Madison Symphony celebrates itself, rightly so

Madison Symphony celebrates itself, rightly so
Joseph Morris

Madison Symphony music director John DeMain has fostered a tradition of spotlighting the orchestra itself when it opens the season, as opposed to the latest international star soloist. He took it a step further Friday night to begin this weekend’s series of concerts by putting young principal clarinetist, Joseph Morris, in the spotlight in Aaron Copland’s “Clarinet Concerto.”

Given his level of artistry, one might say that Morris turned the ripe young age of 25 this past Wednesday. And indeed, his surpassing brand of artistry is already known to discerning MSO fans. His inaugural concert two years ago featured the sublime woodwind weavings of Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” and Rimsky-Korsakov’s dazzling “Scheherazade.” But to make sure we could experience every facet of Morris’s instrumental mastery, DeMain unleashed him in the Clarinet Concerto of Copland. We can be thankful on several counts for that: The work requires insane control of register and long lines in the languid opening section, and bursts of jazz and Brazilian-inspired fireworks following a cadenza rooted in the groundbreaking style of Benny Goodman (who commissioned the work).

It was a little surprising to learn that this was the MSO’s first presentation of the work, but waiting until its 90th season, when Morris could be at the helm, proved fortuitous timing.

Morris’s unfolding of the serene, yet subtly angular opening section was absurdly smooth. The work is scored for just strings with piano and harp. Forty years ago, I had a friend who struggled with the piano reduction (while I wrestled with the solo part); he described this as “fishing music.” Indeed, the pizzicatos of the basses and harp tones plunked like the center point of radiating waves on a secluded mountain lake, and Morris’s clarinet effortlessly lifted in zephyr-like phrases that soared and glided through the strata of sonic layers in the upper strings. And aside from any clarinetist’s obvious debt to Goodman, this section was blessedly free of excessive vibrato.

Morris ripped through all the jazz riffs with aplomb, unsurprisingly, but the whole that was greater than the sum of its parts in the vibrant concluding section was a synergistic joy that bounced around the Overture Hall stage and out into the audience. One could almost imagine, once the standing ovation and raucous curtain calls had died down, Morris turning to his colleagues (who were themselves demonstrating obvious approbation) and saying “let’s do it again”—and them agreeing. Which of course they will, Saturday night at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon at 2:30.

Lest we forget, the evening opened with the Leonore Overture No. 3 of Beethoven. In itself this was an interesting choice, as it was less than a year ago that DeMain opened the Madison Opera season with the opera that the overture once functioned in, “Fidelio.” It was a sturdy reading, though one wondered briefly if the violins had yet to achieve their midseason shimmer, which we’ve come to expect the last couple of seasons.

Turns out that the section’s best sounds were on full display in the Copland, and everyone had their romp in the musical maelstrom of Tchaikovsky’s “Symphony No. 4” in the second half of the program. While DeMain chose the work to display the talent of every section, it is also a work that puts the conductor under a certain interpretive microscope. But DeMain and Tchaikovsky are always a judicious pairing: He never succumbs to the temptation of treating Tchaikovsky like some sort of musical taffy. It might sound odd to describe the approach as “balanced”; after all, the composer was not only famously neurotic but his music is notorious for being heart-on-sleeve. Certainly there is added urgency as the climax builds in the first movement, but time and again DeMain trusts the sheer beauty and intrinsic power of the music to speak for itself.

Flutist Stephanie Jutt had received the first solo bow of the year for her work in the Beethoven, and oboist Marc Fink got his due for the celebrated opening of the Tchaikovsky slow movement. The brass certainly had their day almost start to finish, and the audience probably could have used an encore. The delightful third movement scherzo was the hoped-for treat, where all the string players put their bows down for the whole movement and just pluck away.

Precision can bring a certain joy…then again, many good feelings filled the hall throughout. Once more, we reluctantly say goodbye to summer, but count the Madison Symphony as a welcome circumstance of the colder seasons.