Wineke: Olga Kern wows MSO audience again

Overture Center For The Arts Daytime
Photo courtesy of Overture Center

MADISON, Wis. — As I read through the program notes for the weekend Madison Symphony Orchestra concerts, it struck me that the commentaries J. Michael Allsen writes for each performance are almost as much a part of the enjoyment as the concerts themselves.

Just as I was perusing that thought, Randal Swiggum, conductor of the Madison Youth Choirs, took the Overture Hall stage to begin the pre-opera lecture and began by suggesting Allsen “is one of the best program annotators in the country.”

Just goes to show there’s a lot of behind-the-scenes talent in an arts organization like the MSO.

That’s one way to begin a concert review. The late Barbara DeMain, wife of MSO conductor John DeMain, once told me I covered every part of a concert “except for the man with the stick.”

The man with the stick was in great form Friday, beginning the concert with a traditional rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The entire orchestra played the anthem while standing, which I don’t recall happening in previous years.

Also new this year is the presentation of the male musicians, each of whom, including DeMain, was dressed entirely in black.

In the past, musicians have worn either business suits or tuxedos while the women musicians were dressed in black. Now, everyone will be dressed alike – or, at least, in the same color – for all three performances.

The program (I promised I would get to it sooner or later) was glorious.

Pianist Olga Kern made her fifth performance with the symphony, beginning in 2008 and she is always a favorite of the audience.

This time, she played Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini for Piano and Orchestra.”

It is truly hard to believe that a mere mortal’s fingers could move as fast as Kern’s moved, pounding the keys at some points and dancing lightly over them at others.

When she finished, the audience kept applauding and applauding and might have just kept on if the house lights hadn’t come up.

Kern, incidentally, was not dressed in black. One of her trademarks is an array of gorgeous evening gowns (Friday’s was red) and she brings a separate gown for each performance.

Also on the program were Ravel’s “Alborata del Gracioso” and Beethoven’s third symphony, the “Eroica,” a piece both Swiggum and DeMain termed probably the finest symphony ever composed.

In order to attend the symphony patrons must provide proof of Covid vaccination and wear masks. That’s true of DeMain, Kern and the musicians, too.

The brass and woodwind sections cannot do that, however since, obviously, they blow into their instruments.

DeMain arranged the orchestra so that each brass or wind player was at least six feet behind any other musician and had six feet of space on each side which, he admitted, took some doing.

But there was some doing. It was a wonderful concert and, as DeMain said when he began the program, “We are so happy to be back!”

His audience felt that way, too.