Madison Symphony: C’est magnifique!

Review: MSO ends season in grand style
John DeMain

It seems eerily appropriate that on the day of the Paris bombings last week, the Madison Opera opened its season with La Bohème, a story set in the Latin quarter of Paris, albeit circa 1830. And this past weekend, the Madison Symphony Orchestra offered its third program of the season—an all-French affair. But pure coincidence it was, as symphony seasons are usually built well over a year in advance, based primarily on a soloist’s availability.

But there were two aspects at Sunday afternoon’s MSO event in Overture Hall that could have made one wonder if this wasn’t opening night in September. The first was that when music director John DeMain stepped onto the podium to begin, and waited what seemed to be a few additional seconds, he pointed to the percussion and a drum roll ensued … just as he does when the first concert of the season commences with our national anthem. But on this occasion, the orchestra broke into the strains of the Marseillaise, France’s anthem, and the seemingly capacity audience quickly rose to its feet, and met the conclusion of the rendition with warmly spirited applause.

The second reason one felt opening night-ish is that DeMain has a recent tradition of making the orchestra itself the star of the program, and with all due respect to guest cellist Sara Sant’Ambrogio, it was indeed the orchestra itself that ultimately dominated the proceedings.

It began with Ravel’s Valse nobles et sentimentales, a fifteen-minute traversal of eight waltzes decidedly filtered through the prism of 1912 and Ravel’s piquant harmonies. While the strings contributed their by-now usual stellar job, DeMain was careful to take his time in the slower sections, and seek out the woodwind subtleties. Indeed, the three solo bows were given to the principal flute, oboe and clarinet. It was only the orchestra’s second go-round with this modest gem, but their first predated DeMain’s tenure here; he and the orchestra revealed that they continue to mature in their realization of early twentieth-century French repertoire.

Sant’Ambrogio was making her second appearance with the MSO—but her first as the sole soloist. In 2001 she appeared as part of the celebrated Eroica Trio, as the three ladies were accompanied by DeMain and company in Beethoven’s Concerto for Piano, Violin and Cello. Sunday she wove her fleet and sensitive technique in Saint-Saens’ Cello Concerto No. 1, another work new to DeMain in Madison. One might have wished for just a touch more heft to the sound in the turbulent opening, but Sant’Ambrogio revealed her strong chamber music roots in the delicate moments of the central movement. The finale gave her every opportunity to flash her virtuosity, and she constantly exhibited sheer joy on her face throughout. She proved as joyful an arranger, in two unusual encores: her own versions of Astor Piazzolla’s “Oblvion” and “Libertango.” Utilizing only the string section of the orchestra, both works proved stylish in arrangement and execution, and Sant’Ambrogio earned a rare second curtain call for the second encore.

But it was in the sprawling and special effects-packed Symphonie Fantastique of Berlioz where the MSO and DeMain rose to as great a height of execution and expression as this auditor has experienced from them. Since 2010 I have heard all but one MSO program, and as for this particular work, it was the first full score I studied in depth starting at age twelve, and later performed it as principal clarinet in graduate school. From the start it was one of my favorite works; I know it inside out. And DeMain and his forces nailed it.

I add the personal detail, because anyone coming to this work for the first time (oh you lucky persons!) could easily be dazzled by any decent reading, as the opus is packed with countless orchestral firsts. Written in 1830, just three years after Beethoven’s death, Berlioz virtually composed a handbook of new instrumental wrinkles that would not be equaled until Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring in 1913. There are two harps, five timpani and two players to hammer away at them, prominent use of the tuba, English horn and E-flat clarinet for the first time, string players turning their bows to tap the strings with the wood, and two tubular bells about eighteen feet high, that required the percussionist to use the penultimate step of a step ladder to reach the striking surface (I couldn’t help wondering if OSHA was in the house).

All of this in a work that was the most explicit story-telling in tone for its (or any day), with prominent use of the Dies Irae (“Day of Wrath”) chant, and a lurid story of unrequited love, attempted suicide by drug overdose, and a hallucinatory finale that ends in hell, and you can imagine the potential impact.

But what made DeMain’s traversal most special was his careful proportion in the first movement introduction and the desolate slow movement. The orchestra— again those marvelous strings!—realized every nuance, the articulations of the various instruments so precise and subtly varied, the intonation and blend never better. One would not have blamed the audience for a spontaneous burst of applause at the close of the second movement “Ball” or the fourth movement “March to the Scaffold,” but kudos to the crowd: They gave DeMain and crew a truly deserved standing ovation and sustained applause after fifty minutes of seriously rapt attention.

The calendar also tells us it is Thanksgiving time, and so we give thanks again for our city’s marvelous ensembles and jewel of a hall in which to experience them. The Madison Symphony Christmas is just around the corner … bring your Santa caps and your best caroling voice December 4-6.