Playing the socks off of Saint-Saëns.
For one thing, there is no guest soloist grinding out a warhorse concerto. Instead, as with the opener last season, conductor John DeMain put the focus on the orchestra itself, as a star in its own right. The program is titled "Orchestral Splendors." And with two major roof-raiser works on the menu, there is ample demonstration both of this orchestra's sumptuous sound and of the splendid setting for it provided by Overture Hall. But there is also display, on a smaller scale, of the solo talents of some of the orchestra's players.
A grand and ambitious first work was no less than Richard Strauss' sprawling symphonic poem of 1896, Also sprach Zarathustra. Evoking segments and ideas in Friedrich Nietzsche's philosophical poem based on the career of the Persian prophet Zoroaster, or Zarathustra, it is a work of symphonic complexity in its manipulation of thematic materials, but it is also a 33-minute panorama of orchestral sonorities. In that sense, it was a kind of grand "concerto for orchestra," showing off the artistic resources of the MSO.
The second work is a comparative miniature, in quite contrasting style. This is the "Concerto for Seven Wind Instruments, Timpani, Percussion and String Orchestra," by the Swiss composer Frank Martin. Dating from 1949, it can be related to Stravinskian neoclassicism, but it is graced by the composer's deft understanding of the solo instruments' distinct capacities. Exploration of thematic ideas is subordinate to episodic opportunities for the seven winds -- with the timpani becoming almost an eighth soloist by the end -- to revel in solo and combination displays. The MSO soloists play with expertise and grand group spirit. Credit is due also to the reduced string band, which provides a warm cushioning.
This concert is partly a celebration of the MSO's 10th season in Overture Hall. In particular tribute to that, DeMain goes back to the main work on orchestra's the inaugural concert, the Symphony No. 3, or "Organ Symphony," of Camille Saint-Saëns. This sumptuous work, the most ambitious but also most familiar of the compose's orchestra pieces, is in two halves. Each subsumes two of the four movement patterns of the conventional symphony while giving spicy little passages for piano (ultimately four hands) and, above all, for concert organ. In that sense, this commemorative program also shows off the hall's magnificent Klais organ, as manned by regular house organist Samuel Hutchison.
At least in the Friday performance I heard, the orchestra worked up steam through the program to present a rendition of dazzling power, color and commitment. DeMain contributes individual touches of his own: bringing extra warmth to the "slow movement" (latter section of Part I) and a particularly brisk and propulsive quality to the "scherzo" (first section of Part II), while milking the spectacular final chord for all it's worth.
A reminder, then, of what a superb orchestral institution, and performing venue, with which Madison is blessed. I hope John DeMain will give us more demonstrations of just the orchestra's merits without guest-soloist distractions.