Madison Symphony Orchestra – From the New World
While not a regular attendee of Madison Symphony Orchestra concerts, I do enjoy going when the opportunity presents itself. Friday night's performance did not disappoint in any way. All three works included on the program were composed within a span of 70 years, yet the different styles of each work made for a varied and well-rounded concert.
The opening piece, Mother Goose Suite by Maurice Ravel, used a reduced orchestra to provide a quiet, misty opening to the concert. As a pianist, I typically prefer the original piano versions of many works —Debussy's Clair de Lune, Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition—but in this case, I was enchanted by the various tone colors of the orchestra that the piano duet cannot quite achieve. The superbly played woodwind solos passed among the section creating a magical atmosphere, supported by quiet strings. The third movement's Chinese-inspired sound was enhanced by bell-like percussion instruments, and the fourth movement's Beauty and the Beast conversation between the clarinet and contrabassoon was delightful. Another instrument would not be able to produce the same melancholy and mystery of the contrabassoon.
If the break and set change between the first two pieces were not enough to break the magical mood of the Ravel, the opening of Samuel Barber's Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 38, immediately established an entirely different character. Ms. Olga Kern as piano soloist displayed all the passionate virtuosity required in this piece. I witnessed Ms. Kern's performance of Rachmaninoff's Second Piano Concerto with the MSO in 2010; her interpretation of the Barber was equally impressive and inspiring, if not more so. The first movement featured piano solo passages punctuated by the orchestra, along with longer orchestra-only sections. Both solo and orchestra returned to repeated rhythmic motives that often sounded improvised. The whole effect was chaotic, frenetic, yet engrossing. The second movement provided some respite from the intensity with a haunting, unsettled feel. This break from the overt virtuosity of the first and third movements allowed Ms. Kern's gorgeous tone at the piano to shine. The third movement's driving 5/8 rhythm led to the breathless, powerful ending. Short, lighthearted passages of busy piano solo were sprinkled here and there; an audience member behind me quietly giggled at one of these. Perhaps it was unrelated, but to my mind, the giggle was appropriate for either the brief feeling of humor created by the piano, or even more possibly by the amazing blur of Ms. Kern's hands. In one of MSO's concerto performances last season, I noticed the orchestra at times lagging behind the soloist, but to MSO's credit, this was not an issue Friday in the Barber. After a standing ovation, Ms. Kern treated us to a fantastic encore of one of the Moments Musicale by Rachmaninoff. Her sensitive, yet powerful skills were impeccable from start to finish. If the classical music world had superheroes, Ms. Kern would be our Wonder Woman.
The second half of the evening consisted of Antonín Dvořák's well-known Symphony No. 9 in E Minor, Op. 95 “From the New World”. Most of the themes are familiar to even non-fans of classical music—I repeatedly heard my kids' voices in my head saying, “That's from Little Einsteins!”--but to hear the work in its entirety is not necessarily a common experience. The string and brass sections finally had their opportunities to really shine, and the English Horn solo of the second movement was full of sweetness and poignancy. The third movement could have used maybe a little more of a feeling of wild abandon; though fast and stylistically accurate, it also felt frmly controlled at all times. However, the fourth movement had more of the very feeling I was looking for and provided an exciting end. I went to the concert looking most forward to hearing the Barber and the Ravel, but the Dvořák is what kept playing in my head afterward.