Farewells to a Season…and Some Friends

Madison Symphony closes its season with more than one goodbye

 

Friday night was the first of the final set of programs this season by the Madison Symphony Orchestra. As has become the custom, the concerts feature a major choral work, and the audience may have had more than the usual number of single-ticket buyers to cheer on the Madison Symphony Chorus—and the Madison Boychoir.

The large Overture Hall crowd may have gotten more than it bargained for, as the evening began with John DeMain directing an end-of-season opening speech to mention that the occasion marked the end of Beverly Taylor’s twentieth season as assistant conductor and director of the MSO Chorus. She will continue with the group, but DeMain bade us bid warm farewells to principal clarinetist Joseph Morris, who was only in his third season, and principal bass player Fredrick Schrank—who is completing his 39th.

The short first half could not have been more complete regarding all the best qualities we have come to enjoy from the MSO the last several seasons: beautiful individual and collective playing, command of a wide range of subtle phrasings and dynamics, and sheer visceral excitement.  The vehicle was Respighi’s The Pines of Rome, and it was indeed highlighted by the masterful playing of Morris in a slow movement which also brought out the best moonlight silkiness of the strings.

The second half was the hour-long romp known as Carmina Burana, Carl Orff’s paean to the generally baser instincts of mankind thanks to the awakening return of spring and its concomitant activities of carousing and lovemaking. Surprisingly the MSO Chorus began a little flabby, lacking bite in their consonants of the 13th century texts, leaving us wanting as well for greater dynamic contrasts (the fortes were fine, but whispers were needed too). Fortunately it wasn’t long before the group showed the polish and collective expression that have been noticeably growing in recent seasons.

It was momentarily jarring to recall the Madison Boychoir joining in on Handel’s Messiah just earlier this month, and now attacking the unfettered romp of Carmina Burana. They certainly showed they can adapt their style, and the 80 or so youths delivered their numbers with gusto.

But the real stars were the three soloists, beginning with baritone Keith Phares. He does get the lion’s share of music, and it covers a wide range, one he was capable of navigating with great expression and beauty of tone. Soprano Jeni Houser had many exquisite moments, and if the tenor only gets the one famous aria that depicts the impending feast from the roasted swan’s point of view, well at least Thomas Leighton made the most of the vocal (and subtle acting) opportunities.

The Respighi was so strong that many stood in ovation almost at once—always unusual when no soloist is involved, and it was certainly deserved. The Orff opus is one of those pieces where the ovation is almost built into the music, and while the overall effort was mostly of a deeply admirable quality, the special moment came at the very end: During one of the multiple curtain calls, DeMain motioned to Schrank to come to the front of a stage for a well-deserved send-off. Meanwhile, DeMain has his 22nd season in the books, an enticing 23rd in the works, and we can look forward to new lasting memories starting in September.

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