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Madison Symphony Orchestra closes season with momentous Mozart, and Mahler that has its moments

Post by Greg Hettmansberger on 5/7/2011 9:01am

There was much anticipation leading up to the Madison Symphony’s closing set of concerts beginning last night: The epic Symphony No. 2, “Resurrection,” of Gustav Mahler, imaginatively paired with Mozart’s early masterpiece, the "Concerto for Flute, Harp and Orchestra, K. 299."

Some managements are tempted to program a Mahler symphony and leave it at that — the “Resurrection” runs 75 minutes or so, and requires full chorus, two vocal soloists, and a slew of additional orchestral players.

But even if you’re going to open with another piece of music, what sort of opus works?

John DeMain came up with a neat solution; some transparent and rarefied Mozart, featuring two soloists in our own musical backyard, flutist Stephanie Jutt and harpist Karen Beth Atz.

In an age when performance practice purists would blanch at the notion of a full, modern string section for Mozart of 1778, it was refreshing on two counts to hear the MSO have a go. For starters, they have a wonderfully blended sound, and Mozart benefits from the rich texture--especially when applied as judiciously as under DeMain’s sensitive ears. The opening phrases immediately gave evidence, with a delectable decrescendo, that this would be a suitably responsive reading.

There was never any question about Jutt and Atz. They created a particularly intimate interplay with the strings in the central slow movement, and lacked only for a touch more sense of urgency. Some would contend that this is music that could be marked “Fragile, Handle with Care,” but it can stand a heightened sense of emotional drama.

The finale, compared to the near-perfection of the first two movements, can seem a little long and less compelling. But then came the cadenza, and we were grateful to enjoy a couple more minutes of Jutt’s and Atz’s artistry, and be reminded that their special gifts are an everyday part of our local band.

Then there was Mahler.

Since a preseason interview in which he touted his orchestra as on the verge of being a collective virtuoso instrument, DeMain has mostly proved his point one concert at a time.

But early in the titanic Symphony No. 2 of Mahler came the first signs that, on this night at least, the MSO wasn’t firing on all cylinders all the time.

Whether it was a sectional entrance with attacks slightly in disagreement, a fleeting but noticeable battle with intonation in the winds, or the occasional lack of unanimity when a tempo was pushed or pulled, there were moments when it appeared the MSO had met their match.

Somewhere in the middle of the unforgettable scherzo, I figured it out, or at least hit upon a plausible theory. In a word: under-rehearsed.

It has only been three weeks since DeMain led a compelling program of Stravinsky/Schumann/Vaughn Williams/Tchaikovsky--and only one week since many of these players performed under DeMain in Madison Opera’s production of “La Traviata.”

The good news is that DeMain (and the majority of the current roster) know their way around Mahler, the director having made a major statement over a number of earlier seasons in traversing all nine of Mahler’s symphonies (the reason for doing one now is that 2011 is the centennial of the composer’s death, and No. 2 hasn’t been played here since 1996).

So, in the end, there emerged a procession of memorable stretches that eventually coalesced into a powerful second half of the heroic symphony.

The vocal soloists don’t contribute until the mezzo-soprano dominates the brief fourth movement. Jamie Van Eyck offered a rich vocal palette, with the singer combining with concertmaster Suzanne Beia (the last candidate to take over the position next year) for some intimate fervor.

Soprano Julia Faulkner sweetly emerged late in the finale over a plush foundation established by the Madison Symphony Chorus. Like the vocal soloists, they sing for a relatively short stretch, given the overall length of the work, but they might have given us the single most consistent contribution of the night. Once again, director Beverly Taylor had prepared them to deliver first-rate blend, phrasing and dynamics.

There is considerable offstage brass in the finale as well, which was another treat, and another reminder of why it is so wonderful to hear works like this in great spaces like Overture Hall. Even on the best recordings, “offstage” brass just usually sounds softer or farther away, lacking the depth of softness only achieved in the concert hall. Similarly, there were several moments when one’s ear was delighted by the underlining of two harps with either string pizzicatos or woodwind lines.

Tonight and tomorrow afternoon another MSO season will conclude. It began with the very future of the Overture Center in doubt, and ends with a reminder that Madison music lovers are blessed with an imaginative and stimulating director, and a slew of local talent that sometimes is maybe just a little too busy. We’ll take our chances.

Greg Hettmansberger has been a freelance critic and lecturer in the arts since 1988, contributing reviews and features to the Los Angeles Times, L.A. Daily News, LA Weekly, Santa Barbara News Press and Performing Arts magazine. He was on staff for one year at Los Angeles Opera, and also contributed to NPR. Since 1996 he has contributed program notes to the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, Santa Barabara Chamber Orchestra, Music Academy of the West and the Milwaukee Chamber Orchestra.