Madison Symphony Opener Is More Than Bargained For

Madison Symphony Opener Is More Than Bargained For

he 2012 season opener of the Madison Symphony Orchestra was billed as a “Russian Spectacular,” and Friday night in Overture Hall a full house was indeed treated to huge stretches of high-powered music, wonderfully played. But the night unexpectedly began with DeMain sharing some special memories of two MSO alumni who passed away recently, before giving them the finest tribute — a musical memorial.

Roland Johnson was the third director of the MSO (1961-94), and can be fairly said to have done the heavy lifting: First, he paid the musicians, then over more than three decades made them a regional orchestra of stature. Paul Haugan was the principal tuba player for decades, and passed away unexpectedly in July. DeMain’s words regarding each man was more than appropriate affection; he gave those of us who were not here in time to experience Johnson’s work firsthand a cogent overview of his inestimable contributions, while sharing some fun details of Haugan’s passion for all things tuba.

The musical tribute was John Stevens’ “Adagio for Strings” — a most apt choice as the work was originally for tuba quartet. That fact may explain why the piece doesn’t suffer from comparisons with Barber’s ubiquitous “Adagio,” although Stevens’ nine-minute work is well served by the string setting. DeMain had no trouble coaxing a heartfelt performance from the MSO strings.

Because of the added work, the biggest work was flipped to post-intermission, that being the “other” piano concerto of Tchaikovsky, No. 2. It is an understatement to say that this work has been overshadowed by the earlier masterpiece; I believe this is only the second time I’ve heard it live in forty-plus years of concertgoing.

And this may have been the only time a soloist played the hero months before even arriving in town. When DeMain proposed the repertoire to Garrick Ohlsson, he reportedly gave a conditional “yes” — the condition being that the work be played uncut.

Indeed, there is a case to be made that there is more repetition than inspiration in the sprawling opening movement; even Ohlsson’s prodigious power can’t quite elevate every phrase of the two — count ‘em, two — cadenzas. But then we were guaranteed that miracle of the Andante second movement, wherein Tchaikovsky creates a chamber music trio of piano-violin-cello carrying melodies as beautiful as any he composed (which is of course saying something).

Concertmaster Naha Greenholz and principal cellist Karl Lavine thoroughly relished the opportunity, and then the finale took full flight. This is a movement that can stand comparison to the first concerto’s finale, and Ohlsson fully earned the quickly given standing ovation.

The rest of the first half was comprised of Prokofiev’s saucy “Classical” Symphony; here the MSO violins didn’t have a unanimous sparkle until the third movement of this miniature masterpiece.

But DeMain and a full stage of players swirled and splashed their way through the 1945 version of Stravinsky’s “Firebird” Suite. From start to finish we were reminded that DeMain has brought the MSO to a level where they not only tackle music of inner virtuosity, but are comfortably confident and polished enough to bring it to surging, vital life. Roland Johnson and Paul Haugan would surely loved to have heard it.

Photo: Garrick Ohlsson, courtesy Madison Symphony.