A Reminder of Why We Go to Concerts

15th season finale of “con vivo” yields some surprises


I hadn’t thought about it specifically in a while, but I suppose when I go to a concert, it’s either for the performer(s), the music that is to be played, or most often, some combination of both. It had been at least two seasons since I’d made a point of attending a concert by one of Madison’s most consistently inventive chamber groups, con vivo!…music with life, and for Thursday night’s event I was equally intrigued by the lineup of music, and a particular guest performer.

A few seasons ago, John DeMain made his second guest appearance as conductor with con vivo! (usually the flexibly staffed group, like most chamber ensembles, plays without a conductor. Most of the regular players are pictured above, courtesy of Don Sylvester). DeMain’s first foray before the group at the First Congregational Church predated my time in Madison’s classical loop, but that last one still resonates with the memory of a superb reading of Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll.

On this most recent occasion, the forces were smaller, but made up for it in curiosity: the first nonet ever written, by Louis Spohr, another nonet from over a century later by the Czech Bohuslav Martinu, and a personal favorite, the Serenade for Winds, Op. 44 of Dvorak.

The Spohr was brand new to me, and it proved, as does nearly everything I’ve heard by this once-revered composer (much like Salieri, his reputation ebbed after his death) to be pleasant but not compelling. One could make the argument that the four strings and five winds could manage the early 19th-century work without a conductor, although the reverberant acoustic of the church argues for a timekeeper at least.

DeMain is much more than that, of course, but we usually only experience his sure hand leading 75-90 players of the Madison Symphony, or the assembled forces of Madison Opera. But what emerged most brightly from the Spohr was the elegantly shaped, rounded tones of clarinetist (and con vivo! co-founder), Robert Taylor. I was glad to hear the Spohr at last, and live at that, and even if I never track it down again on recording or in live performance, Taylor’s playing will remain a vivid memory.

The second half of the evening proved even more revelatory, and in some unexpected ways. It began with the Nonet of Martinu; though written in 1959, the year of his death, it is neither dark nor particularly dissonant by mid-20th century standards. The opening movement is bracing, full of “open” sounds and captivating harmonies. This is a work I had only encountered on recordings, and as I continue to rediscover after all these decades of listening, the details and sense of perspective one gets in a live setting cannot be matched by the best recording.

Admittedly I brought a great deal of expectation to the piece; I’ve yet to listen to any Martinu work and fail to feel that my time was well spent, indeed. And for that matter, he says twice as much as Spohr, structurally and emotionally, in half the time. DeMain had no trouble coaxing bold and sensitive playing from the group.  The slow movement was a marvel, and provided the first “oh my!” moment of the night: a single phrase from the viola player caused me to sit up, grab my notebook and jot “Viola!” I might as well have written “Voila!,” and for the record the player’s name is Janse Vincent. Suffice to say it was not the only cherishable moment she provided the large audience.

For the close we had Dvorak, a work I first heard at least 45 years ago, and even performed nearly four decades ago. Dvorak is by no means an unknown composer—but I have maintained for most of my life that I still believe him to be one of the most underappreciated of the great composers. The Op. 44 is a unique marvel, scored for pairs of oboes, clarinets and bassoons, three horns, and one each of cello and bass (yes, he still called it a serenade for winds).

Again, no surprises from DeMain’s conducting; after all, he demonstrates every season at the MSO that he knows his way around a Romantic symphony, Dvorak’s among them. The highlights, especially for a listener who knows the work inside out, came from more individual players whose contributions were magnificent. Without flutes in the piece, the oboes (and clarinets) are the upper voices, and oboist Laura Medisky led the way with gorgeous tone and sensitive phrasing. Learning from the program that she is part of the quintet Black Marigold just proved to be the latest reminder that yours truly needs to catch up with them next season.

The other player who commanded attention every time she shaped a melody was the first horn player, Joanna Schulz. Working on her DMA at UW-Madison, she is a member of the school’s Wingra Quintet. Make a note to hear her while she’s still in town.

Kudos to all in the end (the crowd was quick to offer a standing ovation and prolonged applause at the close of the Dvorak), and apologies for not listing all the names. The other co-founder of con vivo! is Kathy Taylor, and she left her violin in its case on this occasion to attend to emcee duties, not to mention much of what goes into the planning and execution overall. Olga Pomolova, familiar to regular con vivo! attendees, as well as MSO audiences, led the way in Spohr and Martinu (giving us particularly lovely playing in the slow movements); Maggie Darby Townsend on cello, and Bradley Townsend on bass did the honors throughout the evening, especially in the more subtle but critical roles in the Dvorak.


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