Arts and Culture

Madison Symphony mixes movies with more musical magic

If this had been a musical "Oscars," they would have needed a lot of envelopes

In hearing a program Friday night in Overture Hall in which John DeMain and the Madison Symphony Orchestra offered a frothy and intriguing mixture of music for the concert hall and for Hollywood of the 1930s-1950s, it is tempting to trot out all the Academy Award metaphors. After all, the Oscars were handed out just a couple of weeks ago. DeMain wins one for best director, violinist Daniel Hope for best performance in a leading role, and the members of the MSO should each take home a statuette as well. For that matter, there is an actual connection: The featured composers—Franz Waxman, Miklos Rozsa and Erich Wolfgang Korngold—had each won at least one Oscar in their careers.

But the conceit of the program's structure runs a little deeper; these were men who fled the Nazis and in some cases, unexpectedly found a home and a career in Hollywood. In part because of their success, they have too often been considered second-class citizens of the concert hall, even though they wrote enduring works before and after their film careers.

DeMain opened the evening with just the MSO strings and timpanist, and presented the least well-known work on the program, Waxman's "Sinfonietta for String Orchestra and Timpani." Written before he emigrated, the work boosted his reputation internationally, and it holds up today as a vigorous, touching and tuneful set of three movements. One of the great touches was the use of the principal string players as an ad hoc quartet within the finale.

The full orchestra took the stage for Rozsa's "Theme, Variations and Finale," and here DeMain unleashed the brass to tremendous effect. The players seemed to relish the robust interplay of sections, much in the way a child would feel when their 16-crayon box is replaced with 64: Colors galore emanated from the stage.

The guest star of the production was violinist Daniel Hope, who already has done a great deal of exploration of these and other composers in similar circumstances. His comments from the stage were welcome, along with  J. Michael Allsen's always impeccable program notes are. But all the more compelling was the relating of his conversations with Waxman's son, and Korngold's granddaughter, on the creative evolution of this piece.

The work has really been standard repertoire—Jascha Heifetz after all was the first to champion the work—but there are still too many concertgoers who have yet to fall under its spell. Hope certainly converted most if not all of the audience. His tone can be hypnotically beautiful, and his technique (tons are required in this piece) is first-rate. Better still, it is clear how much he loves the work, and that is what put his performance on the top shelf.

One did not expect an encore, as Hope was scheduled for more on the second half, but he rewarded the (for once) lickety-split standing ovation with a most surprising and stunning piece. He introduced it as a 1683 sonata by Westhoff, a forerunner of J.S. Bach. Titled "Imitation of Bells," it was a major additional bonus to the evening.

Post-intermission was devoted to film score excerpts. Rozsa was first with the "Parade of the Charioteers" from Ben-Hur, with the brass suitably barely in check again. Hope returned for two arrangements of the Love Theme from the same film, and an extended Love Theme from Spellbound. It practically conjured a vision of Gregory Peck and Ingrid Bergman, and if the transcription (by Paul Bateman) was a bit overblown, well, anything that gives us a few more minutes of Daniel Hope's artistry is more than welcome.

Korngold was represented by a suite of his score from Captain Blood, the film that put Errol Flynn on the map, and would result in more collaborations from Korngold. In fact, one wished to have heard excerpts from his Oscar-winning score for The Adventures of Robin Hood, but the offering at hand had its fill of colorful and pleasant music.

The night ended with Waxman's "The Ride of the Cossacks" from Taras Bulba. The film was more famous for being a disaster, but by all accounts the score was one of Waxman's finest. This sample gave us some touches of spicy dissonance and overflowed with fun percussion. When all was said and done, and played, it almost felt like there was a red carpet leading away from the Overture Center: Everyone left a winner.

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