The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Madison Symphony Orchestra performs charming Mozart and overpowering Shostakovich in ways that impressively demonstrate how much it has grown over the past 20 years under music director and conductor John DeMain. Plus, the MSO is looking for a Principal Tuba player.

March 12, 2013

ALERT: The Madison Symphony Orchestra (MSO) announces auditions for the Principal Tuba position. Auditions will be held by appointment on Thursday, June 13. Qualified candidates are encouraged to sign up for an audition time by emailing a one-page resume to A list of excerpts and a season schedule are also available.  All musicians qualifying for a position will be expected to attend all rehearsals and concerts as instrumentation demands. The MSO is a professional, fully orchestrated ensemble comprised of 91 contracted per-service musicians, offering approximately 80 services per season. 


By Jacob Stockinger

Later this week, the Madison Symphony Orchestra will announce the programs and soloists for its next season. It is sure to be noteworthy, since the 2013-14 season marks the 20th year of the tenure of music director and conductor John DeMain (see below in a photo by James Gill.)

And it will surely be a season loaded with special events, DeMain has that Italian flavor for both drama and festive celebration, which is now doubt why he is also great opera conductor.

John DeMain HeadShot color by James Gill

But in a way, the Madison Symphony didn’t wait for the 20th anniversary season to announce just how accomplished it has become under DeMain and his team. In short, they upstaged themselves.

This past weekend in Overture Hall  we saw in this season’s penultimate concert aspects of the performance that highlighted what next season can only underline: that the programming has become more ambitious; that the soloists have become more predictable (perhaps too predictable in some ways, but that is a topic for another posting and another time); and that the players have become terrifically accomplished, consistent and precise in a thoroughly professional ensemble way.


The concert, which I heard Sunday afternoon, started with the opening half devoted to Mozart, whose music is the ultimate test of refinement, taste and charm. The first half started with a wonderfully upbeat rendering of the Overture to “The Impressario.” Some might have found the tempo a bit fast; I loved the brisk tempo and found it close to what I think the early Classical period was about. I particularly loved the way DeMain emphasized counterpoint and the subtle influences of Bach and the Baroque on Mozart.

Then came the youthful Violin Concerto No. 4 with the gifted Norwegian violinist Henning Kraggerud (below). One of the real finds made by the MSO during The DeMain Years, Kraggerud once again did not disappoint. True, the music is early Mozart and in some ways immature Mozart, compared to the late works that are deeper and more bittersweet.

Henning Kraggerud MSO 2013

And it is also true that Kraggerud could not have, and should not have, tried to turn the Mozart concerto into the kind of dramatic vehicle for his virtuosity that his past performances of concertos by Sibelius and Tchaikovsky offered.

But virtuosity matters in understatement too. And Kraggerud excelled there. His playing was clear and precise, yet also lyrical and charming. Transparency is what makes Mozart difficult, and the art of the virtuoso is to make the difficult seems easy. Kraggerud did that in spades. Both he and DeMain seemed to exult in the George Szell approach, somewhat clipped but clear in manner, that made the performance a model of Mozartean music-making. And talk about tone! (Hear Henning Kraggerud playing a Telemann Fantasie at the bottom in a YouTube video.)

And the audience to loved him, offering Kraggerud a standing ovation that brought him to play an impressive encore: one of his own improvisations on a theme by Ole Bull (below), the famed Norwegian violinist who also just happened to live in Madison, at 130 West Gilman Street, during the 1870s with his younger second wife Sarah Thorpe. He also established ties to the Scandinavian Studies Department at the UW-Madison.

Here is a link to a story I once posted  with references about Ole Bull and Madison as well as a previous performance with Kraggerud:

Ole Bull_playing

Clearly, when it comes to Kraggerud, this Nordic violinist has many sides to him, and we can hope we have not heard the last of him. I would love to hear Kraggerud in the violin concertos by all those B’s –- Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Bartok and Barber — as well as some of the rarities, like violin concertos by Ludwig Spohr, that he has recorded for Naxos.

The concert concluded with one of the titanic works of the 20th century: The Symphony No. 10 in E minor by Dmitri Shostakovich (below), who wrote to celebrate the death of the mass murderer and Soviet dictator Josef Stalin who had so oppressed the composer and censored his work.

dmitri shostakovich

Once again, you might justly expect the massive Shostakovich to overwhelm to Mozart, And in a way it did, from sheer power and scale.

But some of the same qualities that made for great Mozart playing made for great Shostakovich, Music, after all, is music.

That is, DeMain had his ensemble perform with clarity, but always with the right momentum and drive. The precision matched and even enhanced the moodiness, no small feat. And the fact that all the principal chairs performed so well as speaks volumes about the DeMain tenure.

John DeMain conducting

If Kraggerud demonstrated the less-is-more kind of virtuosity, the orchestra exuded the more-is-more kind of virtuosity. Little wonder, then, that as the composer whipped up a coda and finale – he had a knack for that – the end left the audience jumping to its feet in an enthusiastic and prolonged ovation.

(PS: Was the subtle but obtrusive background noise –- that almost seemed like a falsetto overtone of the piccolo — during the third movement of the symphony feedback from a hearing aid? A cellphone? Does anyone know?)

I will be honest: I generally prefer the smaller scale, more intimate Shostakovich, especially the string quartets. But there was no denying -– and no resisting — the power of this large-scale work, especially in the capable hands of DeMain and the MSO players.

Of course not all critics agreed with my takes.

John W. Barker (below) of Isthmus had reservations about DeMain’s Mozart just as he did about DeMain’s Haydn. But I really like DeMain in both and wish the MSO would program more Mozart and Haydn. Here is a link to Barker’s review:

John Barker

Here is a link to a review by Greg Hettmansberger (below), who didn’t like the juxtapositional contrast of Mozart and Shostakovich as much I did, for his “Classically Speaking” blog for Madison Magazine: 

greg hettmansberger mug

Unfortunately, I cannot link to a review, as I usually do, by critic Lindsay Christians in 77 Square, The Capital Times or The Wisconsin State Journal. The newspapers’ new policy is NOT to review music performances with rare exceptions (like big rock shows maybe?).

It seems odd, irresponsible and maybe even “shameful,” to quote one local classical music fan, for a local paper to forgo reviewing a local cultural event that draws 5,000 to 6,0000 listeners over a weekend – especially in such an arts-rich city as Madison.

But times are tough for the print media, which must do more with less. And it is hard to cover local culture when staff and budgets have been cut. So apparently there will be more trend pieces and previews that links different performing groups.

Hey, maybe some TV station could pick up the slack and offer a two-minute classical review segment on a weekend broadcast, or something similar.

Anyway, what did you think of the performances by MSO and Henning Kraggerud?

The Ear wants to hear.

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