Guest violinist James Ehnes is a Bartók specialist.
It was "The Three B's" for the Madison Symphony Orchestra at Friday night's concert at Overture Hall. Well, it wasn't all three "b's" one might expect. But the orchestra reminded the audience how many other significant "b's" there are beyond Beethoven and Bach.
The man who invented orchestration in the modern sense of the word, Hector Berlioz is not given the full appreciation he deserves as an early Romantic pioneer and a composer of wondrous imagination. Too often shrugged off as a perpetrator of noise and bombast, he was also a master of the most delicate expressiveness.
The concert opened with the dazzling and playful overture to Berlioz's Shakespeare-based light opera Beatrice and Benedict. Beneath the razzle-dazzle, one could hear the skilled craftsmanship with which he built the overture, using material from two numbers in the opera's score. The orchestra marched into this showpiece with flags confidently flying.
The guest soloist was James Ehnes, a rising young violin virtuoso. Like several other MSO soloists of recent years past, he bypassed the classical canon's warhorses to bring important novelties to the audience. In this case, the novelty was Violin Concerto No. 2 by the greatest of 20th century "b's," Béla Bartók. This is one of the great concertos of the past century, designed not just to entertain, as in the 19th-century tradition, but to challenge. It is full of virtuosic display for the soloist. But, once one understands the composer's roots in Hungarian folksong style and his commitment to coloristic and rhythmic effects instead of conventional tune-spinning, one can find the same coherence, color and enjoyment as in his popular Concerto for Orchestra. Close study also reveals his innovative use of sonata form and theme with variations.
Ehnes has become something of a Bartók champion and specialist. His recording of Violin Concerto No. 2 and the composer's other two concertos for strings has won great praise. In person, he makes an utterly secure and eloquent case for this powerful work. Lest there be any doubts about his virtuosity, he performed as an encore the last and most familiar of Paganini's caprices for unaccompanied violin -- all 24 of which he has recorded, by the way.
The orchestra and Maestro John DeMain had the final word in the second half of the concert, with a great score by Johannes Brahms, the most familiar member of the evening's "b" trio. His Fourth Symphony, one of my personal favorites among symphonies, has a richly autumnal and even valedictory character. It's the work of a master who has learned and experienced much. But it is also typical of Brahms's burly orchestral style and offers challenges in layers of meaning that draw one perpetually into new discoveries. The monumental passacaglia movement is a unique finale that is simply unmatched in orchestral literature. It shows Brahms's devotion to Baroque traditions and serves as a textbook of his most concise theme-with-variations techniques. The orchestra delivered the entire work with an appropriate tonal fullness and power, especially when scaling the heights in the finale.
Though I note with reservations the piling of the second violins behind the firsts, with the cellos at the right, I found the program's range of works very satisfying. Two performances of "The Three B's" remain: Saturday, Oct. 13 at 8 p.m. and Sunday, Oct. 14 at 2:30 p.m.