The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music review: Opening concert by Madison Symphony Orchestra is a success on several levels

October 19, 2010

By Jacob Stockinger

The Madison Symphony Orchestra (below) opened its 85th season this past weekend on a high note.

Well, on two high notes really.

Which means I am not just talking about the music.

The performers and performances were terrific.

Yet attendance-wise, it seemed like it would be hard sell to fill the seats, according to marketing director Ann Miller. After all, the MSO was going up against the UW-Ohio State football game Saturday night. So more than 200 subscribers for Saturday exchanged changed their tickets to Friday night or Sunday afternoon (when I heard the concert).

But that in turn opened up seats.

And UW students were apparently quick to take advantage. Some 575 student rush ticket were sold – more than doubling the old record of 259 for violinist Nadia Salerno Sonnenberg.

“Plus, walk-up sales at the last minute were incredible,” adds Miller. The net effect was 5,385 tickets for a potential 6,100 seats or so, including a close to sold-out house on Friday night, which is normally the weakest house of the three performances.

The net effect was an opening three-day attendance that far exceeded the MSO’s expectations, said Miller.

That is good news for the MSO, which in the recession has had to cut back its subscription season from nine concerts to eight, but which hopes to restore that ninth concert next season.

Artistically, the weekend proved a big success too.

Conductor John DeMain (below, in a photo by Katrin Talbot) delivered the kind of vibrant, high-energy and upbeat reading of Brahms’ “Academic Festival Overture” – composed when Brahms received an honorary degree — that showed just why the UW beat No. 1 ranked Ohio State this past weekend. At times, it sounded like a high-end fight song instead of a high–end drinking song (which it is actually based on.) To my ears, DeMain is becoming an impressive Brahmsian.

Then pianist Olga Kern (below) returned to solo in Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2, the same one that gave rise to the popular songs “Never Gonna Love Again” and “Full Moon and Empty Arts.” It’s a warhorse, but it gallops.

This Russian winner of the Van Cliburn gold medal has always has an affinity for Rachmaninoff and you could hear why. She played strongly and yet subtly, often making the old favorite sound new. And the orchestra was right there with her.

My one major criticism was the she seemed a bit drowned out during the opening theme, where I like the piano to poke through with a few chords or notes here and there.

Was it the balance from the conductor? Her playing? Her Yamaha piano instead of the MSO’s German Steinway? I honestly don’t know.

But those were just are moments. When you did hear Kern, she was magnificent. The audience stood and cheered – warhorses do that, but that’s not necessarily bad – and she rewarded them with a show-off encore: Rachmaninoff’s “Polchinelle.”

Little wonder, according to Miller, that after one performance the well-traveled and concert-seasoned Kern told her that she wished she had recorded for a CD release as a live performance because the orchestra accompaniment was “perfect,” the best she has ever had on that concerto.

The concert concluded by highlighting the orchestra itself, a nice gesture for a concert that kicks off the season. It was Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra, a conservative modern work that reworks the old Baroque concerto grosso form designed to highlight different sections of the orchestra.

And those sections of the MSO more than met the challenge by Bartok (below). Strings, winds, brass, percussion – all showed off their stuff.

Funny, the score itself is less tight and somewhat flatter than I remember it. And that opinion was seconded by the rising “cough quotient” of the audience.

But memory can play tricks and the fall brings runny noses.

Suffice it to say that at its best, Bartok’s work gave the musicians just what they needed and the audience just what it wanted.

And it was clear that Madison does indeed have a better symphony orchestra, of a very high quality, that anyone would by right expect it to have.

Given our population, our size and our variety of activities of all kinds, artistic and otherwise, some might even say we have a better symphony orchestra than we deserve.

What would you say?

Did you hear the MSO concert?

What did you think of DeMain Brahms?

Of Kern’s Rachmaninoff?

And of the entire orchestra’s Bartok?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

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