Wachner led an impressive Requiem.
The Madison Symphony Orchestra is in the baton-less hands of visiting conductor Julian WachnerOverture Hall. The first performance was on Friday night, and the program will be repeated on Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30 p.m.
Wachner begins strangely with a throwaway opener: Dvorák's Slavonic Dance in C, Op. 46, No. 1. Discarding any sense of its origins in dance, he seems to want it only as a four-minute noise-maker.
More serious business is the Symphonie Concertante for organ and orchestra, Op. 81, by Belgian composer and organist Joseph Jongen (1873-1953). This is one of the few widely known works of its kind, pitting the organ as a solo instrument against an orchestra. Saint-Saëns' Third Symphony is the leading example, and Poulenc's Concerto for Organ, Timpani and Strings is also in the running.
Jongen's piece is a four-movement work of symphonic proportions, full of brave sounds and music that is pleasant to listen to, though it leaves few lingering memories. The other guest of the program, young organist Nathan Laube, gives the mighty Klais organ (its console front and center) a knowing workout. The score requires the soloist to play virtually without interruption, and Laube shows himself to be tireless as well as virtuosic. But special praise is due for the house organist, Samuel Hutchison, for graciously standing by and turning pages for Laube. (Hutchison goes to the relocated organ to play continuo in the second half.)
After the intermission comes what is very much the main event: Mozart's Requiem Mass, K. 626, his final composition.
It is presented as unabashedly "big band" Mozart, aiming for a full-blooded and gutsy sound. The score was left unfinished by the composer, so the performance uses the traditional completion of it by his student Franz Xaver Süssmayr. It is now well established that Süssmayr did a less-than-ideal job in finishing the score, and there are a number of recent editions that aim to complete the work in a way that’s consistent with Mozart's more likely intentions. But it is not a scholarly production we hear this time, and Mozart-Süssmayr remains the working standard.
There are four soloists for the quartet passages. UW alum Emily Birsan leads as soprano, with contralto Daniela Mack (another Madison veteran), tenor Wesley Rogers and bass Liam Moran. The orchestra is slightly reduced and plays clearly.
But the star is the Madison Symphony Chorus. Its work is so often compromised by the stifling acoustics that haunt the far rear of the stage. But, aided by their numbers (some 147 singers, in well-balanced section numbers), and well drilled by chorus director Beverly Taylor, the chorus is able to break out of the shadows this time.
Wachner is an experienced choral conductor, and he has the advantage of very lucid textures in this score. He is thus able to draw clearly defined part lines and even good diction out of the chorus. This is, clearly, the best I have ever heard the group sing. They made themselves the powerful engine of this performance.