Olga Kern: Poetic virtuoso.
The Madison Symphony Orchestra offered another big winner at Overture Hall with a program devoted to the music of three Russian composers.
The performance opened with guaranteed appeal, the suite from Tchaikovsky's magnificent ballet, Swan Lake. The full eight movements are not a selection made by one conductor or another, but an official compilation assembled after the composer's death by his executors. This is, of course, hardly enough to cover all the glorious sections of the ballet's score, certainly includes wonderful treasures. Under conductor John DeMain, the orchestra reveled in the spectacular colors and moods of one of the greatest of all orchestrators -- sounds both big and small, but always delights to the ears.
The guest soloist, the Russian-born Olga Kern, is well-recognized as one of today's most gifted pianists. One of her specialties is the music of Rachmaninoff. And, bless her, instead of dragging out the hopelessly overplayed Concerto No. 2 (which the composer himself came to hate), she reached back to his under-appreciated No. 1.
Composed while he was still a teenager, this concerto was Rachmaninoff's official Op. 1. On his way to becoming one of the great pianists of his time, the composer was eager not only to show off his compositional talents but also to create a major concert vehicle to display his formidable performing gifts. The work does both these things, but it was not well received, despite Rachmaninoff's repeated performance of it. Its public failure, followed by the even more shattering failure of his Symphony No. 1, devastated the composer and blocked his efforts for a while. While he tried (unsuccessfully) to destroy the symphony, he later revived and revised the concerto.
With muscular power and steely fingers, Kern has a confident, quite thrilling command of bravura solo writing, though she is also adept in conveying poetic feeling in moments away from the fireworks. The audience at the Friday performance was dazzled, and she rewarded listeners with a short Rachmaninoff piano piece as an encore.
Some of the audience foolishly left at the intermission, which was their loss.
The orchestra itself returns to the spotlight with a powerful if demanding novelty, a work the ensemble has never played before. This is the Sixth Symphony by Dmitri Shostakovich. A maverick work created amidst the composer’s game-playing with Soviet authorities, it is also a recasting of characteristic elements in unusual juxtaposition.
Shostakovich was already becoming famous for his icily brooding adagios and his frenetic scherzos -- qualities he developed out of his study of Mahler's writing. Whereas virtually all of Shostakovich's orchestral symphonies are cast in more-or-less conventional four-movement patterns, the Sixth launches its nose-thumbing by being only in three. One critic called it a "headless symphony" for lacking a fast opening movement essentially in sonata form.
Instead, Shostakovich begins with a largo movement that makes up half the length of the whole symphony. This study on serious counterpoint is, in fact, genuinely involving, and DeMain raised the MSO's performance of it to a level of eloquence. The work continues with not one but two successive scherzo movements, the second one even faster and more boisterous than its predecessor.
It is an extraordinary score, quite overshadowed by Shostakovich's more familiar symphonies, including the ones on either side of it. But with this selection, John DeMain has bravely continued his campaign of giving Madison audiences opportunities to experience important works off the beaten path. The orchestra matched his intentions with its own vitality and precision.
Overall, the MSO performed a truly wonderful concert. The program will be repeated Saturday, Oct. 18, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, Oct. 19, at 2:30 p.m.