Madison’s classical music scene keeps getting better

Madison’s classical music scene keeps getting better
freeimage.com/Jean-Pierre Ceppo

There are nights that make me happy I am a Madisonian.

One of them was Friday night’s Madison Symphony Orchestra Concert at the Overture Center.

The other was Tuesday’s Overture Concert Organ performance featuring organist Greg Zelek and cellist Thomas Mesa, two Juilliard buddies who put on the most enjoyable concert I have ever encountered.

Each concert paired incredibly good performance with kind of a madcap silliness that takes the pretentiousness out of the classics experience.

On Friday, for example, we applauded the woman who takes the music score to the conductor’s podium.

Now, orchestra concerts have a ritual as traditional as that of any church.

The orchestra comes in and is seated. Just before the concert begins, Ann Bowen, general manager of the MSO, walks on stage and arranges the score for conductor John DeMain, who is completing his 25th year in Madison.

Then, concertmaster Naha Greenholz walks on stage to polite applause, followed by DeMain, dressed in white tie and tails, who strides to the podium to sustained applause.

Friday night, the audience jumped the gun and started applauding Bowen, much to the amusement of both Bowen and the orchestra and, finally the audience. She arranged DeMain’s music and, when she started to depart the stage, the audience broke into more applause – and then did so every time she came back on stage between orchestral works.

It was just an audience, which sometimes seems to take itself far too seriously, having fun and it set the stage for an enjoyable evening.

Tuesday, Zelek, who was just a year old when DeMain began his career with the MSO, and Mesa, whom he met at Juilliard and with whom he shared rehearsal facilities during midnight hours at the famed music school, teased each other (at one point, while Mesa was playing solo, Zelek walked behind him and plucked one note on the cello to complete a movement) and presented a concert featuring Mozart, Debussy, Bach,Tchaikovsky, Schubert and Haydn.

Since organ and cello aren’t traditional partners, much of the music was arranged by Zelek. It was incredibly beautiful. But Zelek, in what is becoming a tradition, joked with the audience, introduced his family, and, at concert’s end, paid a moving tribute to his predecessor at the Overture Concert Organ, Samuel Hutchison.

The weekend MSO concerts were considerably more formal. The featured artist was pianist Marc-Andre Hamelin, who was making his Madison debut. He played two pieces, Richard Strauss’ “Burleske” and Maurice Ravel’s “Concerto for Piano and Orchestra.”

He was a crowd favorite, receiving standing ovations for both works but, also, in the spirit of the evening, seemed to be a very nice man. While the audience was applauding him, he spent a fair amount of time turning and applauding the orchestra behind him.

He had good reason. Each piece involves some unusual coordination between artist and orchestra. In “Burleske,” for example, the theme is set by a timpani solo. The soloist can’t just do his thing; he has to interact with everyone else.

The concerts begin with Mozart’s “Prauge” symphony and conclude with Debussy’s “La Mer,” both somewhat light pieces that contributed to an atmosphere of restrained fun.

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