Madison Symphony the Only Sign of Spring This Weekend

DeMain and violinist Hadelich lead the way in a very warm performance

Michael Allsen, bass trombone player and program annotator deluxe for the Madison Symphony, not only gets it right in his program notes for every concert, but always adds such great detail. He missed a little this time though—but then who could have known when he wrote this season’s notes months ago how cruel this April would be! Many a patron in Overture Hall Friday night must have heaved a heavy sigh as they read the closing line of his intro: “This springtime concert closes—appropriately—with Schumann’s joyful ‘Spring’ symphony.” There was a wonderful profile/Q&A with him in the program booklet (which includes the closing May concerts); Allsen is leaving his trombone position at the end of the season—but can gladly report that we will continue to enjoy (and learn from) his notes in future seasons.

But regarding the incongruity of our “spring” weather, Maestro DeMain, in fact, would address the anomaly himself after intermission, but long before that moment of levity we had been warmed by extraordinary playing and exceptional programming.

Regular readers of this space know I am always quick to point out stimulating programming, and I continue to think that Madison concerts on the whole are way above average in this regard; immediately one thinks of Andrew Sewell’s perennially adventurous outings with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, the kaleidoscope of offerings from the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society, and just last weekend, Trevor Stephenson and the Madison Bach Musicians found a way to pair Bach and Purcell in a most unexpected manner. I have applauded DeMain on more than one occasion for his programming as well, but there is still an understandable perception that the MSO tends to run more conservatively—and that will always be true of a symphony orchestra. Presumably dealing with the largest annual budget (and the need to fill a house of over 2,200 seats at least 24 times a year), ticket sales are always a prime consideration.

And yet, DeMain manages to cobble together agendas such as we heard Friday night: Benjamin Britten’s overlooked Sinfonia da Requiem, Dvorak’s Violin Concerto, and yes, Schumann’s sunny “Spring” Symphony.

Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem is a relatively early work, actually composed during his brief time in America at the outbreak of World War II. The genesis of the work is fascinating (thanks again, Mr. Allsen), and the playing of it (the MSO’s first since 1977) had all the power and color the work demands. Just as with last week’s performances of the Madison Bach Musicians where I finally heard Bach’s “Coffee” Cantata and Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas for the first time live (!!), it occurred to me early on in the Britten this was now my third consecutive live work in five days that I was experiencing at my semi-ripe middle age.

I came to a love for Britten’s music very early, hearing his masterpiece opera Peter Grimes sometime in high school and college (and seeing the legendary Jon Vickers in the title role in 1984 in a Royal Opera House production in Los Angeles—yes, they had something called the “Olympic Arts Festival”), and also had my young soul shaken by his War Requiem. Knowing the latter work well, I couldn’t help but wonder how the composer could capture the feeling of the movement titles (translated from the liturgy as “Weeping,” “Day of Wrath” and “Eternal Rest”) without resort to vocal parts or the text of the mass for the dead. He pulls it off in this 1940 with equal measures of collective orchestral power and combinations of instrumental color that must have been the envy of contemporaries such as Shostakovich (could he have heard the work in the Soviet Union), or even forbears such as Mahler. The MSO rose to every task (and as moving as it was Friday night, we can assume an even greater realization Saturday and Sunday), and DeMain reveled particularly in the huge moments.

One last side note on these performances; catching the sound of a saxophone I quickly looked more closely at the winds, and did indeed spot Steve Sveum, the longtime go-to player when the MSO rep calls for a sax part. For one, the program listing of the orchestral roster omitted him (this can happen when that page tends to stay the same for most of the concerts, and for example, there is no sax part in the May concerts which are in the same booklet), and so we feel compelled to give credit where it is due. Sveum’s greatest achievement is as jazz director for Sun Prairie High School, and he is taking his Jazz Ensemble I to the Essentially Ellington Festival at Lincoln Center for the 12th time this May since 1998. Yes, he’s built something of a “dynasty” with a jazz program that feeds up steadily from the middle schools in Sun Prairie. But enjoying his playing again in the orchestra Friday night, it occurred to me that Sveum also puts the lie to the old adage: “Those who do, do; those who can’t, teach.” Sveum does both wonderfully (yes, I know the last part: “And those who can’t teach, criticize…”).

Back to the music. The soloist of the weekend is violinist Augustin Hadelich (pictured above), no stranger to MSO audiences. In fact, he was here in consecutive seasons (2012 and 2013), and in the five years since his last visit, has firmly established himself at the top of his profession. In fact, the pre-eminent critic, Alex Ross, was in Detroit to write about the resurgence of that city’s symphony, and spend half of his piece profiling Hadelich—and the violinist talked in part about how orchestras such as the Madison Symphony had been so important to him early in his career…Thank you, sir, and welcome back.

Again on the topic of programming, there is nothing wrong with Gil Shaham coming (as he did in January) and trotting out the quintessential concerto warhorse of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, as he has the ability to make it fresh. But it was wonderful to hear Hadelich and DeMain offer up another overlooked vehicle, the Violin Concerto of Dvorak. DeMain has a real instinct and brings joy to all the Dvorak he conducts, and it was no surprise of course that Hadelich lit up the hall with his artistry. If the work is a little less overtly virtuosic than the more standard concertos (in fact, Dvorak skips the traditional first movement cadenza), Hadelich gave us all we could ask for with his encore: the Caprice No. 21 of Paganini. Here the trick is not just to toss off the “miniature” with technical aplomb, but to find the music semi-hidden in its pyrotechnics. Hadelich had it all (and we understood why he re-tuned his violin before playing the unaccompanied work, as it teems with double stops); he is more than acquainted with this music, as he recorded the set of 24 Caprices on a CD released earlier this year. Let us hope it is not five more years before he returns.

When DeMain came out for the second half Schumann he turned to the audience and said, “I’ve waited many years to program the “Spring” Symphony at the appropriate time of year.” When the laughter died down he added, “Well, we’ll play it in anticipation…”

This, by the way, is how you take a fairly standard piece of repertoire and make it fresh: Surprisingly, it turns out that the MSO had never played this work before! Undoubtedly that added to the freshness and depth of the reading. We have not taken the time to credit each section and their principal members in detail today, partly because they all stood out. We should note the extra percussion and harp in the Britten were wonderful, and the brass players passed their tests with flying colors in that work as well. The horns were splendid and had special moments in the Schumann as well; the woodwinds all night long wove magic. And the strings…well, other writers have taken note as I have of their growing maturity over the last number of seasons (and DeMain loves to tout them as well); for this occasion, let’s just say the warmest place in Madison this weekend will be Overture Hall when the MSO strings are pouring forth their collective riches.

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