Madison Symphony season opener suitably subtle
He hasn’t always done so in his previous twenty-three seasons as Music Director of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, but in recent years John DeMain has made it a tradition to spotlight the orchestra itself in its season openers. He did so again Friday night in Overture Hall, and went a step further: In utilizing a soloist in a decidedly off-the-beaten path work, he both highlighted and honored a respected but frequently overlooked member of his ensemble.
DeMain took things a step further, in opting to craft a program that in its first half acknowledged the imminent 500th anniversary of the launch of the Protestant Reformation. This was done with the Leopold Stokowski arrangement of J.S. Bach’s (we believe) “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor,” and the rarely heard Symphony No. 5, “Reformation,” of Mendelssohn.
The Bach/Stokowski is, relatively speaking, a kind of orchestral showpiece, more a display of blends and balances of the sections of the orchestra; the brass is actually less often put to interesting use than the strings and woodwinds. But by the end of the nine-minute work, we had ample evidence that the orchestral engine was warmed up to hit on all cylinders.
The Mendelssohn work, however, is no showpiece; in fact, it isn’t even the last, and thus presumably most mature, of the early Romantic composer’s symphonies. It comes before the famous “Scottish” and “Italian” symphonies, and due to a poor initial reception was never published during Mendelssohn’s brief life. But the subject matter was of great importance to him: His grandfather may have been the famous Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, but Felix’s father converted to Lutheranism. The young Mendelssohn seriously applied his Christian faith to his works, culminating in the great oratorios Elijah and St. Paul.
But the first movement of this 1830 work gives us busy strings, some impressive climaxes, a couple of telling uses of the cadence/phrase known as the “Dresden amen”—but little of the inexorable flow that mark his two later and more famous symphonies. The MSO applied all the energy it had to the work, resulting in a reading that made one glad to have finally heard it once live after a lifetime of concert going. Even the second movement scherzo lacks the Mendelssohn trademark gossamer-light flights of strings and winds. The finale quotes Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” with sincerity, but the final effect has more to do with piety than passion.
Ah, but the second half of the evening promised some real fireworks, albeit of a subtle order, in a work which, while not unheard, is still too rarely encountered: Berlioz’ Harold in Italy. The first superstar instrumental virtuoso, Paganini, went to Berlioz and asked for a viola concerto; when he played through the manuscript the response was “too many rests.” Indeed, this is no typical virtuoso vehicle; then again, the viola is not by nature a virtuoso instrument, and Berlioz above all delighted in discovering new and often subtle combinations of sounds and treatments of themes.
Viola players spend most of their performing orchestral lives in relative anonymity, yet the difference in a large group’s sound without that special instrument (the favorite of Bach and Mozart, by the way) would be startling. The MSO has one of the finest section leaders in Chris Dozoryst (pictured above, courtesy MSO), embarking upon his tenth season as the group’s principal violist. To give him the soloist’s spotlight in this work in particular (bonus points if you can name even two other viola concertos!) proved a match made in musical heaven.
Not long after his first entrance we were treated to one of those passages one can only experience live in the concert hall, no matter how fine a recording and playback system one might possess: Dozoryst coaxing a soft, velvety sound from his instrument, accompanied at first by the harp (new MSO harpist Johanna Wienholts), then a clarinet entrance and finally a gentle support from the cellos, blending so seamlessly with Dozoryst’s sound.
Similarly we had a moment in the finale, when the “Pilgrim’s March” theme from the second movement is recalled by two violins offstage; on a recording it just sounds soft, lacking the spatial dimension that gives the sound a different life.
Throughout the forty-minute work DeMain worked the kind of balancing magic that has become his orchestra’s hallmark in their best moments over the last several seasons; one could almost sense at times a palpable appetite from the group to sink their collective teeth in the challenges of this work (only previously performed here in 1954 and 1980).
The approbation for Dozoryst from his colleagues onstage, especially the section violists of course, nearly matched the warm and extended applause from the audience. The performance had raised the emotional temperature inside to almost equal the unseasonably warm evening air outside Overture Center. And if anyone wants more overt pyrotechnics, just check the MSO calendar; they’re coming. In the meantime you can catch these rare treats Saturday night at 8 and Sunday afternoon at 2:30.