It was glamour vs. music-making in last weekend's Madison Symphony concerts at Overture Hall. Glamour was the priority of guest soloist mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves. A handsome woman with an undeniably gorgeous voice, she was gotten up meticulously in two rounds of visual splendor. But for a singer identified with French operatic roles (e.g., Carmen, Dalila), her Gallic diction was disappointingly muddy and indistinct in Ravel's song cycle "Shéhérazade." To deal with this study in refined declamation, Graves sacrificed verbal projection to luscious vocal beauty, making it a three-movement concerto for vowels and orchestra.
She was stylistically more comfortable in a set of three arias, plus an interlude, that Richard Danielpour extracted from his opera Margaret Garner. Last year Graves created the title role of a runaway slave who murders her two children to spare them renewed servitude, a role clearly of deep meaning for her. Danielpour can create truly beautiful orchestral moments, but his vocal lines are inconsistent. He did the singer no favors in his disruptive treatment of librettist Toni Morrison's artfully shaped text for the initial lullaby. The other two airs, however, are more clearly written and often deeply moving.
The MSO played sensitively in supporting Graves. But its serious efforts came in the framing works. Brahms' "Tragic Overture" is a superbly crafted mood-picture cast in traditional structural terms. John DeMain delivered it in more brisk and flowing fashion, with less brooding, than do some other conductors, in a lucidly shaped and thoroughly absorbing performance.
The Big Event was the "Fifth Symphony" of Shostakovich.One of the great symphonies of the past century, and the composer's most popular major work, this was long treated as a vulgar crowd-pleaser, his capitulation to Stalinist tyranny over the arts.More recently, we have been sensitized to complex subtexts of meaning that may lie within its shifting moods and darker elements. Close listening also points up Shostakovich's debt to Mahler.(I wonder, indeed, if the Largo movement began as a riposte to the famous Adagietto of Mahler's own "Fifth Symphony".)
DeMain did succumb to the "triumphalist" pacing of the finale's blazing conclusion. Nevertheless, digging beneath the rhetoric and glitz most of the way, he laid bare elements of sardonic and bitter irony, and the torments of brooding anguish.This was a gripping performance in which insight triumphed over sensationalism, in magnificent playing by our orchestra.