To be sure, the measure of a symphony concert is 85 to 90 percent music, but there's always a place for showmanship as well.
The Madison Symphony Orchestra's John DeMain is off conducting "Carmen" at the Virginia Opera, so the orchestra has a guest conductor for its April concerts.
Julian Wachner, director of music and the arts at New York City's Trinity Church (that's the one tourists visit, along with St. Patrick's Cathedral), was in town to conduct Mozart's "Requiem" and his style differs from DeMain's in some interesting ways.
It's not that one is a showman and one isn't. Being a showman is part of the job description of a symphony conductor. But Wachner doesn't use a baton. Instead, he pretty much glides and flails his arms as if in a ballet. From the audience perspective, it kind of looks as if his motions have nothing to do with the beat of the music.
Which is nonsense, of course. Not only the orchestra but the Madison Symphony Chorus performs this weekend. When you have a couple hundred people on the stage, they don't stay together like a pick-up jazz band. The performers knew exactly what Wachner was doing – it's just that he does it differently from DeMain.
The program included two major sets.
Organist Nathan Laub performed Joseph Jongen's "Symphony Concertante for Organ and Orchestra" in the first period.
Laub appears too young (that's because he's 25 and appears younger) to have the mastery of the Overture Concert Organ that he displays. The concerto isn't one of those pieces that rocks the fillings out of your teeth, but it does require the musician to blend his mighty instrument with the full symphony and Laub does so in an incredibly sweet manner.
After the intermission, the orchestra and the chorus join in the "Requiem," one of the most hauntingly beautiful pieces of music ever written.
They are joined by soprano Emily Birsan, contralto Daniela Mack, tenor Wesley Rogers and bass Liam Moran. They are welcome additions to the stage. Mack, especially, has a voice that very much compliments the chorus.
The promotional material on Mack said she has a "caramel timbre," a description that I guess makes sense to those with true musical knowledge. Anyway, she has a beautiful voice.
DeMain will be back for the George Gershwin concert May 2, 3 and 4 and we wish him well in Virginia this weekend.
In the meantime, Wachner serves as an enjoyable stand in.