Review: Overture Center is 10; Madison Symphony is first rate

Review: Overture Center is 10; Madison Symphony is first rate

We all have our activities that symbolize the beginning of autumn. For some, it is the changing color of maple leaves, for others the first Badger football game.

For music lovers in Madison, autumn begins unofficially when John DeMain takes the podium of the Madison Symphony Orchestra and invites the audience to stand and join in singing “The Star Spangled Banner.” We know a new symphony season is about to begin.

This year, the symphony is celebrating its 10th season in the Overture Center and the program featured the Overture Concert organ, a magnificent instrument played from its beginning by Samuel Hutchison.

Rather than importing guest talent, DeMain also asked several of the symphony’s lead musicians to play featured roles, all of whom have been guest performers for other symphonies and musical groups around the country and around the world.

The idea works fairly well. But I wonder what would happen to the box office if, rather than have his principals play little solos, DeMain spent a season asking each of them to be guest artist for a full evening.

The program began with Richard Strauss’s “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” a tone poem completed in 1896, the beginning of which is better known to most of us as being the opening music for “2001: A Space Odyssey.” DeMain introduced it by explaining how Strauss set up a competition between C major and C minor chords — an explanation that was helpful to those of us listening to the piece, though, I understand, is totally useless to those of you reading about it.

The Strauss was followed by Frank Martin’s “Concerto for Seven Wind Instruments; Tympani, Percussion and String Orchestra.” It was the piece that featured most of the soloists.

And here was the problem. The soloists were great. Who wouldn’t like to hear Stephanie Jutt play the flute; Mark Fink play the oboe; Joseph Morris play the clarinet; Cynthia Cameron Fix play the bassoon; John Aley play the trumpet; or Joyce Messer play the trombone?

The problem wasn’t the musicians, it was the music.

Martin was a 20th century Swiss composer who, according to program notes written by Michael Allsen, was “fascinated by unusual instrumental combinations.”

In other words, as a listener, you have to have a taste for this kind of thing. My wife, Jackie, liked it. I had kind of hoped a Swiss composer might have included some yodels. Listening to comments during the intermission, it seemed that the audience, too, was divided about the merits of the piece (though no one else seemed to yearn for yodels).

Hutchison was the star of the program’s final piece, Camille Saint-Saens’ “Symphony No. 3 in C minor,” the organ symphony.

For a symphony, the piece is relatively short, about 36 minutes, and, through most of it, the organ maintains a collegial role, providing bass complements to the rest of the orchestra.

But during the last 10 minutes or so, Hutchison puts the mighty instrument through its paces, almost blasting the audience out of its chairs.

A good way to start the symphonic year.