No Place Like (a Second) Home)

Violinist Kraggerud returns to Madison Symphony for another special collaboration

The Norwegian violinist, Henning Kraggerud, has the chops to be as famous as any violinist in the world. He has crafted his career to maximize his time in his homeland, and chooses his guest appearances carefully. The fact that he has developed a special bond with John DeMain and the Madison Symphony Orchestra should make our city the envy of many a larger metropolis. As he made his fourth appearance here Friday night in Overture Hall, I heard him for the fourth time—and still lament that I missed his first appearance in 2009.

This weekend DeMain and Kraggerud (pictured above, courtesy Robert Remik), opted for a welcome standard, the Violin Concerto No. 1 of Max Bruch. Kraggerud’s gift for nuance in the midst of ripe 19th-century Romanticism, combined with the orchestra’s rich sound and DeMain’s gift for collaboration combined to yield an irresistible reading.

There was no encore, but that was because Kraggerud returned to open the second half in excerpts from one of his own compositions, a Suite of three preludes from Equinox. Telling the audience that he had always been jealous of pianists, who have works from Bach and Chopin that traverse all the 24 major and minor keys, and curious to explore the so-called emotional and color characteristics of each, Kraggerud wrote a set of 24 preludes for solo violin and orchestra. Each is set in a different city (there is actually a fascinating and detailed story as a backdrop, crafted by author Jostein Gaarder. We were taken on a 9-minute tour of Prague, Hangzhou and New Orleans. Kraggerud’s composing is as delightful as his playing, capable of swirling from a waltz to atmospheric mystery and finger-snappin’ Cajun echoes.

DeMain opened with a journey of his own, offering Elgar’s In the South for the first time. The 20-minute work was inspired by Italy, and as is often the case, the musical results smacked of Richard Strauss—not a bad thing, since the post-Romantic richness is a favorite vehicle for DeMain to unleash his forces. The MSO made it sound like a wise choice, and it was a delight for this listener—a long-time Elgar fan—to hear it for the first time.

The evening closed with a personal favorite, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6, “Pastoral.” I couldn’t help but feel that the first movement, marked by Beethoven as “Pleasant, cheerful feelings aroused on approaching the countryside” was more like a headlong sprint into the woods outside Vienna, driven rather than buoyant. But guess what? A check of the score showed that the Maestro hit Beethoven’s metronome indication right on the head. My quibbles with Beethoven aside, the rest of the bucolic work unfolded in an array of beauties (and in the Storm section) power and drama. The woodwinds delivered their multiple solos and inner ensemble with all-encompassing polish, led again by new principal clarinetist JJ Koh, and on this occasion, Elizabeth Marshall in the principal flute chair.

You’ve got two more chances to take this wonderful journey, tonight at 8 and Sunday afternoon at 2:30. It’ll make your weekend.

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