Guest conductor Daniel Hege and violinist Alina Ibragimova make themselves at home
Madison Symphony music director John DeMain remains in demand throughout North America (currently spending about a month with Washington National Opera conducting Kurt Weill’s Lost in the Stars). Most of the time his absences are planned around the MSO and Madison Opera seasons, but it’s not such a bad thing to see what happens once every couple of seasons or so to see what transpires when someone else ascends the podium.
Thus we were considerably intrigued Friday night to audit the result when Daniel Hege would return for a weekend stint of concerts. It was not his first time with the orchestra—he had previously appeared in 2005 and 2008—but I had missed those appearances. What he might do with a couple of musical valentines and a mighty Beethoven concerto seemed a considerable draw.
The Overture Hall program wasted no time in offering a suitably sweet favorite, the Overture-Fantasy Romeo and Juliet of Tchaikovsky. It had been quite a while since I encountered the work in live performance; like many music lovers it was one of my earlier exposures to vintage Tchaikovsky, aka heart-on-sleeve, full-blown Russian romanticism. Soon one learns that there is an inescapable perspective one must bring in judging any performance of the piece: Does the conductor go all-in on the lush passion, risking soupy exaggerations, or do they opt for a leaner, more transparent reining in of the potboiler?
In a sense, Hege did neither. When the final chords thunder a feeling remained that the whole had not been greater than the sum of its various beautiful parts. The opening was a tad quick, robbing the introduction of a sense of portent. Certainly the famous love theme, especially in its second appearance, raised the blood pressure of everyone in the mostly full house. The most interesting aspect seemed at the time almost secondary—but became a signature quality of Hege’s conducting all night long. He possesses a superb ability to control and often hold back dynamics, to the point of making it almost a structural device. The more obvious effect is that long climaxes are beautifully gauged, and when they are reached and the orchestra is urged to release its full-throated roar, the effect was singularly thrilling.
It was this quality that put the next work, the Suite No.2 of Ravel’s ballet Daphnis and Chloe, over the top. The strings, top to bottom, produced a wonderfully gauzy effect from the composer’s impossibly dense writing (the opening pages of the score are just black with notes!).Flutist Stephanie Jutt executed one of the greatest featured passages for her instrument with a lithe strength and nuanced expression. She eventually enjoyed a well-deserved solo bow, but every section (let’s not forget the nine percussionists!) contributed mightily to seventeen minutes of sonic bliss.
One seeks in vain for any connection to the MSO’s marketing theme of the night (“Music, the food of love…”) and the second half presentation of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto. Given that the soloist was the Russian-born Alina Ibragimova we could at least say it was “from Russia with love,” but the young lady brought more obvious (and in the case of Beethoven’s mighty concerto) and useful gifts, namely precision and clarity.
Yes, even for yours truly, the great Beethoven Violin Concerto struggles to make my own “top 5” list, having to contend with the more obvious flash and dazzle of the examples from Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky, Sibelius and Brahms. But for starters, experiencing the work live was a potent reminder that the focus one necessarily brings to an auditorium vis-à-vis more casual listening is often the critical element of absorbing the greatness of a work.
Then again, it helps immeasurably to hear the stunning clarity that a player like Ibragimova (pictured above in a photo by Eva Vermandel) can apply to a technique so masterful as to seem second nature. Happily one of her greatest characteristics is an ability to bring one to the edge of your seat with a propitious drop to ultra-soft playing, and once again, Hege had the full measure of control in getting the orchestra to match Hege’s shaping of the phrases. It is a work that makes encore pieces superfluous, but one hopes that Ibragimova wins enough hearts this weekend to join the elite group of guest artists who are welcomed back to the MSO on multiple occasions. You get your chance to be wooed Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30.