For the Madison Symphony Orchestra's April program, music director John DeMain brings us three novelties and a warhorse. The program debuted Friday night in Overture Hall.
The warhorse, Schumann's Piano Concerto, is made to prance, to be sure. The UW-Madison's own star pianist, Christopher Taylor, brings fresh life to it thanks to his full understanding not only of Romantic style but especially of Schumann's total musical personality. He shows how this concerto relates in broad terms not only to the composer's solo piano music but also his songs. Taylor imbues so much of the music -- and especially the middle movement -- with a truly vocal, songlike quality in nuance and inflection. He prevents the lyricism from being overwhelmed by the bigger passages, to which he brings a sharply etched clarity of his own, especially in the flanking movements. No slushy, romantic sentimentalism here, then, but the truly original product of an extraordinarily creative mind -- in some of the most satisfying playing I have yet heard from this remarkable pianist.
DeMain likes to present pieces of such modest length that they are rarely heard since they do not always find natural places in program planning. But some infrequently performed works are infrequently performed for good reason. Such is the case, I think, with Igor Stravinsky's "Symphony of Psalms" for chorus and instrumental ensemble.
Now here I am inviting a visit from the music PC police. But let me say it. Stravinsky has become a sacred cow, idolized without consistent exercise of critical discrimination among his compositions. This "symphony" of Latin Psalm-text settings is a particular case in point. For one thing, Stravinsky never really had any true feeling for choral sound or idiomatic texture. And he had no appreciation or respect for the rhythms and accentuation of Latin lines. (Is it a coincidence that the texts were not printed in the program booklet?) The result is not only a misbegotten work, but one that is -- I have found after repeated hearings over the years -- tedious, boring, even ugly and oppressive.
The drastically stripped-down orchestra sounded uncomfortable in the Friday performance, with some edgy tuning among the woodwinds. The Symphony Chorus comes through with robust sonority, but it seems a pity they are not given more to show off with.
That over at the outset, the concert proceeds gloriously. It reaches a pinnacle in something familiar from recordings but too rarely programmed: the "Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis" by Ralph Vaughan Williams. This is one of the most sublime pieces ever written for string orchestra, and the MSO strings prove themselves capable of perfectly sumptuous sound. The placement of the secondary ensemble far in the back, with the string-quartet soloist right up front, makes for ideal balances, while once again (as in other parts of the program) the placement of the second violins on the right is finely vindicated. I think this performance is one of the finest things heard in this entire MSO season.
If the Vaughan Williams masterpiece is food for the soul (and it really reached mine!), then Tchaikovsky's Symphonic Fantasy "Francesca da Rimini" is meant to tickle the nerve endings. It is easy to stress the trashy in this powerful score, but Tchaikovsky was quite sincere in contrasting the whirling horrors of Hell with the gorgeous lyricism of the tragic couple doomed to the Inferno for eternity. Among many musical treatments of Dante's story of doomed love, this is by far the best-known and most compelling, especially when taken seriously. DeMain and his orchestra do just that. They avoid cheapness and they play the hell out of it.
Two more performances remain, on Saturday evening at 8 and Sunday afternoon at 2:30. For at least three quarters of a fabulous concert, it should not be missed.