The final concerts of the Madison Symphony Orchestra's season prompt affectionate tributes from all hands to concertmaster Tyrone Greive, and his cellist wife Janet, who now retire together from the orchestra, pending replacements. This weekend's program debuted Friday night in Overture Hall.
These concerts are also the opportunity to present a program entirely of music by Russian masters. The lively opening piece is Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's dazzling "Russian Easter Overture." This fantasy picture of the Resurrection ceremonies in the Russian Orthodox Church allowed the composer to fuse childhood memories and Slavic patriotism with his fabulous mastery of orchestration. Music director John DeMain made the most of shifting liturgical moods and the MSO's kaleidoscopic talents to produce a blazing display of orchestral color.
The first of two guest soloists is French pianist Philippe Bianconi, who has delighted MSO audiences in two previous appearances (2001, 2003). His chosen vehicle is Rachmaninoff's "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini." Cast in the form of a theme (Paganini's most famous violin Caprice) with variations, this is also a kind of dramatization of the legend of the great violinist's supposed pact with the devil, the symbolic "Dies Irae" plainchant motive rung in recurrently and, at the end, triumphantly.
Bianconi gives a fiery performance, with the kind of powerhouse strength that recalls the composer's own playing -- yet, offset by fluent lyricism for the melting "hit tune" of Variation 18.
The second half of the program offers a series of excerpts from Mussorgsky's epic opera Boris Godunov, as performed in the old Rimsky-Korsakov version, sung in Russian, with projected English surtitles.
The composer employed the uniquely Russian styles of choral singing to make the chorus often the embodiment of the suffering Russian nation, thus allowing the Madison Symphony Chorus to become a major protagonist in this part of the concert.
The chorus is given a few bits from the Prologue, then the sections that open each scene of the "Polish" Act III (including the grand Polonaise), and then two episodes from the concluding Act IV. The MSC sings gloriously, though it is still hampered acoustically by its recessed stage location -- at least where I sat on the ground floor, it was virtually drowned out by the orchestra at the climax of the Coronation Scene.
The other protagonist in all this is the other guest soloist, no less than bass Dean Peterson, fresh from his wonderful performance as Daland in Wagner's The Flying Dutchman last weekend, with the Madison Opera. He sings all four of Tsar Boris's great monologues: that in the Coronation Scene, the one early in Act II followed by the frantic "Clock Scene," and finally the Tsar's tormented death scene. Shifting skillfully from Wagner's German, Peterson manages to suggest that special darkness of the Slavic bass quite convincingly, while he is genuinely caught up in the character and drama of each excerpt. His death scene, joined so thrillingly by the chorus, is truly gripping -- even if the chorus's last word is needlessly dropped.
Of course, a bundle of excerpts rarely can do justice to a full opera, especially one so vast and magnificent as this one. The result is, frankly, a bunch of disconnected fragments, perhaps a little puzzling to the listener not already acquainted with the full opera, for all of Michael Allsen's always admirable program notes. Or perhaps these magnificent excerpts might, after all, whet the appetite.
This program is repeated Saturday evening at 8:00 and Sunday afternoon at 2:30.