Review: MSO turns in an incredible performance

Review: MSO turns in an incredible performance
Photo courtesy of Madison Magazine

Violinist Gil Shaham is the featured soloist in the weekend Madison Symphony Orchestra concerts, and his performance Friday night was simply the best I have seen in more than three decades of attending the symphony.

I’m not alone. Richard Mackie, executive director of the symphony, said it’s the best performance “I’ve experienced in 40 years of listening to symphonies.”

Mackie, who in the somewhat flamboyant world of art is a somewhat conservative figure, stopped to chat for a moment during intermission. “I’ve been trying to get him here for 18 years and this is the first year we’ve been able to do so; he’s that big.”

How good was Shaham?

Well, after the first movement of Peter Tchaikovsky’s “Concerto in D Major for Violin and Orchestra,” the audience gave him a prolonged standing ovation.

Again, I’ve been attending concerts since the old Madison Civic Center opened in 1980. I don’t recall ever seeing a standing ovation after the first movement of a symphony. The audience did the same thing at the completion of the concerto and stopped only when the house lights came up.

So, what goes into making such a performance?

Well, obviously, talent has a lot to do with it. The concerto is so difficult that, according to Michael Allsen, who wrote the program notes, when Tchaikovsky composed the work in 1878, he had a hard time finding any major musician to perform it because it was so difficult the luminaries of his time pronounced it “unplayable.”

To watch Shaham’s fingers race along the fingerboard as he played the piece is to understand some of what they meant. This, incidentally, is one of the joys of live performance; if you just heard it on a CD you would have no idea of how fast that hand moves; it is like watching a pianist using both hands on a keyboard.

But a great performance is more than just talent.

What Shaham does is to bring out the best in everyone and everything around him.

He wasn’t just playing the violin. He was interacting with the orchestra, with his fellow violinists, with conductor John DeMain. He was leaning in. He was, at one time, laughing. Toward the end of the first movement he almost seemed to be playing a duet with DeMain. Shaham’s instrument was a violin; DeMain’s was a baton. Well, really, DeMain’s instrument was the Madison Symphony Orchestra, but he and the soloist were playing off one another.

He brought out the best in his instrument, a 1699 Stradivarius.

Now, to be sure, Madison attracts a number of talented musicians and many of them come with very celebrated instruments. But Shaham brings a sweeter sound from his than we’re used to hearing.

And, finally, he brought out the best in Overture Hall. This theater is designed for good acoustics and it brought out the best in Shaham’s performance.

One had to feel a bit sorry for the orchestra, which returned after the intermission and offered a very competent performance of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “Symphony No. ! In A minor.” They did a fine job; but it was a bit anticlimactic.

How good was the performance? Well, in Shakespeare’s Henry V, King Henry rallies his overmatched troops by proclaiming “And gentlemen of England now abed shall think themselves accursed that they were not here and hold their manhoods cheap while any speaks that fought with us on St. Crispin’s Day.”

OK, that’s a little over the top. But it was for many a once-in-a-lifetime experience to hear Gil Shaham in Overture Hall.