Symphony review: MSO concert mixes music, stagecraft

Symphony review: MSO concert mixes music, stagecraft

After attending hundreds of Madison Symphony Orchestra concerts, I am finally beginning to appreciate just how much stagecraft goes into the planning of a performance.

An American flag hangs at the left corner of the stage. Conductor John DeMain, beginning his 24th season with the MSO, strides to center stage dressed in tails and a prominent pocket handkerchief, mounts the podium, lifts his arms and the orchestra goes directly into the “Star Spangled Banner.”

Unlike an athletic contest, no one has to tell the audience to rise or to sing.

It’s just the way we start the concert season in Madison. You could hear the same music on a smartphone with earbuds but you would miss most of the experience.

This is the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation and the first half of this weekend’s concerts deal with Reformation themes, namely Felix Mendelssohn’s “Reformation” Symphony No. 3.

It is a stirring piece of music that concludes with a mighty rendition of the Lutheran hymn, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” a rendition powerful enough to almost bring the audience to its collective feet. Not quite, but almost.

The concert begins with Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor,” a short work, written for organ, that may be the most famous piece of organ music in existence (it is featured in performances as diverse as Walt Disney’s “Fantasia” and in “Phantom of the Opera”) and which may not actually have been written by Bach.

And who cares? It is a great piece of music. One of the great things about the organ is that it can duplicate the sounds of an orchestra. In this case, the orchestra is duplicating the sounds of the organ.

The MSO is known for bringing in a variety of visiting artists as featured performers at its concerts. But one of the symphony’s newer traditions is to pluck a musician out of its own ranks and make that person star for the wekend.

This weekend, violist Chris Dozoryst takes the stage. He has been the MSO’s principal viola for 10 years and also performs with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and Oakwood Chamber Players.

He is the soloist for Hector Berlioz’s “Harold in Italy,” and his performance reminds us that, although a symphony orchestra produces the blended sound of some 100 musicians or so, each of those musicians in a good orchestra is highly talented and, often, is a guest soloist for other orchestras. Dozoryst may be a little less flashy than some visiting soloists but he makes beautiful music.