Madison Symphony Balances the Books with Three “Bs”

hen you’ve been listening to music for about a half-century, you want to hear something new. When you run an orchestra, you want to sell tickets. John DeMain pulled off the rare feat this weekend of giving us our musical cake—and letting us eat it, too—with an arresting combination of Berlioz, Bartók and Brahms.

If you’re going to book a world class violinist, you don’t trot him out there to have a whack at Bartók—or do you? Midori came to the Madison Symphony Orchestra a season or so ago, and dazzled three attentive audiences with Shostakovich, not Tchaikovsky. And so on Sunday afternoon, James Ehnes took the stage and left many in the audience wondering why they hadn’t heard Bartók’s Violin Concerto No. 2 sooner.

The short answer is that it doesn’t sell tickets—and few soloists want to scale its thorny (but often beautiful) heights in lieu of some “greatest hits” concerto. For that matter, not a lot of orchestras want to tackle it, either. In fact, this was the first performance of the 1938 work by the MSO, but you wouldn’t have known it by Sunday afternoon’s performance.

From barking and yelping brass, the soothing strum of harp, fabulous collective string playing and sultry woodwinds, DeMain’s hardy band of players sounded quite at home—and excited—to meet the challenges of the work.

But the root of the reading’s power lay in Ehnes’ hands, and keen musical mind. Continuing to offer evidence that, while not perhaps the household name of the aforementioned Midori, he deserves to be considered as complete a violinist as is before us today. The response of the packed Overture Hall crowd elicited not one, but two, encores: first the ubiquitous Caprice No. 24 of Paganini, followed after further approbation, the less often heard No. 16.

DeMain opened the program with a smaller, yet locally neglected piece, the Overture to Beatrice et Benedict of Berlioz. Again somehow never assayed by the MSO, it proved eight minutes of breezy charm and lyricism.

It remained for the second half to provide the traditional meat and potatoes of the day, the monumental Symphony No. 4 of Brahms. If the opening bars inevitably felt like the musical equivalent of a favorite pair of slippers following the rigors of Bartók, it wasn’t long before DeMain and forces forged pillars of sound, a sweep of form and content that inexorably drew us into an emotional landscape gripping despite its familiarity.

The playing of the woodwinds and horns, particularly in the to-die-for slow movement, led to the first set of solo bows, beginning with clarinetist Linda Bartley. It is wonderful to have her back after missing most of last season, but she was richly complemented by flutist Stephanie Jutt, oboist Marc Fink and horn player Linda Kimball. In short order the other instrumental subsets rose to continued acclaim, until the remaining strings joined them (it is hard to remember a concert in the last three seasons in which the MSO strings sounded richer and more blended).

DeMain himself deserved (and received) a passionate reception; of course, he had been standing all along.

Photo: James Ehnes; courtesy of Madison Symphony Orchestra.