Wineke: Happy, masked crowd returns to the MSO

Overture Center For The Arts Daytime
Photo courtesy of Overture Center

MADISON, Wis. — One of the nicest things about the Madison Symphony Orchestra is that it is pretty easy to feel among friends when one attends a concert.

That was, perhaps, especially true Friday night when the MSO returned to Overture Hall after being dark for more than a year due to Covid.

Not that Covid was gone.

In order to get into the Overture Center patrons had to be masked and show a guard proof of vaccination and photo identification. The orchestra itself has been tested for the virus twice a week and it, along with conductor John DeMain, was masked throughout the performance.

Also, the program was a change in plans. Originally, the theme of the concert was “Joyful Reunion, Beethoven’s Nineth,” the “choral symphony.” It features a large chorus and a large chorus singing through masks. . .well, you know.

Instead, DeMain put together a “String Spirit” concert featuring the symphony’s strings, percussion, and organ, but no horns and no woodwinds.

As it turns out, it was a wonderful concert.

It featured organist Greg Zelek, violinist Suzann Beia, violinist Laura Burns, cellist Karl LaVine and Christopher Dozorist on the viola. The 90-minute program included Elgar’s “Rhapsodie Quartet,” Poulenc’s “Concerto in G Minor for Organ, Strings and Timpani,” and Tchaikovsky’s “Serenade in C Major for String Orchestra.”

But, mostly, the night was just a chance to get together again and remember some traditions.

One of them is the round applause offered by general manager Ann Bowen as she brings DeMain’s score to the podium. That started a few years ago, possibly because people confused her with the concertmaster, but it seemed like a good thing to do and she is worthy.

But that doesn’t happen at most symphonies.

Also, this concert is kind of pre-season. The regular symphony season begins October 15, 16, and 17 and will feature pianist Olga Kern (a Madison favorite) and will also begin with the “Star Spangled Banner.” Personally, I was hoping it would have been played by the strings Friday, but tradition is tradition.

Also also, it is customary for DeMain to shake hands with the concertmaster, Naha Greenholtz and with featured artists. But DeMain does fist bumps and Zelek does elbow bumps. We make adjustments, I guess.

The audience at this first concert was fairly sparse, about 400 patrons in a theater that will seat more than 2,000. And one thing that wasn’t traditional were the masks. Normally, a good percentage of the audience looks familiar even if you don’t know each person by name. But, with masks, it was hard to identify even acquaintances by looking at the top of each person’s head.

But, let’s not be picky. The MSO is back and it’s really good to be back home in the family.