Chang played one of the hardest works in the violin repertoire.
The latest Madison Symphony Orchestra concert is mistitled "Scandinavian Wonders." One of the three composers represented is a Finn, and the Finnish are Scandinavian in neither language or culture. "Nordic" would have been the more appropriate label.
Performing at Overture Hall, the MSO opened with the "Lyric Suite," four orchestrated selections from Edvard Grieg's numerous "Lyric Pieces." As sanctioned by Grieg, a fifth piece orchestrated by Anton Seidl (the originator of these adaptations) was omitted; it's one more representative of Grieg's serious imagination, if less immediately charming. Despite an overly fierce treatment of the last of the four selections, conductor John DeMain and the orchestra were out to please.
The guest soloist was Sarah Chang, accepting the challenge of Jean Sibelius' Violin Concerto in D minor (Op. 47), one of the most difficult works in the repertoire. She delivered a fiery performance. DeMain rather emphasized the brute force of the composer's dark orchestral writing, but the overall results were compelling.
The Fourth Symphony by Carl Nielsen was the closer. It was the first time (and about time) the MSO performed this powerful masterpiece of 20th-century symphonic writing. Like the Fifth Symphony -- which DeMain bravely programmed two seasons ago -- the Fourth was composed under the dark and bloody shadow of World War I. In this case, there was also a certain Nietzschean influence, celebrating the power of a “life force” that can overcome denial and nihilism.
It's a philosophical work, and must be understood as an entity. Indeed, its four "movements" are really meant to be one unfolding continuum. The violence to be overcome is represented by two sets of timpani in dramatic opposition at the end. I yearned for slightly more propulsiveness in the first section, but the performance was a satisfying realization of Nielsen's urgent ideals.
Chang and the MSO will repeat the complete program at 8 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 8, and 2:30 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 9.