Madison Symphony Gives Warm Welcome to Two New Guests

Canadian conductor Tania Miller and cellist Zuill Bailey are the latest to discover the joys of the MSO and Overture Hall


Madison Symphony music director doesn’t miss many concerts, but when he does it’s always intriguing to see how the group will respond to a fresh dynamic. This past weekend saw the local debuts of two major talents that we already hope will be back relatively soon, and a sizable Overture Hall audience Sunday afternoon gave every indication that they agree.

I’ll confess that the name Tania Miller was unknown to me until it appeared in the first releases of the MSO 2018-2019 season. Her track record is certainly impressive: she returns this season to guest conduct the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and just completed a 14-year stretch as music director of the Victoria Symphony in British Columbia.

Miller even brought a third guest along in effect, by opening the program with “Home,” a twelve-minute work by her countryman, Michael Oesterle. Adapted from a longer movement of an hour-long symphony, the 2014 work reflects the composer’s own feelings on immigration: he came to Canada at the age of fourteen from his native Germany. The work unfolds initially with quasi-mechanical percussion play, before careening through a series of cleverly interwoven quotes (from the likes of Mahler, Stravinsky’s Petrouchka and Gershwin’s An American in Paris). Soon the piece settles into a highly emotional stretch of lyricism, and where Miller’s opening stick technique had been all pinpoint precision, she now rode the waves of sounds she coaxed from the full orchestra. The work has an arresting conclusion, with principal cellist Karl Lavine playing some slow and sustained lines—while assistant principal Mark Bridges sang some haunting lines of an Icelandic hymn. Once again we have encountered a living composer (Oesterle was born in 1968) who we are excited to hear more from.

The second official guest of the weekend was cellist Zuill Bailey (pictured above, courtesy of the MSO), and while he was new to Madison, he was not new to me—although I admit I had lost track of him since my move here in 2001. From 1995-2001 I was the music critic for the Santa Barbara News Press, and my start nearly coincided with Bailey’s second summer at the Music Academy of the West. Garnering a passel of prizes, various Santa Barbara venues and groups helped launch his young career; it was clear each time that I was privileged to hear an artist likely to end up with a major career.

Since those years, Bailey has become recognized as one of the finest cellists of his generation, on the road over three hundred days a year, and along with an endless list of the greatest halls and conductors with whom he regularly collaborates, he added a 2017 Grammy for his recording of Michael Daugherty’s (a Milwaukee-based composer, in case you don’t know) of “Tales of Hemingway.”

Needless to say, I was particularly excited to hear him again nearly twenty years since our last encounter, and very intrigued to see how the Cello Concerto of Edward Elgar would unfold in Bailey’s hands.

The concerto was not only Elgar’s final major work, but written in the shadow of the closing days of World War I, and soon followed by the death of his wife. Not surprisingly, it is a work dominated by sadness—but there are stretches of contrast, and it can be tricky to balance the disparate emotions.

Bailey not only commanded the stage with the deep rich tones of his opening, but he and Miller were hand-in-glove not just in big tempo changes, but nuances of phrasing. What is essentially a fast second movement after an extended melancholy opening was nothing short of scintillating, first for Bailey’s precision, then for Miller and the MSO to match the expressive flow. Another element crept in that would also be on display in the second half of the concert, with what might be described as “stop on a dime” changes in dynamics from the group as a whole.

Bailey seemed reluctant to play an encore, but the applause would not die down—and the orchestra joined in by the strong tapping of their feet to signal their appreciation. Finally the third curtain call found Bailey seated…pensive…and after just five notes of his unannounced encore, a few gentle giggles broke out: it was Brahms’ “Lullaby.” How many in the audience actually knew it was one of Brahms’ simple and great art songs and not just that famous tune, we’ll never know. But we do know that Bailey’s playing quickly hushed the audience to as quiet as I can recall in the more than 60 MSO concerts I’ve heard since 2010. In the “second verse,” the playing grew even more hushed, with the final few notes seeming to be near-pantomime. I discovered later that in fact Bailey lifted his bow just above the strings for what would have been the last three notes. The effect was astonishing.

Those of us fortunate enough to attend the post-concert reception learned the “rest of the story.” Bailey informed the throng that the Elgar is a work that makes him feel like not playing any encore; there just isn’t a mood that seems to fit afterwards. Suddenly today he recalled how, in his rare times at home when his boys were young, he would lie next to them on the bed, and quietly sing the Lullaby—never finishing the last notes, and then seeing each time that they indeed had fallen asleep. He may have calmed an audience, albeit briefly, on Sunday, but they certainly were not asleep.

The second half of the concert held a different kind of intrigue: what would Miller do with the well-worn heart-on-sleeve Romanticism of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5? Now the MSO could be unleashed in full, that is, the Oesterle was a new work, and the Elgar demanded discipline to match Bailey’s vision, but now Miller and the troops were unfettered.

The result was a musical roller coaster of grand proportions, every section enjoying opportunities to pour out swaths of glorious sound. Frequently one finds cause to criticize a conductor for being too arbitrary or extreme in tempo changes within the movements, but again what we experienced Sunday had more to do with a vivid illustration of what can be done with dynamics. This is not just a matter of abrupt changes to various degrees of loud and soft, but a true palette of surges and swells, ebbs and flows along the gradient of loud and soft.

True, Miller did push tempos at times, certainly in the last third of the finale, and the MSO was up to the technical challenge. Some might quibble with certain choices of her’s, but I for one was too happily caught up in the maelstrom of unabashed Romanticism to split interpretational hairs.

In case you missed it, Miller was here because DeMain was in Spain, conducting concert performances of Bernstein’s Candide. He returns to celebrate “Lenny’s” 100th birthday in the concerts of November 9-11. In the meantime, you can read a review of his Barcelona performances here.

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