Faux-New (and Tried and True) Heat Up Overture Hall

Madison Symphony matches February heat wave

If there is a theme to John DeMain’s 23rd season as music director of the Madison Symphony, it is to perform works that the orchestra has heretofore missed. Friday night’s concert (with repeats Saturday at 8 and Sunday at 2:30) gave us a first half based on that premise.

The opener was a stirring and clean reading of Samuel Barber’s Second Essay for Orchestra. In a mere eleven minutes, the work runs the gamut from passages that could live in a searing slow movement to a fugal finale. I cannot remember when I last (or ever) heard it performed live, but having fallen under Barber’s spell in the early 1970s, it was odd last night remembering that “back in the day” the work was barely thirty years old. Not only wasn’t it “new” music then, but Barber was squarely out of favor in general, having been pushed aside by the post-tonal avant-garde of the 1960s and beyond. Now another forty-plus years later, we can embrace it as a minor classic from an American composer who was a fitting complement to Copland. DeMain quickly elicited the warm string sound that is becoming a reliable trademark of his ensemble, and all the other sections matched the precision and warmth as required.

The big solo vehicle for the night saw the welcome return of pianist Stephen Hough (pictured above, courtesy Sim Canetty-Clarke); 2010 (his third appearance with MSO) was the occasion of a no-nonsense and bracing Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1. This weekend he brings us the last of Saint-Saens’ five piano concertos, the so-called “Egyptian.” Here I was happy to realize that after nearly six decades of listening to (and performing) classical music, there are still relatively standard works by some of the greats that are new to me. What kept me from any sense of chagrin was the fact that the MSO was also getting around to it for the first time in its 91st season.

Happily the work is not new to Hough, although it has been close to twenty years since he recorded it. The opening movement is not your typical Romantic storm and stress tussle between orchestra and soloist; it had been twenty years between composing concertos for Saint-Saens, and the then-61-year old artist was more than comfortable in his own esthetic skin, namely an easy elegance par excellence. Hough made it look and sound as if he had no trouble translating that quality into his playing, to the point where one speculated whether he possessed the same (or greater) fluidity of technique than Saint-Saens purportedly displayed.

There was plenty of color in the final two movements that lend the work its nickname (much of it was composed in Luxor, the Egyptian temple city (yes, I read that in J. Michael Allsen’s as-always superb program notes). But as has so often been the case in recent concerts, the choice of encore by a given soloist turns to the introspective, once the concerto fireworks are finished. On Friday, Hough quickly re-seated himself at the Steinway during the second curtain call, and oozed a most limpid “Claire de Lune.” The work seemed to get softer and softer, yet always remained crystal clear. It was as if Hough applied the clarity of a Bach canon to Debussy, and imbued with the tenderness of a lullaby.

It is not surprising to learn that the MSO has tackled Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6, “Pathetique,” seven times in its history. As the most recent was 2008, it made a welcome return, particularly since those aforementioned strings have made such strides over these last eight years. Of course there are other spotlight moments as well, principally for the orchestra’s new principal clarinetist, JJ Koh. His rendition of the famous first-movement solos was as lovingly expressive as one hoped, but really it was just the standout moment for an entire woodwind section that had a great night start to finish. The brass once or twice smudged an entrance, particularly in the rousing third movement march, but this is more of the quibbling variety; the horns and trombones especially rose to the occasion.

No, the strings did not disappoint, and neither did DeMain who, as he has in other late and post-Romantic works, always been careful to respect structure and pacing, along with finding judicious tempos. Plenty of pathos here, true, but never over the top; one might call this a more calculated look at despair.

Perhaps the best barometer is that the orchestra got the inevitable applause at the end of the third movement (which sounds and feels like a finale), and then few dared breathe for what seemed like a minute, let alone applaud, at the end of that mournful finale. But that’s how Tchaikovsky put the piece together, and when you get those responses, you can be pretty sure you got it right. When all was said and done and played, it was the perfect program for a very warm February night.

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