Madison Symphony Dealt a Pair of “4s”—and Makes It a Winning Hand

Pianist Emanuel Ax takes us to heavenly heights, then DeMain and Mahler lead us through the celestial gates

Just about a year ago at this time we were excited to see the announcement for the current season that Emanuel Ax would be returning to appear with the Madison Symphony Orchestra and play one relative and one true rarity, namely the Symphonic Variations of Franck, and the Burleske of Richard Strauss. In recent weeks Ax asked for a repertoire change to Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4. No biggie: Ax could practice scales on stage and we would likely be moved.

Before he took his place onstage in Overture Hall Friday night, there was the business of the curtain raiser, also Beethoven, and not a bad pairing at that, fortuitously enough, the Overture to Coriolan. The reading DeMain got from his ensemble was, like all good performances of the major Beethoven overtures, a sturdy one, with the work being treated as the first movement of a potentially mighty but unfinished symphony.

Ax is one of those performers who deserves a standing ovation before they play a note, and it almost seemed he would get one as he strode to the keyboard. Indeed, the applause of greeting from the full house was sustained for so long that he nearly stood up again to acknowledge it. Not surprising then that at the conclusion of that rapturous first movement of Beethoven’s Op. 58 that spontaneous applause broke out again; not the kind where a newcomer begins to clap because they think they should every time the music stops, but several hundred of the throng who just couldn’t help it. And why not? As expected, Ax’s playing was as commanding and nuanced as one could hope. Like many of the truly greatest pianists, he doesn’t so much seem to play the instrument, that is, push the keys down at varying speeds and pressures, but rather he appears to simply touch the keys and tone pours forth.

The great slow movement, that inexorably unfolding dialogue between angst­-ridden strings and patiently reiterating soloist, was minor drama and major magic. And when the ripping finale had finished lifting us to transcendent realms, Ax showed why he is such a beloved collaborator: He insisted that DeMain ask the orchestra to stand for their bow before he turned for a solo bow.

Of course now Ax did receive the standing ovation, and we got our wish, at least once: An encore of Chopin’s Waltz in A Minor that was wistful and tender far beyond what words could express…which is the point of Chopin’s gem, after all. After another ovation, Ax turned to concertmaster Naha Greenholtz and led her offstage with him, a sign that on this night there would be but one bonus. During intermission one mused that we are not likely to encounter that level of playing often…oh, except in three weeks, when Garrick Ohlsson returns to the MSO!

But we still had nearly an hour of rapture ahead of us if all went well, in the form of that still regularly scheduled other “4,” the Symphony No. 4 of Gustav Mahler. Is there any greater kaleidoscopic encyclopedia of sounds than are to be found in the “typical” Mahler symphony? Even a decently played performance brims with delights, such as watching the clarinetists lean back and shoot their entrances with instruments lifted above the stands (per Mahler’s instructions of course). Speaking of which, anyone who has had the chance to look at a Mahler score (or individual part) quickly gleans that he is probably the wordiest composer who ever wrote. The conductor who tries gamely to decipher and execute every verbal command runs the risk of missing the sweep and panorama of the whole canvas.

Fortunately, DeMain is no novice in this music, having made his mark twenty-two years ago in his rookie season with Mahler’s Symphony No.1, and having finished one complete traversal of the nine mighty symphonies several years ago. And now he has the ensemble to really deliver the goods. Oh sure, there was a bobbled note or two and perhaps a scurrying run now and then in the first movement. But from the scherzo on this was a performance that really sticks in the memory. Greenholtz dug in with relish in the scherzo, switching between her usual instrument and a violin tuned one step higher on each string, portraying the demonic fiddler.

The sublime slow movement, delivering at its climax the aural equivalent of seeing heaven’s gates flung open in dazzling radiance, gushed with special moments; but this is the place if ever there was one to throw kudos to principal horn player Linda Kimball. The finale is that unique setting of a child’s view of heaven, complete with lyrics lovingly realized by the young soprano Alisa Jordheim (pictured above in the very dress she wore, photo courtesy of Rebecca Fay). There were times when her mid and low range were covered to a degree by the orchestra, but in the upper range phrase that frames the sections, the voice simply glowed.

At both the end of the slow movement and the finale, which ends quietly, we experienced that most precious of responses, a silence from an audience that is sharing a collective instinct that the spell must be held as long as possible. In a documentary made just a few years before he died, the great conductor Claudio Abbado was asked what his greatest hope for a performance was. His answer: “To hear the silence. To have the music end and see that the audience simply does not want to disturb what they just experienced.” (My apologies if this is not an exact quote; I urge you to check for yourselves. The documentary is in fact titled Hearing the Silence.)

Go hear for yourself what all the silence was about, Saturday night or Sunday afternoon.

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2 thoughts on “Madison Symphony Dealt a Pair of “4s”—and Makes It a Winning Hand

  1. I first heard Garrick Olson @ 1st Unitarian Society’s Friday luncheon recitals. At the time, he was looking for colleges & considering Northwestern where I did my doctoral residency. I wrote a letter to NU Music School Dean Bernie Dobroski, an old friend, & praised Olson to the skies. I still don’t know what college got him, but which ever got a truly world-class keyboard artist. I wonder what he’s playing with MSO this time.

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