So I Went to the Symphony, and a Badger Game Broke Out

The Madison Symphony was certainly set to begin the new year with plenty of fresh items in store: one work scarcely more than a decade old, an old symphony never performed by the ensemble, and an A-list soloist in a concerto they had only performed once.

This triple-layer musical offering proved scrumptious—but it was the encore portion of the night that surprised everyone—especially the guest artist.

She was none other than pianist Gabriela Montero, who almost exactly four years ago was in rehearsal with Yo-Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman for President Obama’s inauguration. But not only does she possess an above average resume, even by international classical standards, she is almost singularly famous for her improvisational gifts, and the near-capacity Overture Hall audience on hand Friday night was surely hoping for a generous helping of both sides of her artistry.

The predictable side came via Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1, a work only played once before by the MSO. It has been a while since this listener has encountered such a synergy of clarity and power in a pianist’s technique (although Madison’s own, locally under-appreciated Christopher Taylor comes to mind). Montero had said in a radio interview the day before that she is enjoying “pianiss-issimos” more than ever, and indeed, she delighted with both soft, breakneck runs and limpid, magically connected single-note sequences that could make you hold your breath.

The finale may have been too quick for some tastes, yet it did not feel that this was indulgent virtuosity, simply an interpretive choice. Certainly the bulk of the audience was wowed, as a near-immediate and raucous standing ovation greeted the final chords. After three extended curtain calls, Montero returned to the piano bench, and faced the audience, explaining that, if they hadn’t heard, she would like to invite them to suggest a famous melody for her to improvise upon. “It’s like jumping off a cliff…but I like it!” she said with a smile.

An apparently unassuming, elderly gentleman seated next to me shouted at once “On Wisconsin!” “I don’t know that one…can you sing it?” Montero said to the audience. She played a chord to establish a key, and several dozen folks launched into the first phrase, and in no time it seemed that Overture Hall had become the Kohl Center. Montero laughed again and said “Is it a football song? Is this it?” She picked out the bare melody of the first few bars, with a bit of rhythmic elaboration at the back end.

Sitting quietly for a moment or two, she commenced a Bachian, quasi-contrapuntal version, which after a couple of minutes melted into an early Romantic style…and eventually into a honky-tonk, ragtime-tinged version. Needless to say, the resulting ovation was as spontaneous—and perhaps more affectionate—than before. Bucky would have loved it. Make Montero a two-touchdown favorite in any arena she plays…maybe we can book her if (ahem, when) the Badgers go back to the Rose Bowl.

It turns out that the source of the suggestion was Bill Frost—a member of the Madison Symphony Chorus for, oh, half a century give or take. Give the man credit for spontaneous inspiration, and file the episode  under unique local lore.

But one hopes that, as charming and stimulating as Montero’s performance was, that many in the house will recall what came before and after. John DeMain opened the program by “finally” getting around to conducting the most performed piece by any living composer, blue cathedral of Jennifer Higdon. This is no mere calling card by a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer, but a multi-faceted, ethereal reflection on the death of her brother from cancer in 1999, at the age of 33. I had heard the work for the first time just a few weeks ago on the radio, but only a live performance in an acoustic such as Overture Hall does its colors and timbres real justice.

The second half of the night was devoted to the still-neglected Symphony No. 6 of Dvorak. It is frustrating enough at times that Nos. 7 and 8 remain overshadowed to some degree by that famous Ninth, “From the New World.” Surely many in the audience left delighted to have heard a work that more than hints of the future greatness of that trio of symphonies, but with a freshness and power that was thoroughly compelling. The orchestra members played it as though they loved it, with DeMain eliciting both achingly tender phrases in the slow movement, and an inexorable sweep and bristling energy in the other movements.

Photo: Gabriela Montero, © Colin Bell