John DeMain likes to end his Madison Symphony Orchestra seasons with a choral spectacular, and for the program that debuted Friday in Overture Hall, he has resorted to Mahler's Symphony No. 2, "Resurrection," as he did in 1996 during the course of his Mahler cycle.
As a curtain-raiser, he chose an unusual concerto by Mozart, for the unique solo combination of flute and harp. While the flute has a natural dynamic edge, its seeming dominance now is due to playing the piece on a latter-day metal flute, as against the wooden instrument of Mozart's day, while the harp, whatever modernization it has undergone, has not enjoyed a comparable degree of strengthening.
Mozart made ample and expansive use of the three-movement format, placing undeniable demands on the two soloists. Stephanie Jutt and Karen Beth Atz are splendidly equal to such demands. Above all, they are soloists from the ranks, not imports, reminding us of the wonderful talent we have among the MSO members.
The elegant, relaxed, gracious Mozart fluff is a perfect foil to the massive pretensions of Mahler's "Resurrection" symphony, meant to grapple dramatically and, ultimately, affirmatively with the mystery of death. Its grandiose first movement began life as a full-fledged symphonic poem ("Totenfeier," or funeral ceremony), while its long fifth and final movement, incorporating two vocal soloists and a large chorus, is a kind of symphonic cantata all in itself.
The two soloists are familiar locals. UW faculty soprano Julia Faulkner is always a reliable and enjoyable artist. Fresh from a busy round of double assignments last weekend, Jamie Van Eyck is a mezzo-soprano, with a voice less of the contralto weight usually associated with her larger part. But she is a gifted and artistic singer, always lovely to hear. The large Madison Symphony Chorus provided gloriously sonorous sound, but its placement so far back on the stage, as always, is detrimental to projecting diction.
The heavy lifter in this work, of course, is the orchestra, which must work at full tilt for virtually all of some 90 minutes of music. There are always tiny slips in ensemble to note. I did think that the trumpets were occasionally overbearing (another problem of stage sonics, I fear). And the all-important offstage band in the finale could be just a bit more fully audible.
Still, the orchestra gave its all to the conductor. And DeMain fully understands the ebb and flow, the dynamic ranges, the tensions and releases that characterize this score, ranging from Classical delicacy to late-Romantic frenzy. Here, too, I must again rejoice in his wise decision to oppose the first and second violins in stage placement, which brings essential clarity and intelligibility to the string writing. Even more than in the Mozart, this was critical in the Mahler. I relished it most in the symphony's comparatively dainty second movement, but in general, as well.
For Mahler fans, then, a powerful and uplifting realization of the "Resurrection," and a wonderful event still to be enjoyed Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30 p.m.