A Perfectly Timed Homecoming

Madison Symphony welcomes the Naughton twins back to town

 

It’s not unusual for Madison Symphony music director John DeMain to bring back guest soloists over the years, but when Christina and Michelle Naughton (pictured above, courtesy Madison Symphony) return to Overture Hall, it’s a treat on several levels.

It’s tempting to say “we knew them when,” as the ladies grew up here and won competitions and made guest appearances with the MSO and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra even as their careers were about to take them far and wide. It seems as though they were always poised and polished, but their collaboration with DeMain and the MSO Friday night in Mozart’s Concerto for Two Pianos apparently revealed that their artistic unity continues to raise the bar of excellence. The fact that their return this time coincided with the UW-Madison’s homecoming weekend just made it seem all the more appropriate.

The work is charming and engaging, and deserves more frequent hearings—yet one wanted to hear the pair in a recital setting, as the repertoire for two pianos alone is wider and generally more interesting than the limited choices for two pianos and orchestras. Indeed, we got such a glimpse in the encore, as the ladies gave us a blistering reading of a work for one piano, four hands: Paul Schonfield’s “Boogie.” Notes were spraying everywhere among splashes of bracing dissonance; Michelle seemed to barely a suppress a wry smile that suggested a sly “isn’t this fun?” attitude. The audience responded with a swift, roaring ovation that topped the one given after the Mozart.

DeMain opened the night with one of the lesser-heard early works of Debussy, Le Printemps. J. Michael Allsen’s sterling notes almost always tell us when or if the MSO has played a particular work, but in this case we were led to surmise that this was the first time, at least probably for DeMain and the crew. This is not to imply any uncertainty in the execution, but rather that this quarter-hour, two-movement precursor to masterpieces such as La Mer and Nocturnes would be well down the list of Debussy works to program. We were given the benefit of a refreshing change of pace, and the latest evidence that the orchestra continues to develop the kind of sectional blend, especially from the solid strings, essential to Impressionist music.

The second half was reserved for the mighty roar (and deeply poignant subdued stretches) of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5. This is the repertoire that is red meat for DeMain; he has long favored the major works of the early to mid-20th century. The second movement scherzo was a vivid reminder of the influence of Gustav Mahler—and made us recall that DeMain famously programmed that post-Romantic’s sprawling Symphony No. 1 on his very first MSO program twenty-two years ago.

Just as sports teams often take on the personality of their coach or manager, the MSO has gradually grown into a vehicle built for these major musical statements, from the tone poems of Strauss to the symphonies of Prokofiev and beyond. There were plenty of solo and sectional bows to hand out during the final applause: We had experienced the immediate anguish of the opening movement, that biting scherzo and the almost unbearably profound slow movement. As DeMain whipped the orchestra through the ultimately triumphant finale, it was all over but the shouting. The concert is a highly recommended antidote to a bright but chillier weekend ahead; you too can be warmed by the Naughton twins, seduced by Debussy and joyously wrung out by Shostakovich on Saturday at 8 and Sunday at 2:30.

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