Madison Symphony Triumphs Over the “Soviets”

Oh, and Rachel Barton Pine makes a long-overdue MSO debut


Apparently it wasn’t the original plan, but when John DeMain and the Madison Symphony Orchestra managed to secure violinist Rachel Barton Pine for their second set of concerts this season, they agreed she would offer the Violin Concerto of Aram Khachaturian—alongside works of Prokofiev and Shostakovich.

These are all composers who have interested DeMain in general, and his orchestra usually plays this repertoire with the kind of raw passion the works demand. The fact that the lives of the three men were spent largely or entirely under the previous Soviet regime is really more a matter of interesting coincidence.

Example 1: Prokofiev’s celebrated suite from the film score for Lieutenant Kije was composed before the composer’s permanent return to his homeland in the mid-1930s. The film and the music reflect a favorite theme of the Soviets, namely poking fun at the foibles of the czars who ruled Russia for centuries. More curious Friday night at Overture Hall was discovering that the MSO had never, until these concerts, played the complete suite.

Certainly the players and DeMain lost no time in making up for that, offering a performance that could stop on a dime and switch from tongue-in-cheek sassiness to genuinely warm lyricism. In the film (and found occasionally in performance) are parts for baritone voice, but for concert purposes, Prokofiev gave those lines to the tenor sax. With a little on site digging, it was discovered that the creator of the luscious sounds heard Friday was one Matthew Sintchak. I make a point of this because few if any of my fellow listeners could have known. Yes, the MSO program books contain two or three programs, and undoubtedly have a long lead time to get to press. It is hard to justify the expense of printing a single sheet insert and putting one in each program, so…here’s a suggestion: when a player not usually heard in the MSO (and this could include someone subbing for a principal chair player), print up a handsome card, place it on an easel by the table in the foyer that is always filled with other MSO materials, and anyone curious enough can easily discover who has delighted their ears. Especially in cases like this weekend, when Michael Allsen’s ever-stimulating program notes point out the tenor sax situation in the music—and yet there isn’t one listed on the orchestral roster page. Just sayin’…

Ok, off the soapbox and on to the main event, the performance of Rachel Barton Pine (pictured above, courtesy of Lisa-Marie Mazzucco). She was famously injured in an accident on a commuter train in the Chicago suburb of Winnetka in the mid-1990s; not only did she go on to win her court case, but ultimately resumed a career that sees her still at the pinnacle of her peers.

She plays a 1742 Guarneri instrument, and the usual adjectives seem all but worthless in trying to describe the tone she produces. You can trot out your own superlatives regarding her mastery of technique; the overriding impression of her playing in the first movement of the underrated Khachaturian was that she could produce a huge volume with little obvious effort. If she needed to rise above the full orchestra, she could, without a shred of strain in the sound, and when she had an unaccompanied passage, she has at her disposal a palette of tone colors that must be the envy of most of her colleagues.

As for the work and the composer, Khachaturian was Armenian, and if he had a reputation (especially when compared to Prokofiev and Shostakovich) of  “getting along” with the powers that were during his life, all such thoughts can be easily dismissed in the case of this work. It was written for, and to a significant extent with the advice of, the legendary David Oistrakh. That circumstance alone gives the concerto a special pedigree. The only minor complaint is that the slow movement is needlessly lengthened by what I would call a “pseudo-Shostakovich” imitation intended to give the work some added gravitas. It isn’t needed, for when Khachaturian simply allows his lyric gifts to flow, the results are totally captivating.

For an encore Pine offered the Caprice No. 13 from Paganini’s “24 Caprices,” and gave a bubbly introduction that was nearly as much fun as her stunning virtuosity.

DeMain devoted the second half of the evening to Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 9; composed at the close of World War II, Stalin expected a predictably bombastic celebration of the Soviets’ part in the victory; instead he heard a work that opens full of whimsy and innocent delight. It is as if Shostakovich was saying “here is how we’ll celebrate—with nose-thumbing, snowball tossing giddiness.” But the military echoes can still be detected, and again, DeMain and company brought every aspect of the work to vivid life.

The only disappointment of the evening was to sense that Overture Hall was not as packed as it should have been; Pine has been in Madison before, both in recital at the Union Theater and more than once with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra. The chance to hear an artist of her magnitude with a full orchestra in our jewel of a concert hall is precious, and yours truly urges you to grab a ticket for Saturday night or Sunday afternoon and take advantage. And while we’re at it, let’s remind some naysayers that this is anything but the safe kind of programming for which DeMain has on occasion been wrongly accused.

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