Adrian Burrows for the Madison Symphony Orchestra
Thomas Trotter is familiar with Overture Hall's mighty Klais organ, counterpart to his own home instrument in Birmingham Cathedral.
The Sept. 28 concert by the Madison Symphony Orchestra at Overture Hall was either a grab-bag or a cross-current of themes.
One theme was French. Now, the MSO does not have the Gallic leanness of true French orchestral sound. In Debussy's atmospheric "Nocturnes," it meshed sensuously with the MSO Women's Chorus in the last of the three, "Sirènes." But however lovely the wind playing, the first, "Nuages," didn't flow seamlessly and even sagged somewhat. The middle one, "Fêtes," did not clarify the interaction of the two different pulses at work simultaneously.
A meticulous care for details marked conductor John DeMain's treatment of Sibelius' "Symphony No. 7," which opened --c uriously, rather than closing -- the concert's second half. Still, that approach underplayed the striking patterns of tension and release that makes this one-movement masterpiece so powerful.
Program themes intersected with the concert's framing works, featuring British organist Thomas Trotter. A welcome return visitor, he is familiar with Overture Hall's mighty Klais organ, counterpart to his own home instrument in Birmingham Cathedral.
For his opener, Trotter joined the orchestra in Barber's "Toccata Festiva." An extroverted work, much of which can be taken for busy bluster, it does remind one of the taut, even Sibelius-like structural craftsmanship of Barber's two early "Essays for Orchestra." The cadenza on pedals was something to see as well as to hear. And the orchestra did its part lustily.
For many, I would guess, the surprise of the program was the concluding work. Félix-Alexandre Guilmant (1837-1911) may not be among the best-remembered figures of the late-19th-century blossoming of French organ writing, but he was an important one. The last of his eight organ sonatas was composed in 1878, but in the last year of his life he expanded it into what he called his "Symphony No. 2 for Organ and Orchestra." The label "symphony" is perhaps better than "concerto" or "suite," though there are elements of all three in the five-movement score. The orchestra is, in fact, the dominant partner, and Guilmant's writing for it is altogether accomplished.
If not great music, it is comfortably reminiscent of the French Romantic idiom of Gounod or Saint-Saëns. The flanking movements are full of rather pretentious panache. Still, there are genuinely lovely things in the three middle sections. In all, it was a treat to be able to experience such a rarity.
DeMain deserves praise for bringing it to us, but particular glory to Trotter for avoiding more flashy display pieces and seeking such musical partnerships.