Madison Symphony Delivers a Better-Late-Than-Never Debut

Pianist Marc-André Hamelin graces Overture Hall at last

Any local music lovers who had long desired to be awed by the artistry of Canadian-born pianist Marc-André Hamelin had their wish granted Friday night at Overture Hall. Prior to this opening concert of the penultimate program of John DeMain’s 25th season at the helm, one would have had to travel outside the state of Wisconsin to experience one of the truly great keyboard artists of his generation.

But first we were treated to a different kind of rarity, DeMain and the Madison Symphony Orchestra delivering some Mozart. For many years now more likely to be heard performed by chamber orchestras, the later Mozart symphonies aren’t hurt by a moderately more robust treatment. DeMain made an admirable choice as well—not one of the last three symphonies of Mozart, but No. 38, the so-called “Prague” Symphony. Using an ensemble of just over forty players, the MSO delivered a reading of depth and richness in this somewhat neglected masterpiece.

Still, the draw of the program was to hear the 58-year Hamelin (playing anywhere in Wisconsin for the first time, as it turned out and pictured above, courtesy of the MSO), assail not just one concerto masterpiece, but offer a true rarity as well. The latter was then first-half closer, the “Burleske” of Richard Strauss. The product of a musical genius at that time in his mid-twenties, the work is fascinating on a number of levels. For starters, we don’t associate the piano much with Strauss (save for aficionados of his incomparable lieder). The piece runs just over twenty minutes in a single movement, and is full of whimsy and quirkiness, opening and closing with humorous and insistent contributions from the timpani.

But the star of course is the piano, and Strauss’s work gave Hamelin all the material he would need and then some to demonstrate everything from huge waves of glorious sound to the most delicate filigrees. DeMain and the now-huge ensemble (Strauss composed this around the same time as his breakthrough tone poem, Don Juan) reveled in the sonic splashes. It was no hyperbole when a patron at intermission was overheard to say “That alone was worth the price of admission.”

While we would agree, it was all the sweeter that we were to be treated by the second half opening of Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G Major. Composed during 1929-1931, the Ravel had long been an admirer of Gershwin (and vice versa; Gershwin tried unsuccessfully to get Ravel to take him on as a student). Indeed, the outer movements ripple with jazz flourishes and bluesy inflections, the dazzling keyboard part darting in and out of unique instrumental outbursts.

It is a tricky score to put—and keep—together, and there was a brief stretch in the first movement when there was some slight disagreement between soloist and orchestra. Order was quickly and calmly restored however. There were other signs though, that the MSO had one of those nights when their reach may have here and there exceeded their grasp. Undoubtedly the Saturday evening and Sunday matinees will emerge with more aplomb.

Mention must be made of course of the sublime slow movement of Ravel’s cherished score. If the outer movements make one wonder if the Frenchman was borrowing from Gershwin in brief moments, or at least paying homage, the Adagio is pure Ravel. It opens with nearly four minutes of the piano unaccompanied, and the limpid theme eventually is brought to an unforgettable climax. This is followed by perhaps the greatest solo ever given an English horn player, and Jennifer Morgan delivered every ounce of expression. As for Hamelin, he was again the total master of all that was demanded. I usually don’t care if I’m seated where I can see the pianist’s hands, but there was a sequence in the whirlwind finale where I was grateful for the opportunity: the right hand furiously works away at a repeating pattern while the left indulges in leap-frogging from the left of the busy-ness to the right, and for quite a stretch of measures. It was but the most obvious illustration of one of Hamelin’s marvelous traits: he never looks hurried, even in the most difficult passages. He did grace us with an unannounced encore, Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in G-sharp, another model of nuanced phrasing and tone that one rarely experiences. We can only hope that, as with a number of MSO soloists over the years, Hamelin is enticed to return.

The closing remained in France, via the wind and the waves of Debussy’s La Mer. Here again, there was a time in the opening movement where nothing was terribly amiss, or terribly compelling. And then suddenly it was as if a switch was thrown, and the final pages of that “From dawn to noon at sea” swept us along, as did the next two movements. If we have bid farewell to Gallic fare for the season, we certainly anticipate the closing program next month, the mighty “Symphony of a Thousand” of Gustav Mahler. DeMain and company can be forgiven if they’re “only” using five hundred or so! Word is that ticket sales for the weekend of May 3-5, so get yours soon; the work is simply not to be missed in a live concert setting.

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