Madison Symphony Goes Well “Beyond the Score”

Scheherazade gets the multi-media treatment

When the Madison Symphony Orchestra offered Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony in the “Beyond the Score” format in 2014, many people were left wanting more. The presentation is one of about 30 works that the Chicago Symphony has produced and rents to other organizations. The basic premise is to take a major work and on the first half of a program, use a couple of actors, some video and/or animation, and the live orchestra to enrich the listeners’ insights into the masterpiece—and then after intermission, hear the work complete. It isn’t cheap (the fee is reported to run somewhere in the $50,000 neighborhood) and as it wasn’t part of the MSO’s subscription series, the Dvorak was a single Sunday matinee, that as yours truly recalls, was sold out.

This season John DeMain programmed the “Beyond the Score” format for Rimsky-Korsakov’s sumptuous Scheherazade. Apparently few MSO devotees were put off by the fact that the work had opened the 2013-14 season, as the Sunday date sold so quickly that a Saturday night performance was added. It was made possible by someone acknowledged in the program simply as “A Good Friend of the Symphony”; understatement aside, let me add another “thank you” to the person responsible.

The draw for what appeared to be a sold-out Overture Hall Saturday night was substantial, as American Players Theatre director and actors Brenda and James DeVita appeared as The Storyteller and Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov, respectively. Expert thespians that they are, they brought both biographical and fanciful passages to warmly natural life. Both their passages and most of the orchestral excerpts were enhanced by video images, mostly of a stilted, silhouetted style of evoking the vague exoticism that 19th-century Europeans attributed to the centuries-old tales and Middle Eastern culture.

But what made the Saturday evening performance so valuable (and Sunday’s presumably as well) was the wide-ranging background and depth of information provided in the first half. Scheherazade is of course a symphonic-length suite loosely based on the Tales of the Arabian Nights. I thought I had a fair amount of background knowledge of the work and his life (Rimsky-Korsakov was conflicted about being too story-specific in the movement titles, and I knew he had been a naval officer around the time of the U.S. Civil War), but there was so much more.

As expected, there were wonderful musical insights to be had; at one point the cellos and basses played a sequence that occurs in some of the music descriptive of the sea, only this time only those players were spotlighted, and some beautiful details that are otherwise buried (relatively speaking!) in the composer’s lush orchestrations emerged.

But we also learned so much about Rimsky-Korsakov’s very gradual growth as a composer, and his lifelong passion for the sea (his major naval voyage lasted nearly three years, including long stays in New York and Rio de Janeiro). For her part, Brenda DeVita gave us stretches from the “1001 Nights,” and some of them actually have some connection to other works that were excerpted. These were major revelations, such as Balakirev’s Tamara (an important early influence on Rimsky-Korsakov, whose orchestra music is rarely heard in America), and Glinka’s landmark opera Russlan and Ludmila.

There was never a doubt from the first moments of orchestral playing that the MSO was back in midseason form. The concertmaster’s role is one of the great parts in orchestral writing, as the composer essentially makes the violinist the voice of Scheherazade, and Naha Greenholtz sounded as wonderful as she ever has. The final solos were particularly impressive in both accuracy of the harmonic pitches in the sonic stratosphere and overall expression.

The rich first half did its job again, making the second half complete reading more alive than ever. This is a work one often hears early when falling in love with classical music, and unlike a couple of other works I’ve discovered no longer hold the same allure after all these years, Scheherazade continues to weave a potent spell. But after all those delectable details we were given pre-intermission, DeMain’s fluid and powerful reading sparkled more brightly than ever.

We can only hope that another “Good Friend” or two continues to make it possible for more of these wonderfully enriching experiences.

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