Bianconi excelled as both a soloist and a partner.
The Madison Symphony Orchestra achieved a particular triumph as an ensemble in its concert at Overture Hall on Friday, Oct. 18. Acknowledging the 100th anniversary of Benjamin Britten's birth, conductor John DeMain made a sensible opening choice of his Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Purcell, more widely known as The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra.
It is one of the supreme pieces of educational music, and it is usually heard with its explanatory narration. But it is also a virtuosic piece of orchestral writing in itself, and it deserves to be heard for its own sake, a freestanding set of variations on a well-known theater tune by Henry Purcell. With its comprehensive exploration of all the sections and instruments, it really might be called "Display Piece for Orchestra." It certainly gives the MSO a chance to demonstrate all facets of its membership, and they showed themselves off superbly.
A very different kind of orchestral music is Claude Debussy's three-movement work, La Mer (The Sea). One should put aside the usual clichés about Impressionism and understand this as an abstract study of the sea through its rhythms and colors. Debussy, who originally wanted to be a sailor, was fascinated by the sea all his life. In this work, he evoked the sounds and pulses of the sea as has no other composer, except Britten, in the magnificent Sea Interludes to his opera Peter Grimes.
Indeed, it takes the kind of performance the MSO gives -- precise yet flowing, rich in nuances -- to emphasize that this is really one of the most revolutionary scores in the orchestral repertoire. It is in frank defiance of previous presumptions of orchestral writing, based on thematic presentation and exploration. There are only fragments of motifs in the first movement, broken thematic hints in the second, and a recognizable thematic thread only in the third.
Debussy's La Mer was first performed in 1905 -- eight years before Stravinsky's Rite of Spring that is being so fussed over in its centennial year, and 31 years before Béla Bartók's Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta. It was really Debussy and Bartók who determined the course of so much of 20th-century music, with its emphasis upon rhythm and color, instead of thematic focus, as the compositional guidelines. One can appreciate just how bold Debussy was being, only eight years after the death of Brahms, thanks to a superb performance like the MSO's.
For the final work, it was the orchestra that yet again was outstanding, despite the presence of a distinguished and much-admired soloist. Philippe Bianconi has been greatly appreciated in his prior visits to Madison, but his choice of a vehicle suggests more of a musical purpose than crass showmanship.
Johannes Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 2 is not like the stereotype of the genre, in which the soloist is firmly in the spotlight, with the orchestra providing a comfy backdrop. This work is really a symphony with piano obbligato. The first clue is that it is in four movements -- traditional for a symphony but not for a concerto. More important, though there are certainly many passages that allow the soloist to show off powerful technique, the soloist is more a partner (and not always the senior one) with the orchestra in setting forth and developing the thematic material. A good deal of time, the soloist is giving a commentary on what the orchestra is doing, rather than constantly dominating the stage.
Bianconi certainly had the muscle to fulfill the burly qualities of Brahms' piano style, and could even take advantage of some delicacies in the slow movement. But he worked in full concord with the orchestra for a very well-integrated realization of this work's character. Oh, and all praise to first cellist Karl Lavine for his lovely solo framing the third movement.
Bianconi had a chance to show off his more subtle talents, at least on Friday evening, with Debussy's piano Prelude, La fille aux cheveux de lin (The Girl with the Flaxen Hair) as an encore.
The program will be repeated on Saturday (8 p.m.) and Sunday (2:30 p.m.), Oct 19 and 20.