MSO Honors Johnson, Haugan; Cheers Ohlsson

MSO Honors Johnson, Haugan; Cheers Ohlsson

The beginning of the classical music concert season in Madison has much of the feeling of the beginning of the athletic season – except the seats are more comfortable.

The Madison Symphony Orchestra opened its 87th season Friday night at the Overture Center with an almost all-Russian concert featuring pianist Garrick Ohlsson and honoring the late Roland Johnson, music director here for 33 years and tuba principal Paul Haugan, who performed with the orchestra for 30 seasons before his death earlier this year at age 57.

The atmosphere of the entire evening, from the opening notes of the National Anthem (that’s a tradition for symphonies but, I swear, we sing it with more gusto than most) to the almost wild cheering for Ohlsson at concert’s end, was one of celebration and good times.

Even current music director John DeMain is observing his 19th season with the MSO. Ohlsson has played here previously in 1984, 1985, 2002 and 2008.

So, there is an “old shoe” comfortableness with the orchestra. But that doesn’t mean the music is any the less exciting.

The evening began with “Adagio for Strings,” a piece composed originally for tubas by John Stevens, director of the School of Music at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (that’s the “almost Russian” part of the concert. It is a very sweet piece, one which Stevens transcribed for strings a few years ago.

Igor Stravinsky’s “Suite from the Firebird” followed and brought the audience to its feet for a second time (the “Star Spangled Banner”).

If I have any complaint about the Madison audience, however, it is that we have a tendency to offer standing ovations to anyone or anything we like. What happened at the first concert is that the standing ovation began even as DeMain was trying to recognize individual musicians. The result was that those patrons physically unable to rise also were unable to see who it was that DeMain was honoring.

Ohlsson, however, stole the show.

A giant of a man – he seems even more so standing next to DeMain and to the MSO’s diminutive concert master Naha Greenholtz – Ohlsson dominates both the stage and the concert grand piano.

He played Tchaikovsky’s “Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 2,” a 41-minute long work that fills the concert hall with the piano’s bass notes but also includes very beautiful solos for violin and cello (Greenholtz and cellist Karl Divine performed admirably) and, this time, even I was on my feet before DeMain recognized the other soloists.