Wineke: Madison Symphony Orchestra gets off to spectacular start

Wineke: Madison Symphony Orchestra gets off to spectacular start
Photo courtesy of Madison Magazine

This is the time of year when “seasons” begin, so we are accustomed to first days of school, first football games, you know, that sort of thing.

It’s also the beginning of the music season and the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the musical equivalent of the UW-Madison Badgers around here, started this year’s concert series with all stops out over the weekend.

The analogy isn’t strained. The guest artist for the concerts is Greg Zelek, the symphony’s organist, playing the Overture Concert Organ and he figuratively blew the place apart.

But, first, the start of the season. You’re going to hear “The Star Spangled Banner” performed at most every sporting event and many political events. But only at Overture Hall at the beginning of every first concert will you hear 2,000 people sing it and pretty much sing it in tune.

It seemed that every person in the place was participating. Maybe it is because the news of the week is so depressing, but the sound of all those people singing the national anthem seemed particularly inspiring this year.

Back to Zelek: He’s good. He is really, really good.

For these concerts, he joined the orchestra in “Toccata Festiva for Organ and Orchestra” by Samuel Barber. The work was created in 1960 to highlight the dedication of the Philadelphia Orchestra’s new concert organ.

Just for the record, that’s not the organ you think about when you think about a Philadelphia organ. The organ you – most likely – think about is the Wanamaker organ, the world’s largest functioning pipe organ, which was built for the World’s Fair in 1904 and installed in the Wanamaker Department Store in 1909.

The Toccata Zelek played drew on every virtuoso talent the organist possesses, including something of a mini-performance played only on the foot pedals.

Also on the weekend billing is Richard Wagner’s “Tannhauser: Overture and Venusberg Music,” the overture to Wagner’s epic opera, Claude Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of the Fawn” (that’s the piece most of us think about when we think about Debussy) and Antonin Dvorak’s “Seventh Symphony.”

Since the works are all pretty well known, the audience was able to concentrate on the quality of the orchestra rather than trying to figure out what was going on on stage. The orchestra didn’t disappoint. It seems in peak condition this fall, as does conductor John DeMain, who is beginning his 26th season with the MSO this weekend and who cannot possibly be as energetic as he appears to be while leading that orchestra through a two-hour concert.

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