What’s New for the Madison Symphony Next Year?—Only A Dozen Things or So!

The 2016-2017 season offers a dozen major works being performed by the MSO for the first time


If there was ever a season to get down to the Overture Center to hear the Madison Symphony Orchestra—and bring a friend or two—this is it. Launching his 23rd season as music director, John DeMain (pictured above, courtesy of Bill Fritsch) has programmed at least a dozen major works that his orchestra has never performed, and along with the eight programs played three times each, we get the considerable bonus of the return of the Chicago Symphony’s compelling multimedia event, Beyond the Score.

As has become his wont, DeMain will spotlight the orchestra and its members without a guest soloist in the opening concerts of September 23-25. The real star may not be a star at all, but an entire solar system. The highlight is a performance of Gustav Holst’s perennial crowd-pleasing suite (not to mention tutorial for a handful of film composers!), The Planets. But the MSO will roll out the multimedia treatment right off the bat, as the audience will see a slide show in high definition of our solar system. The visual program was commissioned by the Houston Symphony from NASA some two decades-plus ago, and critics and audiences have raved wherever it has been done. We’ll also get concertmaster Naha Greenholtz as soloist in the Chaconne from the film The Red Violin.

The October program (Oct. 21-23) brings the return of audience favorite Henning Kraggerud. If he weren’t so busy in Norway, he’d have as major a career as any violinist around, and Madison is lucky to keep luring him back. If it’s not our warm weather (!) it’s certainly the great relationship he has enjoyed with DeMain and company. This time the marquee piece is Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1, but perhaps more intriguing are the three Postludes from Equinox—Kraggerud’s own set of 24 short pieces for violin and orchestra. Closing with Beethoven’s gorgeous “Pastoral” Symphony, the concerts open with an Elgar rarity, the tone poem In the South.

November 11-13 could be titled “Homecoming Weekend,” as we will enjoy the return of Christina and Michelle Naughton. Well established in major careers since they last appeared here with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, they will grace the stage this time with the Concerto for Two Pianos by Mozart. DeMain opens with the MSO’s first go at Debussy’s intoxicating Le Printemps, and closes with Shostakovich’s masterpiece, his Symphony No. 5.

Like opening the prettiest gifts under the tree, we never know until we get there exactly what treats await us for the Madison Symphony Christmas, Dec. 2-4. We do know that this year we get “only” one vocal soloist, but if there’s a crossover artist who can command our attention it’s soprano Sylvia McNair. And fear not: We can count on the “Hallelujah Chorus,” the always invigorating set from the Mt. Zion Gospel Choir, the Madison Youth Choirs, and the closing audience sing-along.

January 15 is the date for the sole performance of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherezade; it opened the season just a couple of years ago, but the chance to examine it under the musical microscope of the Chicago Symphony’s compelling “Beyond the Score” production is not to be missed. The MSO opened a season with the symphonic suite based on the “Tales of the Arabian Nights” a couple of seasons ago, and if the chance to hear the work again is not draw enough, this time we get a first half of illustrative excerpts, the complete work on the second half, and have the opportunity to see James and Brenda DeVita (of American Players Theatre fame of course) bring the story of the work (and its creation) to life.

In case you forget the flowers and/or chocolate for your Valentine, you can make it up to them on February 17-19 with Tchaikovsky’s final, heart-wringing work, the Symphony No. 6 (“Pathetique”). The first half of the concert offers a pair of MSO firsts, the bracing Second Essay by Samuel Barber, and Saint-Saens’ engaging Piano Concerto No. 5 (“Egyptian”) with soloist Stephen Hough.

In March (10-12) Maestro DeMain will be in demand elsewhere again (conducting Puccini’s Turandot at Virginia Opera), and so we get two artists who have given great satisfaction previously. Conductor Carl St. Clair will lead Richard Strauss’ enormous final tone poem, An Alpine Symphony. On the first half we welcome the return of trumpeter Tine Thing Helseth; she thrilled audiences a couple of seasons back with Haydn and Arutiunian; this time we get the great Hummel Trumpet Concerto, and a couple of encores with orchestra.

April 7-9 should prove to be powerful events, with all hands on deck for Lutoslawski’s demanding Concerto for Orchestra. Word is that a sizable number of MSO players have lobbied to get this work scheduled for some time; it is an early work of the composer, one which he later disavowed—meaning it should be more listener-friendly than works of his later years. Curiosity aside, the concerts include the magnetic draw of pianist Philippe Bianconi (who gets to play whatever he wants!). In this case it is the greatest of Rachmaninoff’s works for keyboard, the Piano Concerto No. 3 (I know, I know…fans of No. 2 and the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini are free to argue in the comments section!).

But for some of us, the best may have been saved for last. Following the brief Concert Piece for Organ and Orchestra of Stanford (raise your hand if you’ve even heard it on a recording), with Nathan Laube as soloist, we finally get one of the top three greatest choral works: Brahms’ transcendental but utterly human A German Requiem. The artistic and vocal growth of the Madison Symphony Chorus in just the last few years make this an event to hold our breath for, and we’ll get to hear soloists Devon Guthrie and Timothy Jones. The last time the MSO played the piece predates DeMain’s arrival on the MSO podium; he—and many of his auditors—have waited a long time for this.

New subscribers can get started for as little as $53; single tickets go on sale August 20. See you there—and don’t forget to bring a friend!

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