The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music review: The Madison Symphony Orchestra opens its season in full form — finally

October 18, 2011

By Jacob Stockinger

Season openings are often problematic and can lead to unattainably high expectations, especially when they are complicated and ambitious commemorations, such as the recent 10th anniversary of the terrorist attack of 9/11.

Anyway, last month’s opening concert by the Madison Symphony Orchestra seemed to me in large part a misstep, though other critics disagreed, as you can see below.

The work “On the Transmigration of Souls” by John Adams (below) was an inspired offering, and successfully used both the Madison Symphony Choir and the Madison Youth Choirs as well as some complex computer work. The choice was commendable. But the work is not really concert music – rather more of a sound installation or, as the composer calls, it a “memory space.” One can hardly imagine it being programmed except to mark 9/11.

Then came Grieg’s Piano Concerto with Andre Watts (below), a work I normally like very much, though I am less fond of the soloist. But on this program – which all in all I found to be an odd program – it was simply the wrong concerto played by the wrong pianist. It needed more poignancy and intimacy, less virtuosity. It needed more soul, less chops.

Then the MSO finished off the commemoration with the iconic Beethoven Fifth Symphony. True, it is a great work – a revolutionary work, a landmark work, a historic work. But for my taste it proved a bit too triumphant and unsubtle for the occasion. It was the wrong symphony, even the wrong Beethoven symphony. (I would have preferred No. 3 or No. 7 or even the Ninth, which the MSO players and chorus probably didn’t have time to prepare.) Dvorak’s “New World” might have been a more appropriate choice.

Also, at least at the Sunday performance, the Fifth was nearly derailed by miscues. Maybe DeMain (below. in a photo by James Gill) and the players were simply too drained by the wrenching Adams piece. Or maybe DeMain shouldn’t haven given the pre-concert lecture, which, after two previous performances, perhaps left him tired, taxed and untypically unfocused.

Anyway, this past weekend along comes the season’s second concert with the talented and charismatic guest conductor Ward Stare (below), the resident conductor under David Robertson of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra.

And this time, the orchestral goods were delivered.

The concert opened with Rossini’s Overture to “The Barber of Seville.” What can you say? The players were in top form, both precise and playful, and this sunny Italian work is irresistible, as much fun to listen to as pasta is to eat.

Then came veteran cellist Lynn Harrell (below) in Lalo’s Cello Concerto. Sorry, but except for a light middle movement and a few arresting solo passages, it was a slog for me. Harrell’s large talent seemed largely wasted on a second-rate piece that was last performed by the MSO in 1945. I say: Put it away for another 66 years and focus on better cello music. There was more depth in Harrell’s encore — the Allemande movement from J.S Bach’s Solo Cello Suite No. 3 — than in all of Lalo’s concerto, dramatic as it was at times.

But then came the well-known Symphony No. 2 by Jean Sibelius. And … well, at least on Sunday afternoon, WOW!

Finally, the orchestra gave me what I wanted. It blew me away and drowned me in big, loud and beautiful sound that was also textured and subtly shaded in dynamics and tempo. In this late Romantic work, the strings soared and the brass blasted, both sections outstanding (though at a certain points in the last movement I wanted the tubas and trombones to be a little ruder, louder, rougher.) The winds too, especially Marc Fink’s oboe, throbbed with longing and lyricism.

This was the symphonic experience at its best, the kind you expect, done on the large scale that most symphony-goers expect – and so the performance was justifiably rewarded with an immediate and prolonged ovation.

It was enough to send me away saying: NOW the symphony season has begun for real.

Anyway, here are some other reviews with plenty of disagreement. (After all, in the end even we critics are just subjective human beings. So it’s fine for you to be the critic you most trust for yourself.)

First, here are reviews of the opening concert in September:

By Greg Hettmansberger in Madison Magazine’s blog Classically Speaking:

Bill Wineke’s review for Channel 3000:

Jessica Courtier’s review in 77 Square:

Then, here are reviews of the second, more recent program this past weekend:

John Barker’s review for Isthmus:

Lindsay Christians’ review in 77 Square:

Bill Wineke’s review for Channel 3000:

What did you think of the MSO’s first and second concerts?

Which critic do you agree with most and why?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

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