Pianist Brings Down the House With “On, Wisconsin” Riff

Overture funding up, but less than requested

Those of us who regularly attend Madison Symphony Orchestra concerts affect appreciation for Berlioz and Brahms – but if you really want to bring us to our feet, belt out a little honky tonk.

Gabriela Montero, the featured pianist at this weekend’s MSO concerts, is known for her love of improvisation and, after playing Beethoven’s “Concerto No. 1 in C Major for Piano and Orchestra” (how’s that for a mouthful?), she asked the audience to suggest themes for an encore.

Not surprisingly, an audience member came up with “On, Wisconsin.” Equally not surprisingly, the Venezuelan born pianist didn’t know the tune. She asked the audience to sing it. More surprisingly, although, this being Madison, about half the audience seemed to disagree on the wording.

This led Montero to miss the cadence of the Badger fight song a bit, but she got the “On, Wisconsin” part right and riffed into a long theme and variations of the local favorite, ending up with a rag-time, honky tonk theme. The audience went wild.
Which was great because this weekend’s program is, arguably, the best of the MSO season, at least so far.

It begins with Jennifer Higdon’s “blue cathedral,” an absolutely beautiful piece of music first composed in 2000 as a tribute to her deceased brother.

The work doesn’t really have tunes; instead it makes frequent use of bells and chimes to augment a moody orchestral score that seems, at first, to tell a story but, as one continues to participate in the music, actually invites the listener to tell his or her own story.

That’s kind of an awkward description, I realize, but the 13 minutes the piece plays is worth the price of admission by itself.

As, of course, is “On, Wisconsin,” which may not be the encore Montero plays at the Saturday and Sunday concerts but was certainly a hit Friday.

The program concludes with Dvorak’s “Symphony No. 6 in D Major,” which is also a stirring piece of music performed excellently by the symphony orchestra.

Actually, the Dvorak, too, would be sufficient to make the evening worth while, though it suffered just a bit by coming after the rousing “On,Wisconsin.”

So, this is a good program. The theater had a number of empty seats Friday so, if you haven’t planned on attending this concert, you might want to change your mind and attend Saturday at 8 p.m. or Sunday at 2:30 p.m.