Wineke: Pianist Hough makes simple songs new

Wineke: Pianist Hough makes simple songs new

Here’s something you don’t often see at a Madison Symphony Orchestra concert: The most talked-about piece was the encore.

Pianist Stephen Hough, making his fourth appearance with the symphony (the last time he was here was in 2010), played a beautiful rendition of Camille Saint-Saens’ “Concerto No. 5 in F Major for Piano and Orchestra.”

The piece is popularly known as the “Egyptian” because he composed major parts of it while on a winter vacation in Luxor in 1846.

Hough is a wonderful performer. His solos don’t stand apart from the orchestra, but, rather, complement it. The piece was very well received.

But then came the encore. Hough sat down at the piano and quietly played Claude Debussy’s “Claire de Lune.”

And the thing about “Claire de Lune” is that everyone who has ever played the piano knows it. It ranks only slightly behind “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” in terms of popularity among piano students.

And no one who knows the piece will ever think about it quite the same way after hearing Hough play it, making every tone, every pause, every vibration work just right. It was a quiet, soothing, stunning encore

But then, Hough wasn’t alone in making quiet notes count.

The orchestra featured Peter Tchaikovsky’s “Symphony No. 6 in B minor,” popularly known as the “Pathetique.”

In part of the first movement, Tchaikovsky wants to quiet the orchestra. His notation, according to music scholar J. Michael Allsen, is marked “pppppp” or “pianisisisisisisimo!”

So John DeMain’s orchestra did that, just as it was supposed to. It was the quietest I have ever heard the MSO play and, yet, every note came through clearly.

Which, when you think about it, is a hard thing to bring off when you have a symphony orchestra with 100 or so musicians playing at the same time.

But it worked, and the entire symphony came across as a masterpiece.

The concert, which is repeated Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon at the Overture Center, also included a short tone essay by Samuel Barber. One thing you learn if you read Allsen’s notes is that, in music, an “essay” invites a freedom of form, in this case a variety of melodic ideas derived from a single theme spun out by a solo flute. It was an interesting piece.

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