In last weekend's concerts at Overture Hall, the Madison Symphony Orchestra offered music by three mainstream composers of the 19th century, in a program designed both to appeal to, and to tease, mainstream tastes.
The music of Berlioz is always tricky stuff, bubbling with ideas if also with explosive propensities. The overture to his opera "Benvenuto Cellini" has its characteristic firecrackers, but it is also a digest of beautiful themes from the full opera score. Conductor John DeMain seemed intent on stressing the lyrical elements, which he did with great success, and with enthusiastic support from his orchestra.
Schumann is, of course, a very mainstream composer, though his string concertos are not heard as often as they should be. His "Cello Concerto" was the vehicle for the guest soloist this time. The British cellist Steven Isserlis is a little strange on the eyes: a tall, lanky chap, with something of a wildly shaggy hairdo, and occasional ventures into affected body language. But he is incontestably one of today's great masters of his instrument, with a total control of technique and tone.
The Schumann score, a late work, involves both lyricism and virtuosity in abundance, both of which Isserlis exploited with great flair. Slightly reduced in the strings, the orchestra gave warm and sympathetic support.
The orchestra got down to very serious business in the second half, for which an interesting device had been managed. Months ago, subscribers were invited to select from among four items their choice for the concluding piece on this program. These options were three "mainstream" works and one new, still-controversial one: Beethoven's "Symphony No. 1," Schubert's "Symphony No. 9," Brahms' "Symphony No. 1" and John Corigliano's "Symphony No. 1," subtitled "Of Rage and Remembrance" in honor of AIDS victims.
The winner was the Brahms, an altogether mainstream choice. DeMain and his players addressed it with mainstream sensibilities very much in mind. No interpretational novelties, a stable and reliable rendition allowing the musicians to revel in both ensemble and solo textures. Only in the finale was a more brisk vitality and animation brought to bear, and the work ended in a truly brilliant blaze of glory.
No tricks, then, no gimmicks - just solid and satisfying music-making all the way.