over 70 minutes of music that often gets squeezed out of other recordings because they are short works, more like individual movements from a larger symphony, and parts on large operas.

The selection includes Smetana’s Overture to “The Bartered Bride,” Vaughan Williams’ Overture to “The Wasps,” Berlioz’ Overture to “Benevenuto Cellini,” Tchaikovsky’s “Fantasy Overture” to “Romeo and Juliet,” Edward Elgar’s “Cockaigne Overture (In London Town)” and Mendelssohn’s Overture to “Ruy Blas.”

It’s also a good choice of repertoire because so many of the big and famous orchestras in the world have recorded the standard symphony repertoire by Beethoven, Brahms, Schumann, Dvorak and Mahler.

Besides, many listeners are likely to find the length of the overtures, which run from seven minutes up to 20 minutes. That’s just right for a car trip or a before-bed listen.

These live performances are conducted by John DeMain, who is now entering his 16th season with MSO. The CD was appropriately recorded in Overture Hall (the MSO bills itself as “the Orchestra of Overture Hall”). The CD was recorded by Madison sound engineer Marvin Nonn for broadcast on Wisconsin Public Radio. And the program notes — short, accessible and to the point — are by J. Michael Allsen, who plays in the MSO and also writes their season program notes.MSO-HALL

All those local ties make a thoroughly Madison product.

But for being local,the recording is still first-rate. The sound is crisp and clear. The interpretations, from the dance-like energy of Smetana to the lyrical melancholy of Tchaikovsky, are convincing and never forced or distorted. The engineering and sonics are tops.

My only criticism is the audience applause that comes after every selection. I think keeping to just before the beginning and just after the end allows the listeners to know it’s live. Even better, in this case, why not leave out all applause altogether and just let the well-performed music speak for itself, with a note about live recordings on the front or back cover or in the notes.

But that’s small point, really.

Looking at the new MSO season — single tickets are now on sale at the Overture Center box office, call 608 258-4141 — I see a lot of other overtures programmed. (For information, visit

True, they make great curtain-raisers and good set-ups for longer works.

But still, you can’t also help but wonder: Is Volume Two on the way?

That would be cause for rejoicing.

Anyway, take a listen and let all of us know what you think.

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

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