Madison Symphony Scales New Heights

Two returning guests take the audience to rarefied air


Even when John DeMain is away (he’s been at Virginia Opera, rehearsing Turandot), he gives his orchestra—and guest artists—the kind of fun agenda he would lead himself. On Sunday afternoon, the last of three performances of the latest Madison Symphony program of the season, we were treated to two returning, and very welcome, guests.

Conductor Carl St. Clair was making his fourth appearance here since 2005; indeed, he was known to yours truly from his work in southern California before I moved here. DeMain has been aware of him for a long time as well, as St. Clair has been at Pacific Symphony, among others, and DeMain was at Opera Pacific. The fact that St. Clair quickly developed an easy rapport with the MSO means that we are glad to experience his artistry again and again.

St. Clair opened the proceedings with a suitably taut reading of Beethoven’s Overture to Egmont, and within the finely paced miniature drama many lovely details were highlighted.

The other returning guest for the weekend was Norwegian trumpeter, Tine Thing Helseth (pictured above, courtesy of Colin Bell). For her first visit, in 2014, she offered a 20th-century work and the great standard concerto by Haydn. On this occasion we had to content ourselves with just one—but perhaps the great concerto vehicle for the instrument, by Hummel, Beethoven’s contemporary.

There was only one obvious change in Helseth from her visit three years ago; she apparently has developed a preference for playing in bare feet. Whatever the psychological or physical benefit to her, it has not changed her continued mastery of the instrument. Like every great practitioner of the brass family instruments, Helseth produces a sound that seems to have little to do with emerging from a length of brass tubing. The tone is warm throughout the registers, but on a moment’s notice can burn bright, or glow at a reduced dynamic. The finale of the Hummel gave Helseth every challenge in the area of articulation, including, as brass players call it, double- and triple-tongueing. It took a long, sustained ovation after the second bow to bring her back for an encore; she rewarded the Overture Hall throng with an ineffably sweet and unaccompanied melody from her 19th century countryman, Ole Bull. The title translates roughly as “In Solitude.”

But it was the second half of the afternoon in which the MSO and St. Clair (and about as many extra players as one can imagine) took us to literally Alpine heights in Richard Strauss’ last (and longest) tone poem, An Alpine Symphony. DeMain of course has run through all nine Mahler symphonies, and most of the string of tone poems that Strauss took to the highest level. Whether it was purely scheduling circumstance or a great desire on St. Clair’s part to tackle this mammoth work (it runs 52 minutes or so), the occasion proved memorable in many good respects.

According to J. Michael Allsen’s program note, the work requires a minimum of 17 brass players, and for starters it was impressive what the section had left after just playing the work the previous two nights. But everyone has their hands full in this piece, and everyone deserved the lengthy ovations that followed the long-dying last notes. It unfolds in 23 titled (and unbroken) sections, and it was thoughtful on someone’s part to project the title at the beginning of each new portion, as supertitles are projected for the opera.

It is a work I might never choose to listen to on a recording (and I do have one, as part of a set of all the Strauss tone poems), but to hear it live is a special treat. Amazingly enough, this was the second time I had heard it in concert; the first time was nearly twenty years ago. I would have to dig through old boxes of miscellaneous programs to be sure, but I believe it was played by the Dresden Staatskapelle. That is one of the greatest and historic ensembles in the world…yet all I remember is that the sound of it all was so glorious. And that is exactly what I will recall from Sunday’s MSO performance. Once again, all Madison music lovers should be glad we have a resident orchestra that can keeps on successfully tackling the mountains of the repertoire.


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