By Greg Hettmansberger
April 6, 2013
Even before the Madison Symphony closed its 2012–13 season, attention had shifted to the celebration of John DeMain’s impending launch of his twentieth season with the orchestra next fall (along with the same round number as music director of Madison Opera). But Friday night in Overture Hall, DeMain and his ensemble—and the Madison Symphony Chorus, three vocal soloists and the venue’s magnificent organ—managed to bring our focus back to the musical business at hand. And for good measure, we were given concertmaster Naha Greenholtz in the role of soloist in a favorite concerto.
Greenholtz’s traversal of Mendelssohn (possibly most often performed violin concerto) initially struck one as a no-surprise, but no bumps-in-the-road approach. There was an immediate sense of a quasi-chamber ensemble attitude that serves the work well, and the effect was heightened to great advantage as Greenholtz took over the second thematic group. Now there was a stop-and-smell-the-roses flexibility to the phrasing; more than once she carefully prepared a pristine leap to a high harmonic that held in the air until it seemed to just float away. Similarly, the cadenza was more introspective than flash and dash. The Andante continued this tender dialogue, with DeMain lovingly marshaling his orchestra forces. Only in the first part of the finale—where the orchestra seemed unused to a more deliberate tempo—was there any hint of uncertainty in Greenhotz’s playing. But she saved an extra gear for the coda, and the orchestra matched her in passion and precision. The ovation, largely and quickly a standing one, was prolonged; apparently the Friday night subscribers at least have fully embraced Greenholtz as one of the family.
In other circumstances, the Madison Symphony Chorus (directed by Beverly Taylor) would have been the star of the night; better still, their versatility and overall contributions made it possible for the composers to be recognized as luminaries. In a way, DeMain took a page from Andrew Sewell and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra’s playbook by offering one instrumental and three choral excerpts from Handel’s Solomon. With an orchestra of about forty, DeMain led a bouncy and lithe “Arrival of the Queen of Sheba,” with the chorus of over 130 providing sensitive lines in “No rash intruder” and robustly blended tones in the livelier choruses. No one tires of the “Hallelujah Chorus” on the annual “Christmas Spectacular,” but what a treat to hear some other Handel from the MSO.
But it was the second half of the program that intrigued most, and lived up to every expectation. Every time I have read a reference to Rachmaninoff’s “The Bells,” I have hoped for an opportunity to hear it live. The decades-long wait was worth it. Symphonic in scope, kaleidoscopic in color, the four movements set a Russian version of Poe’s poem of the same name. Soprano Alexandra LoBianco in the opening movement and tenor Harold Meers in the second were perfectly cast; only baritone Hugh Russell was occasionally overshadowed in the grim finale. The range of emotion and orchestral textures are enormous, and DeMain and the sprawled forces of the MSO and Chorus (and organ again) reveled in the opportunities.
The 15-minute “Toward the Unknown Region” of Vaughan Williams is set to Whitman, and was a fittingly uplifting and forward-looking antidote to the ultimately dark Rachmaninoff—and to looking ahead anew to hopefully several more years at least of DeMain’s increasingly stimulating programming.
Yet there was one more sobering aspect to the night; via Twitter, the word was out that principal clarinetist Linda Bartley was retiring. An MSO staffer confirmed at intermission that the official announcement would be made at the post-concert reception. Arriving in Madison and joining the staff at the University of Wisconsin in 1992, Bartley has distinguished herself as a quintessential example of a principal player: she nailed all the solos with aplomb and a beautiful tone, but just as importantly anchored a wonderfully cohesive woodwind section. We give her the final “brava” this season.