A Healthy Orchestra in Strong Hands

Kenneth Woods takes the podium of the Madison Symphony, and unleashes all its gifts


One couldn’t be certain Friday night if the empty seats in Overture Hall had to do with the recent warnings about the corona virus, or the fact that this weekend’s Madison Symphony Orchestra concerts were without John DeMain or a household name soloist.

Still, it was a solid turnout, and what the audience saw and heard was its still-healthy orchestra flexing all of its artistic gifts under the guest baton (when he used one) of Kenneth Woods. Woods grew up here and later did graduate work at UW-Madison, before going on to a notable career with the English Symphony Orchestra and Colorado MahlerFest, among other places.

The unusual feature of the program was its opening with a Haydn symphony, No. 96, known as the “Miracle.” With a band of about forty players or so, Woods led a robust reading (without baton). The string-dominated ensemble seemed to relish the change of repertoire, and while yours truly has enjoyed the various “authentic performance” groups over the years, the preference has always been for tasteful readings on modern instruments. This is what was delivered.

As for the requisite concerto vehicle, we were given one of the great warhorses, the Violin Concerto of Mendelssohn, brought to stunning refreshment by an artist who is clearly on the rise: Blake Pouliot (pictured above, courtesy of Jeff Fasano). The young Canadian sports a sparkling technique and lithe and lean Hollywood good looks to go with a winning stage presence. Interestingly, his opening phrases sounded understated dynamically, but the effect was to draw us in to the familiar strains. In short order Pouliot also demonstrated tons of fire and cleanly executed flash. During the orchestral sequences Pouliot would sway and bob to the phrases, sometimes turning over his shoulder to look at the orchestra, as if he didn’t want to not be a part of the experience for a single moment. Woods did what DeMain often does in these works: led a crisp and sensitive interplay between orchestra and soloist.

Pouliot revealed in his encore the real maturity of knowing how to maximize the exposure of his full artistry. He gave the audience an unaccompanied arrangement (of his own, if I recall) of “The Last Rose of Summer.” From the opening, almost whispered pizzicato, to gentle phrases that rarely rose above mezzo-forte, Pouliot held the audience in rapt silence. It is well known that DeMain has had multiple return visits from rising violinists over the years, such as Henning Kraggerud and James Ehnes…could Pouliot be next on that list? We hope so.

The second half was devoted to the kind of repertoire that DeMain and his group have come to relish over the years, in this case the massive tone poem of Richard Strauss, Ein Heldenleben. The nearly three-quarter work is unabashedly autobiographical, with the composer as hero taking on his critics, and after vanquishing them, celebrates with a few quotes from his earlier works!

Ego aside, all who love the full-throated roar of a post-Romantic orchestra is glad to ride this rollercoaster, which opens with a dramatically heroic theme that doesn’t even pause for over a hundred bars. But wait — there’s more: in addition to the epic battle, with its battery of percussion and massed brasses, there are a few quiet moments. In fact, there is almost a mini-violin concerto about a third of the way in.

Strauss married a fine soprano of the day, Pauline de Ahna. As the essential helpmate by his side, our hero paints a musical portrait of their courtship, with the concertmaster impersonating the diva turned wife. Naha Greenholtz dashed off all the coquettish and sassy phrases, and as expected delivered all the passionately lush lines as well.

Many other kudos are individually deserved, including principal trumpet John Aley, clarinetist JJ Koh — and the entire horn section, which is really put to the test. Let’s not forget the prominent tuba part of Joshua Biere!

Through it all, Woods, now baton firmly in hand, unleashed all the power of the mighty score without crossing into bombast. It made perfect sense that a conductor with so much experience in Mahler symphonies would feel at home in Strauss’s world (they were after all writing for the same size of orchestra in a similar style). It is always interesting to hear and feel how the orchestra responds when DeMain is away (in case you’re unaware, he’s with Washington National Opera this month), and it was wonderful to hear the vibrancy and joy on full display under Woods’s leadership. Bravi, one and all. You can ride the rollercoaster Saturday night and Sunday afternoon.

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