As an antidote to the overhyped Joshua Bell, the Madison Symphony Orchestra presented a responsibly mature artist as its guest soloist at Overture Hall last weekend. Cho-Liang Lin, among the world's leading violinists, brought his refinement to Beethoven's "Violin Concerto," the first grand example of the form.
With strong, fully controlled, beautifully modulated tone, Lin applied the tidy perfectionism of a true professional who conscientiously collaborates with the conductor instead of expecting subservience. The MSO's large string complement guaranteed a smooth if plush and somewhat heavy accompaniment. But, with the work's innovative symphonic scale, such weight was not inappropriate.
Conductor John DeMain framed this noble concerto with contrasting novelties. The overture to Victor Hugo's play Ruy Blas is a superb example of Mendelssohn's orchestral writing that is too rarely heard. Puccini's highly personal little elegy "Chrysanthemums" ("Crisantemi") is an early work, written for string quartet. The MSO's string band of over 60 players inflated it to something like one of the composer's opera intermezzos. But then, sentimental theatricality is unavoidable in all of Puccini's music.
The concert's blockbuster was the concluding "Sinfonietta" by Janácek. A conflation of festive fanfares, Moravian folk tunes and innovative orchestral techniques, this work of 1926 requires a huge orchestra augmented by extra brass, with a total of 12 trumpets ultimately in play. (And I counted 'em - all 12 accounted for!) At first encounter this might seem a specimen of pretentious primitivism emulating (and, I think, eclipsing) Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring." But the clever and novel touches of instrumental color are infinitely fascinating, and the cumulative power of the work can threaten any concert hall's roofing.
This is, in sum, one of the orchestral masterpieces of the last century, and I am deeply grateful to DeMain for finally bring it into the MSO repertoire.