Madison Symphony Gives the Large Variety Box for Valentine’s Day

Madison Symphony Gives the Large Variety Box for Valentine’s Day

More than a few Madison Symphony subscribers might have looked at this week’s program and thought that John DeMain was giving us the programmatic equivalent of Forest Gump’s chocolate box: you weren’t quite sure what you were going to get in each piece.

In a program that ranged from the last decade of the 18th century to the first decade of the 21st, DeMain’s imaginative musical journey was seconded by his unique choice of soloist: Norwegian sensation Tine Thing Helseth offered Haydn’s once-groundbreaking Classical model of a trumpet concerto, and the 1950 Trumpet Concerto of Alexander Arutiunian.

Given the unusual repertoire and unconventional soloist, Overture Hall was still well attended, and with noticeably younger audience members here and there. They were greeted by a suitably dark-hued and impassioned reading of Sibelius’ minor masterpiece, Finlandia. Helseth then took the stage the first time for Haydn.

Haydn’s gem was the first by a major composer for what was, in the 1790s, a new-fangled kind of trumpet—one with valves. Of course, the work holds no technical terrors for any accomplished player today, but what we did have revealed to us was Helseth’s wondrous ability to ping an attack, immediately draw back volume without sacrificing the body of tone, and proceed to mold  and shape it as fluidly as she desired.

But with the close of the first half of the concert, DeMain and his orchestra nearly made us forget all the fuss about Helseth. The vehicle was the 2007 Doctor Atomic Symphony of John Adams, a 25-minute workout of major themes and sections from his 2005 opera.

The principle character is J. Robert Oppenheimer, and the venue is the test site in New Mexico of the first atomic bomb. After a powerful and tumultuous opening, the music is full of stark, streaking sounds. This is music that expresses both the daunting immensity of an unprecedented power, and the overwhelming anxiety that it is a power that cannot be controlled or turned back once unleashed.

To realize that the MSO pulled this off in less than a full week of rehearsals is testament enough to the position they have grown into under DeMain, but particular praise must be given to principal trumpet John Aley, principal trombone Joyce Messer, and tuba player Joshua Biere. And the best news: the ovation was more quickly vociferous and with more people immediately coming to their feet than they had for Helseth. We can stop holding our breath: Overture Hall audiences can embrace quality new music when executed at this level of excellence. A bravo to the audience.

As if meeting a challenge, Helseth returned to open the second half with Arutuinian’s Trumpet Concerto. At once the opening fanfare gave Helseth more chances to display her full technical arsenal, and the benign, melodious work later gave her opportunities to soar over a surging ensemble. At times the work almost reminded one of a mid-century Hollywood score, although ultimately this Soviet/Armenian composer draws more faithfully on his own cultural influences.

In response to the bigger ovation and two curtain calls, Helseth announced an encore of “Fanfare” by Stanley Friedman. She described him as a trumpeter/composer, and to give you some idea of what this short, funny, and presumably incredibly challenging work entails, one Google search result was a 45-page doctoral dissertation on extended techniques in the piece. In short, Helseth produced what can only be described as a muted sound—without a mute—incredibly low notes that eventually turned into growls, and even an effect that could only be labeled instrumental ventriloquism. Friedman’s piece may be a riot, but Helseth is a true marvel.

DeMain closed by returning to a late Romantic major masterpiece, or at least a suite from it, Richard Strauss’ opera Der Rosenkavalier. For nearly a half hour, we had visual and aural evidence of how much he must want to bring a Strauss opera to the stage of Madison Opera; alas, all of the great Strauss operas are either a tough ticket to sell, too expensive to produce, or both. But the full MSO was fully unleashed for lilting waltzes, a 1911 Viennese nostalgia for a century already passed, and the surging passion that only comes from the Wagner/Mahler/Strauss school. What could be more fitting than to end our Valentine’s Day night with a silver rose presented on a shimmering platter? And for any who looked askance at this weekend’s program (repeated as usual on Saturday night and Sunday afternoon), tsk, tsk—and you can look forward to all-Beethoven next month and yes, once again, two concertos.