The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Madison Symphony Orchestra opens its new season with a strong and memorable concert that had something for everyone — with no outside help from a guest artist | October 4, 2019

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ALERT: On this Saturday, Oct. 5, from 4 to 5 p.m., cellist Amit Peled will teach a master class at Farley’s House of Pianos, 6522 Seybold Road, near West Towne Mall, where he will instruct local students. This is a FREE event that the public is invited to observe, and is part of the two concerts by Peled and pianist Daniel del Pino. For more information, go to:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2019/09/29/classical-music-cellist-amit-peled-and-pianist-daniel-del-pino-open-the-salon-piano-series-this-friday-and-saturday-nights-with-music-by-beethoven-strauss-and-others/

By Jacob Stockinger

Many orchestras, including the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below, in a photo by Peter Rodgers), often use the opening concert of a new season as a chance to lure audiences by wowing them with some big-name guest soloist.

But last weekend maestro John DeMain (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson) once again preferred to show off his own ensemble. And it worked, making for a memorable concert.

The MSO opener had something for everyone, and what you saw as the highlight probably depended more on your personal taste or preference than on the overall impressively tight playing and singing of the MSO, its principals and its chorus.

It seemed clear that, for most listeners the MSO’s young organist Greg Zelek (below, in a photo by Peter Rodgers) filled the role of the impressive imported star or guest artist.

The virtuosic Zelek is simply so good that he managed to turn a second-rate piece by Samuel Barber into a first-rate crowd-pleaser that brought huge applause and a long standing ovation, then an encore and another standing ovation.

As music, the concerto-like “Toccata Festiva” (1960) is simply not on par with Barber’s Violin Concerto or his Adagio for Strings or his Overture to “The School for Scandal.” It is 15 minutes of mostly loud and bombastic music meant to show off the new organ that it was commissioned for.

The King of Instruments seems to invite such bragging. And the boyish, vest-clad Zelek milked the score by Barber (below) for all it was worth, including an astounding three-minute cadenza played only with the feet. It’s hard to argue with such dramatic success.

If you preferred more serious fare, there was the Symphony No. 7 in D minor by Antonin Dvorak (below). Last spring, DeMain announced his fondness for Dvorak – in the spring the MSO will perform his Requiem.

DeMain’s feeling for Dvorak showed in a convincing and engaging performance of this darker, non-programmatic Brahmsian work that goes beyond the Czech folk dances, folk song-like melodies and nature mimicry of Dvorak’s other major symphonies and chamber music.

If you wanted exciting Romanticism, it would be hard to beat Wagner’s rhythmic strings soaring in the Overture to the opera “Tannhauser” by Richard Wagner (below). And that flowed into Wagner’s sensual “Venusberg” music that featured the MSO chorus singing offstage.

But The Ear thinks that the best measure of musicianship – orchestral, instrumental or vocal — is not how loudly they can play or sing, but how softly.

For that reason, he found the standout work at the concert to be “Prelude to The Afternoon of a Faun” by Claude Debussy (below). The balance among various sections proved ideal at expressing subtlety. You could hear everything combining to make a distinctive and atmospheric tonal color.

For example, it is hard to imagine more sensual playing of the opening theme than how principal flutist Stephanie Jutt (below) did it. The performance and interpretation projected the exact kind of impressionistic seductiveness that the composer meant for it to have. For sheer beauty of sound, it took the top spot. (You can see a graphic depiction of Debussy’s score in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Still, there seemed to be more than the usual number of empty seats. Was it the rainy weather? The football weekend? Or do people still miss the thrill of hearing a well-known guest artist opening the season?

What do you think?

What was your favorite piece on the opening MSO program? And why?

The Ear wants to hear.


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4 Comments »

  1. “Still, there seemed to be more than the usual number of empty seats. Was it the rainy weather? The football weekend? Or do people still miss the thrill of hearing a well-known guest artist opening the season?

    What do you think?”

    Since you asked, I think the reason for the empty seats is the lacklustre leadership of the MSO and the poor, jumbled program put together by its over-the-hill maestro. Contrast that with the other MSO (in Milwaukee) which has a new, young, and dynamic leader and one who can put together better programs.

    It was definitely not Barber’s Toccota Festiva. Barber was, as I recall, trained as an organist. The program was simply a mish-mash.

    Good programming usually has some links between the pieces. With Debussy, it should have been easy: maybe some other French music (Ravel? Charles-Camille Saint-Saëns?) but Wagner and Barber and Dvorak? It’s like ordering the ice cream that has 21 flavors all together in a giant bowl: no taste whatsoever and nothing stands out. I suspect that Madison audiences want a change in their maestro.

    Someone younger, more energetic and who is a better programmer: who can hold that against them?

    Comment by fflambeau — October 4, 2019 @ 3:38 am

    • All those empty seats, and yet, I seem to recall an August column here telling the public that they would get a special 20% discount on the first 3 concerts of the year (which included this one).

      So, even with massive ticket discounting for this opening concert of the year, there were lots of empty seats. A real and serious indicator that something is wrong at the MSO. NOT good. NOT at all.

      Comment by fflambeau — October 4, 2019 @ 5:40 am

  2. Very nice review, Jake. Bravo! I’m beginning to miss going to concerts.
    Age *is* catching up with me (84+), and coping with various health
    issues is making it really *too* difficult for me to go to them, esp.
    those at Overture.

    Comment by Jess Anderson — October 4, 2019 @ 2:11 am

    • Hi Jess ,
      I am sorry that you are unwell and wish you the best in recovering . I remember your many fine reviews in various media over the years in Madison . This is not to mention the several splendid concerts you gave of J.S Bach among others . Like Mr Stockinger , you were and have been a wonderful supporter of the commonwealth of arts in Madison. Best wishes !

      Comment by Randall Wilkins — October 5, 2019 @ 12:21 am


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