The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music review: Do orchestras really need conductors? Do Mozart concertos? Last weekend’s Madison Symphony Orchestra concerts said yes on both counts

February 11, 2010

By Jacob Stockinger

Do orchestras — large or small, symphonic or chamber — really need conductors?

The concerts this past weekend by the Madison Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of music director John DeMain (both below) showed why the answer to both questions is yes. It was a great object lesson.

During the first half, violinist Pinchas Zukerman (below on the right, with this wife cellist Amanda Forsyth)  performed as both soloist and conductor in Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5 (“Turkish”).

Was it a good performance?

Yes, it was. Very good. But for my taste, it could have been even better — even fresher. One wondered if Zukerman, a legendary musician of vast experience, both broad and depth, was relying a little too much on his own past.

True, Zukerman played well, with great tone and Mozartean grace. And in his defense, he could cite the fact that Mozart did the same. But then Mozart could probably solo, conduct, compose and, as one wit remarked, still have fun under the table – all at the same time. Mozart was, after all, Mozart.

Yet when you listened to the overall performance, you felt that it could have been tighter in its ensemble playing. It could have had better balance in the dynamics, It could have used a speedier tempo. Simply put, it could have been edgier – and I do not like music-box Mozart. Wolfie’s music is too beautiful and too important for that. It deserves better.

Was Zukerman distracted by conducting while playing the violin at the same time?

Did his conducting seem almost seemed perfunctory as he shook the violin bow – an oversized, unwieldy and imprecise baton at best — at the reduced orchestra or raised a hand to give beat or dynamic signal?

I think the answer is yes on both counts.

He had the MSO’s regular conductor John DeMain right there to call on. And DeMain, an opera conductor by training, is a great accompanist for soloists — as he showed in the concert opener, Max Bruch’s
“Kol Nidrei” for cello and orchestra with cellist Amanda Forsyth turning in an outstanding performance.

I keep thinking that the Mozart would have moved more with greater clarity and more part playing or voice-leading, more dialogue between soloist and ensemble, if Zukerman had simply stuck to the violin solo part and fully focused on it, while letting DeMain hold the group together. The concerto would have cohered with both more transparency and more energy.

Any doubt about that was eliminated by the second half. DeMain did indeed mount the podium to lead both Zukerman and Forsyth in Saint-Saens’ rarely performed “The Muse and the Poet,” which was celebrating the centennial of its composition and world premiere. (It’s a good, enjoyable work that shows how late Saint-Saens differs from early Saint-Saens. But, to be honest, if you heard it once and never again in your lifetime, your life would not be much impoverished for it.) Once again, DeMain showed the balance and unity a focused conductor brings to the music.

Then came Saint-Saens’ mammoth Symphony No. 3 “Organ” with the impressive Overture Concert Organ (below center) in the able hands of MSO organist Samuel Hutchison (below right).

It is a terrific and complicated work, both lyrical and dramatic. Under DeMain’s baton, it both moved and made sense. It was an exciting performance that made the audience jump out of their seats and offer a well deserved and prolonged standing ovation.

The performance that filled the hall with such big and beautiful sound even led one veteran and knowledgeable listener to remark: “I am so humbled. We are so lucky to have such great musicians and such a great hall in Madison.”

The Listener was right, profoundly right.

We in Madison do indeed have a better symphony, a better hall and a better conductor than a city our size deserves or generally gets.

And the public apparently agrees. According to MSO marketing director Ann Miller, 1,669 single tickets (versus subscription tickets) were sold, many at the last minute. That gave the 3-concert run a total of 5,742 out of a total possible set-out figure of 6,000. Friday and Saturday performances were near sell-outs, a satisfied Miller says, and the Sunday afternoon was better attended than usual, especially for a SuperBowl Sunday.

Next time he’s here, I urge Zukerman to be more modest – not an easy thing for such a legendary, prize-winning and world acclaimed musician – and more effective musician.

He should avail himself of our terrific conductor.

Did you hear the performance?

What did you think?

Do you agree or disagree?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

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