MSO Audiences Paid Tribute to Ukraine

Madison Symphony orchestra

One question was in the mind of Madison Symphony Orchestra patrons as they found their way to the weekend concerts: Would conductor John DeMain begin the concert with the Ukrainian national anthem?

It was kind of a rhetorical question because we all knew he would.

Still, it seemed a profound moment as some 2,000 local concert goers stood respectfully for the anthem of that far-away nation. The English translation of the anthem, incidentally, is “Ukraine Has Not Yet Perished.”

The concert’s program was established months ago, but if DeMain had put it together Thursday night, it could not have been more appropriate to the time.

It began with Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “Isle of the Dead,” a piece the composer developed after seeing a photograph of a very popular painting depicting a skiff carrying a casket to a dark island.

It was a very beautiful, very somber and very fitting reminder that Russia is bent on destroying a land and a culture.

That was followed by Zoltan Kodaly’s “Suite From the Opera ‘Harry James,’” a light-hearted musical comedy featuring, of all things a “Cimbalom,” a stringed instrument that, from the audience, looks like a kitchen table and is played with small mallets, like a xylophone. It was played by Matthew Coley, an internationally known marimba musician.

What made the piece fit in to the theme of the night was that it brought out memories of the television newscasts showing Ukrainian children playing in shelters while bombs exploded overhead.

But, what really anchored the concert was violinist Gil Shaham, who played Beethoven’s “Violin Concerto,” one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written.

There were two things about his performance I hadn’t seen before at MSO concerts.

One was Shaham’s evident joy at playing with the orchestra. When he wasn’t playing his 1699 Stradivarius, he was interacting with the violin section of the orchestra, encouraging any other member of the group who played a solo part, grinning happily and, seemingly, having a wonderful time.

The other thing I hadn’t experienced was the vehement approval he received.

This is Madison. We give everyone a standing ovation. But the audience virtually exploded when Shaham finished.

The concerto, itself, is both lyrical and hopeful. In context, it projected an image of what life may, one day, be again.