The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Madison Symphony Orchestra hits its first glorious high note of the new season with an all-Russian program plus a tribute to the loss of two of its own.

September 24, 2012
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By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, a review written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker. Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who hosts an early music show every other Sunday morning on WORT 88.9 FM. He serves on the Board of Advisors for the MadisonEarly Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.

By John W. Barker

The Madison Symphony Orchestra opened its new season with a truly memorable program this past weekend.

It had been planned as a collection entirely of Russian music, but the mood and organization were complicated by two sad losses of recent months. One was the orchestra’s long-time and beloved tuba player, Paul Haugan (below top), and the other was Roland Johnson (below), the long-time builder and conductor of the MSO as well as the co-founder of the Madison Opera.

In their memory, maestro John DeMain opened the concert with a performance of the “Adagio for Strings” — not the famous one by Samuel Barber but the one by John Stevens (below) of the University of Wisconsin School of Music. It is easy to find initial parallels with Barber’s celebrated and moving, but basically rather simplistic piece. The one by Stevens is longer, more complex: it has an integrity of its own, and more extensive thematic growth. In short, a worthy tribute.

Then came the originally intended opener, the Symphony No. 1, popularly known as the “Classical Symphony,” by Prokofiev (below). This clever and totally enjoyable re-imagining of the idiom of Haydn and Mozart is justly familiar, and widely performed. Many conductors lean a little forcefully on the score, but DeMain seemed consciously to aim for greater lightness and deftness. Though the approach diminished the tensions of the second movement, it worked well otherwise.

For this concert, be it noted, DeMain once more shifted the second violin section behind the first, instead of opposing them. The decision was made partly to address some problems of co-ordination by the violins, in what is famously tricky string writing. The issue of the players hearing each other more effectively is important, though from the audience side I still think the firsts/seconds opposition works better sonically, as DeMain (below, in a photo by Jim Gill) had been proving in recent seasons.

To balance the program around the intermission more sensibly, with the Stevens piece added, what was intended to be the final work was shifted to close the first half of the program.

This was the Suite from Stravinsky‘s “Firebird” ballet. This suite exists in two forms: the popular 1919 version, and a longer one that Stravinsky (below) made in 1945. His logic was less musical than financial: he had lost out on full royalties for the 1919 suite, and so he made this “revision” to claim new contractual profits.

Aside from tinkerings with the orchestration, the main difference between the two versions is that Stravinsky added further segments from the original ballet. While this gives us more of the score, the additions are mainly of functional and movement-supporting stuff that is of limited musical interest and strains the patience. Better to have picked the concise 1919 version. Still, DeMain led a colorful and precisely disciplined reading.

The Big Event came as the program’s second half. It is to the credit of DeMain and some of his recent guest soloists that they have avoided warhorse concertos and given us bold rarities.

And it is to the credit of the guest soloist this time, Garrick Ohlsson, that a noble rarity was indeed set forth. Instead of the terribly overplayed Piano Concerto No. 1 of Tchaikovsky (below), we were given the Concerto No. 2.

This is a far more expansive, substantial and inventive work than the flashy but superficial No. 1. While composed in the usual three movements, it is full of experiments. There are two unusually big cadenzas woven into the first movement. The second adds solo violin and cello to play off the pianist — one thinks at times of the fabulous Piano Trio in A Minor by Tchaikovsky for this combination, so memorably played last June in the Bach Dancing and Dynamite concerts.

The orchestra in general has more of a “symphonic” role of its own. And, above all, the work is filled with magnificent melodies representative of the composer at his best.

This superb work is heard far too rarely in concerts and recordings. That may be because of its length, or because the pianist fears he is being upstaged by the other two soloists in the second movement.

There is, of course, demanding bravura solo work demanded of the pianist, and Ohlsson (below) brought it off with confident musicality. His collaboration with DeMain and the orchestra was music-making of the highest quality.

This is what concerts should be like at their best — really glorious.

EDITOR’S NOTE: All of the city’s critics generally agreed.

Here is a link to what critic Greg Hettmansberger had to same about the same concert for his Madison Magazine blog “Classically Speaking”:

And here is a link to what Lindsay Christians had to say for 77 Square, The Capital Times and The Wisconsin State Journal:

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