Madison Symphony Closes Its Season on Very Human Notes

Long-awaited hearings and a farewell mark the final weekend

Madison Symphony Orchestra music director John DeMain has made it (or continued?) a tradition of closing each season with a major work for chorus and orchestra. He has said on occasion in recent years that he has long wanted to program Brahms’ A German Requiem—but waited until he felt that the Madison Symphony Chorus could do the masterpiece justice. In recent years there has been evidence that the group, under the directorship of Beverly Taylor, has been maturing and rising to a new level of nuanced performance, and Friday night marked the first of three performances at last of this truly great work.

There was something else fitting about the programming of it too; DeMain’s predecessor, Roland Johnson, had conducted the Brahms Op. 48 in his final appearance with the MSO.

But the night opened with another long-awaited event, and in fact, all research apparently confirms that this was the first U.S. professional performance: Charles Villiers Stanford’s Concert Piece for Organ and Orchestra, Op. 181. Stanford was an Irish composer whose zenith had long passed by the time he penned this work in 1921. Your scribe has encountered a number of Stanford’s chamber works, and always found them engaging and worth a listen or two. DeMain’s choice was particularly apt, as Stanford had always been a staunch supporter of the conservatives of his time—namely, Brahms et al.

Indeed, the “20th-century” work could easily have been composed four decades earlier, and would not have sounded out of place. Organist Nathan Laube returned (he was with the MSO in 2014; pictured above, courtesy of the MSO) and with the opulent Overture Hall organ front and center (usually it’s off to the side, as it would be for the Brahms), Laube’s opening pedal work was thrilling to hear and see. The work is scored for strings, brass and percussion, and the combination yielded bushels of rich, dark and thrilling sounds. The piece is just over twenty minutes, structured with several connected contrasting sections. As far as it being so obscure, apparently it had never been played at all until 1990, despite its opus number. It seems that it is now getting heard here and there, and deserves too.

Happily we also received a solo encore from Laube, and it was a stunner: the first movement of the Symphony No. 6 for Solo Organ by Charles Marie Widor. This was longer than the usual encores we are treated to, but no one seemed to mind, and Laube deserved every decibel of the ovations his playing triggered. It was also a potent reminder that next season I HAVE to get to one of the three organ events in Overture Hall; I have been gently prodded more than once to attend one, and it remains stuck on my “to-do” list. Well, if we can have New Year’s resolutions, we can have New Season’s resolutions, can’t we?

But of course the Brahms was the big event. Never a traditional churchgoer, Brahms nevertheless was led to begin a requiem perhaps by the death of his friend and early mentor, Robert Schumann, and then spurred to complete it following the death of his mother. But he eschewed the traditional Latin text set by so many composers before him, and chose passages from the Lutheran Bible. The result was a seven-movement, seventy minute masterpiece that emphasizes a quieter grief, and perhaps a deeper compassion than other Latin settings. In addition to the expected choral and orchestral forces, it calls for soprano and baritone soloists.

The first major highlight of the piece is the second movement, “For all flesh is as grass,” with verses from 1 Peter, James and Isaiah. DeMain patiently paced the climaxes, with a quiet urgency always underlining the pace; there was never any hint of strain from the chorus, which produced a poignant warmth within an impressive blend.

Timothy Jones was the baritone soloist, and he gets the spotlight in the third and sixth movements. His opening line of the former, “Lord, teach me to know my ending must surely come” (Psalm 39) was a gently pleading, never demanding entreaty. Jones was heard here about a year ago with the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society, and his return was greatly anticipated by yours truly; he did not disappoint, with a warm, focused sound in his low register and beautifully gauged phrases.

Devon Guthrie, making her MSO debut (as was Jones), sings in the fifth movement. The words are from the Gospel according to John, Jesus’ tender words to his disciples the night before his crucifixion: “You are sorrowful now; but I will see you again, and your heart will be joyful, and no one will take your joy away from you.” Guthrie began sounding a little light and perhaps a little cautiously, but as the movement unfolded with verses from Isaiah and the Apocrypha (Ecclesiasticus), she warmed to a calibrated fervency that matched the MSO.

The final touch of what was already a poignant night came when DeMain announced that the weekend marks the final performances of the MSO’s principal harpist, Karen Beth Atz. Remarkably, she is only the second harp player in the ensemble’s 91-year history (!), and has served as a model of execution and artistic beauty for 42 seasons. The silver lining is that she will assist in the selection of her successor. Having heard only a fraction of her contributions in her career, these thanks would be far too small. But surely the passionate ovation she received when DeMain led her by the hand from behind the string section for a solo bow made up for that. She will undoubtedly get two more rounds of that, Saturday night and Sunday afternoon—go add your voice and applause to say thanks; you’ll also get a viable dose of peace and hope for yourself from the MSO’s last performances this season.

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