Symphony of Steven Stucky proves compelling; Garrick Ohlsson makes Brahms boil and bubble
In closing the penultimate program of their 2015-2016 season Sunday afternoon at Overture Hall, the Madison Symphony Orchestra challenged their audience with music just four years old, then rewarded them with two chestnuts roasted to a turn.
MSO music director John DeMain makes sure that his programming includes worthy music of living composers, but by the time this program opened, Symphony by Steven Stucky lacked one characteristic: Stucky passed away just this past February 14. Though he was sixty-six when he died, most would agree that is too young—and it would not be unfair to say that based on the 2012 work heard this weekend, Stucky had plenty left to say as an artist.
J. Michael Allsen did another great job in his program notes combining salient background with Stucky’s own note on the work. Laid out in four unbroken sections totaling about twenty minutes, the work poses bigger hurdles for both individual players and sections than for most listeners. Stucky lays out a non-specific emotional program to the piece, and the MSO succeeded on both technical and expressive planes. The only players to get solo bows were oboist Marc Fink (whose long opening solo was masterfully poignant), flutist Stephanie Jutt and clarinetist Soojin Huh. The strings, especially the violins, flat-out wowed with their stratospheric passages later in the work. DeMain was firmly in control in the scherzo-esque third section; although brief, it consists of a constant accelerando. This may have been an occasion where catching the concert on Sunday rather than my usual Friday auditing was an advantage, as the ensemble had a week of rehearsal and two performances of the piece already under their belt.
There was nothing less virtuosic about the next work, the great tone poem Don Juan of Richard Strauss. This is the kind of work DeMain dreamed of being able to program at will with his orchestra when he came here twenty-two years ago…and interestingly, I had at least partial evidence that it is only in the most recent seasons that we can take it for granted that our local band will deliver the goods in any given program. Driving to the concert I tuned to “Wisconsin Classics” on 88.7 FM, a program that features live performances from around the state. It was mid-program when I tuned in; clearly the work was Brahms’ Symphony No. 2—but who was the orchestra? Lo and behold, it was DeMain and the MSO, from an April 2009 concert. I have heard every program of the MSO live (save one) since September 2011, and this 2009 performance was not in the same ballpark. Even in just the last three years, we have witnessed tangible improvement in the string section as a whole, and in the winds and brass, while the personnel has been largely stable, they continue year after year to attain more blend and balance.
The contrast was striking as I sat and soaked up that wonderful tour de force by the then 24-year old Strauss. Strings surged, brasses bit with precision, winds wooed and wafted. If the applause exceeded that granted the Stucky reading, it was understandable; this Strauss is the kind of thing most subscribers pay for and expect to get.
Well, I have to beg the pardon of an old high school alum for my penchant for usually writing my reviews chronologically. After all, speaking of subscribers paying for what they expect, soloists like Garrick Ohlsson (pictured above, courtesy of Pier Andrea Morolli, and below, courtesy of Paul Body) go right to the top of the list. This weekend was Ohlsson’s sixth appearance with the MSO, and his first goes back to 1984. As it turns out, Sunday was his sixty-eighth birthday—but it was the audience who received the presents.
Ohlsson’s career rocketed overnight when he accomplished a feat nearly equal to Van Cliburn’s winning of the Tchaikovsky Competition. In Ohlsson’s case, he became the first American to take top honors at the Chopin Competition in 1970. It is one thing to continue to garner the honors over a successful career as Ohlsson certainly has done; far fewer (save, for example, Emmanuel Ax, who was here at the MSO’s previous program) also maintain an ever-growing stature as an interpreter.
Ohlsson is a large man, but as he sits at the keyboard there are no histrionics; the hands seem as fluid and unforced in the thick chordal fortissimos as in the most delicate arpeggios. In the work in question, the Piano Concerto No. 1 of Brahms, one expects more of the former. Indeed, the orchestra was explosive from the first entrance, the stormy D-minor and lengthy solo-less introduction fully unleashed. But it was the Adagio where, as is so often the case, the genuine hold-your-breath moments unfolded, as Ohlsson and DeMain and company made music as one.
The ovations that followed the last notes of the finale ensured an encore, and now we got that rarefied Chopin, a nocturne (Op. 27, No.2) that makes one wonder how the thick black notes on the published page can possibly be transformed to what we heard Ohlsson produce.
To clarify, Ohlsson and I both attended White Plains High School, about twenty miles north of Manhattan, but my personal connection to him was non-existent until 1999 or so. I have only heard him perform three times to date, but my favorite memory goes back to 1970. I arrived for my clarinet lesson one day that high school sophomore year at the home of the man who also was my band director, Al Renino. I had already been under the spell of classical music for about ten years, but was unaware of Ohlsson having passed through the halls of WPHS. But on this day Mr. Renino was practically bursting when I sat down in his studio. “Did you hear?!” he almost shouted. “Garrick Ohlsson just won the Chopin Competition!!” He pointed to the humble upright piano that sat against one wall. “He sat right there one day and played Chopin in this room.” It would take me a few years to understand his euphoria, but I finally figured out what all the shouting was about. Yesterday we were all reminded once again.