Madison Symphony Opener Evokes a Memory

DeMain and company also provide an interesting musical perspective


John DeMain opened his 26th season as music director of the Madison Symphony Orchestra last weekend, and if he is still four years away from the next “round number” of his storied career, he and the orchestra still managed to provide interesting context, past and present.

Your scribe attended Sunday’s matinee at Overture Hall, the last of the three performances and, given the challenges of the program, the MSO on the whole did not sound particularly fatigued (bear in mind that the Sunday event begins a scant 16+ hours after Saturday’s ends). As is usually the case over the last decade or so, DeMain structured the agenda in a way to showcase his players, as opposed to highlighting an international soloist.

The afternoon opened with the “Overture and Venusberg Music” from Wagner’s opera Tannhauser. It was an intriguing choice in a couple of respects: the Overture alone (the Venusberg music was a later addition by Wagner for a Paris production that required a ballet sequence) was part of DeMain’s audition concert for the MSO gig back in 1994. One local critic bluntly noted at the time that the strings came to disaster late in the work; there was no other way to describe it. Perspective: the additional Venusberg music was utterly unthinkable 26 years ago, and needless to say, DeMain and the troops won the Wagnerian battle this weekend. Our maestro has been rightly proud of the growth and maturity of the string section for a decade or more, and both he and his players apparently delight in meeting this kind of challenge. No doubt DeMain hungers to perform more Wagner (the only Madison Opera production during his time has been The Flying Dutchman), but we all must acknowledge the all too practical issues of casting and budgets; chunks like this weekend’s generally have to suffice. Still…a concert version of Act I of The Valkyrie (which requires only 3 singers) would be exciting.

The local highlighted soloist was the always deserving Greg Zelek pictured above at the Klais organ, courtesy Peter Rodgers), primed to unleash the mighty Klais organ in the “Toccata Festiva” of Samuel Barber. It must be said that the work is simply a bombastic (albeit colorful) showpiece for an instrument that the composer knew well. Zelek, not surprisingly was the master of all required of him, including an extended section for just the pedals. It was a treat to once again see the organ front and center and be able to watch Zelek flit and stab at the stops in the blink of an eye, and work some dynamic magic when given the chance. A quick standing ovation did prompt an encore; the usually gregarious Zelek opted for glib, and instead of announcing the encore (tsk, tsk…just because you play like a world-class musician, doesn’t mean you should emulate their indulgent habit of not telling the audience what they’re about to hear) simply said, “In case the last piece wasn’t loud enough.” What we got is simply referred to as the “Finale” of Vierne, and the 19th century French master’s fireworks were perfectly ignited by our young organ curator and performer.

As the second half opened one began to sense an interesting perspective: the entire program was of music written between 1845 and 1960 (the Barber, but as usual this was a neo-Romantic work), yet the stylistic differences were fascinating. First we had the seminal Impressionist work of Debussy, “The Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun.” With a barely perceptible nod from DeMain, principal flutist Stephanie Jutt embarked on probably the most famous flute solo in the orchestral repertoire, and of course, even after the orchestra slips in, she gets plenty more time in the spotlight. Her tone and shaping of the languorous phrases were in top-drawer form. All the adjectives a critic would hope to use were in evidence: gauzy, wispy, shimmering, et al.

The final work was the Symphony No. 7 of Dvorak, and a big thank you to DeMain again for his programming choice. Of course it wasn’t that long ago that the composer’s ubiquitous “New World” Symphonyi (No. 9) was featured in a “Beyond the Score” program, but this listener has always felt that No.s 7 and 8 languish a bit underappreciated in the shadow of that genuine warhorse.

After the rigors, individual and collective, that the orchestra had surmounted earlier, everyone seemed to relax and relish the potent mix of Brahms’s influence and the emergence of Dvorak’s Czech roots. Clarinetist J.J. Koh, who had already had numerous moments to shine, continued to lead a luminous woodwind section, and the brasses, particularly the lower ones, were a thorough delight. We were left only to count the days to the next program (October 18-20) that features Prokofiev, Khachaturian and Shostakovich—and the long overdue MSO debut of violinist Rachel Barton Pine. See you there…

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