“Symphony Showcase” More Than Just Great Soloists

The UW Symphony Orchestra takes a starring role, too


It’s hard enough to keep up with the major professional musical groups in this town; if I have one chronic regret, it’s that I never catch up with enough of the great music-making on the UW-Madison campus. Last year I finally made it to one of the “Schubertiades”; this year I finally made it a priority to hear the Mead Witter School of Music’s “Symphony Showcase.”

In advance, it appeared to be another (wonderful) array of young soloists, ripping off performances that belie their youth; but as it turned out, the Sunday night event at Mills Hall was that and so much more.

The first surprise of the evening was that Kyle Knox was mounting the podium on occasion, including an opening traversal of the Overture to Rossini’s William Tell. Knox has been steadily making his presence known in various local venues; the erstwhile clarinetist has been led performances for Madison Opera, University Opera and Middleton Community Orchestra. I’ve endeavored to monitor his development, but miss him more often than I “see” him—“see” in quotes, because mostly I’ve seen him leading opera, which limits what one can see, as opposed to hear.

I am happy to report that Knox continues to impress with a remarkably fluid stick technique, and a happy eschewing of overuse of the left hand, a trait perhaps tied in to his ability to get an orchestra to play softer than one might expect, and then raise the roof when it counts. In this particular go-round, principal cellist Kyle Price was limpidly expressive in the famous opening solo, and the strings and brass were crisp and accurate in the famous final section.

The first soloist featured was violinist Matthew Lee, who tackled the cadenza and Allegro con brio of Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No. 1. Outgoing conductor James Smith led the charge, and Lee easily survived all the technical terrors of the finale, and the orchestra again impressed with its interplay. (The soloists are pictured above: Shuk-ki Wong, piano; Matthew Lee, violin; Anna Polum, soprano; Matthew Onstad, trumpet; Shing Fung (Biffa) Kwok, violin. Photo courtesy of Hannah Olson).

Soprano Anna Polum was next, in a scene and aria from Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette. She may still be in the midst of her graduate work, but she is quickly racking up serious professional credits: she understudied Juliet last fall and just completed the same function for the part of Chan in Charlie Parker’s Yardbird. She gets her own chance out front in April as Papagena in Madison Opera’s  production of The Magic Flute. Given the chance Sunday night to reprise some of Juliet’s pathos, she demonstrated a shimmering, bright sound that shows promising power. The actual aria was uncredited in the program; it turned out to be near the end of the opera when the Friar offers the sleeping potion to her.

Knox returned to navigate the tricky back and forth of orchestra and soloist in the first movement of Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G. Shuk Ki Wong, carries a deceptively diminutive stature to the keyboard: She commanded a crystalline technique and sensitivity to the orchestra throughout the dazzling movement.

One of the competition winners was not a player at all, but a composer, and Nathan Froebe sat with the sizable audience to hear the premiere of his song Portrait d’une Femme for mezzo-soprano and orchestra. Based on the 1912 poem of Ezra Pound, Froebe’s work is compact but highly expressive, effectively utilizing a large orchestra, but never piling up sounds for their own sake. The only problem was not with the work itself, or Knox’s direction, and certainly not the assured vocalism of Jessica Kasinski—but the fact that the text was not included in the program. The words may have been in English, but it is always difficult at best to discern an unfamiliar text when sung. We hope to hear more from Froebe, including this latest piece.

The most consistently brilliant playing of the night (which is saying something!), probably came from violinist Biffa Kwok. Ravel’s Tzigane for violin and orchestra opens with a long, gypsy-influenced cadenza that needs to have some of its difficulties disguised in order to be maximally effective. Kwok pulled it off, and then launched into the fiery portion of the work with orchestra fearlessly.

The final surprise of the evening came courtesy of trumpeter Matthew Onstad, via his choice of repertoire: the Concerto Op. 18 of Oskar Bohme. The 1899 work is one of the scant examples of trumpet concertos from the Romantic era. The work (and the Russian composer) were unknown to me previously. The first five minutes or so of the first movement seemed a bit tame for Onstad’s apparent talents, but the movement closed with some fireworks. Better still, the second movement opens with the full orchestras brass capping a beautifully swelling phrase; Onstad matched Smith’s wonderful milking of the movement dubbed Adagio religioso. The brief finale contained enough double-tongueing for a work twice as long, and Onstad nailed it.

And if that weren’t enough, we all had a lovely time next door at the University Club for a reception with the artists afterward. Lesson re-learned: You don’t always have to go to the Overture Center to soak up satisfying performances…bravi, one and all!


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