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Friday, August 29, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 72.0° F  Partly Cloudy
The Daily
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Pianist Emanuel Ax sparkles with the Madison Symphony Orchestra
Emanuel Ax
Emanuel Ax
Credit:Madison Symphony Orchestra

For its March 28-30 concerts in Overture Hall, the Madison Symphony Orchestra's mandatory guest soloist is pianist Emanuel Ax, a fine musician always welcome. Would that his vehicle had been better chosen.

I must admit straightway that Chopin's two piano concertos have long ago worn badly for me. They were composed as necessary calling cards to launch Chopin's performing career. Chopin knew he was no master of the orchestra or of large-scale forms. His short concerted works are more satisfactory because they do not have to be fitted into classical multi-movement molds. It is significant that his only subsequent ventures into such established-form territory were his Cello Sonata and his three Piano Sonatas, which are at least written on a more congenially intimate scale.

With mediocre thematic material and bland orchestral writing, the two concertos might easily have faded among the dozens of such diffident ventures that cluttered the second quarter of the 19th century. (Anyone for Kalkbrenner, Henselt, Moscheles, or their ilk?) The one saving grace for Chopin's two is their solo piano writing, which set the composer on course to create thereafter some of the greatest music ever written for his instrument.

That dimension of the "Concerto No. 2" does bring out Ax's talents, in finely spun lines and sparkling inflections. He clearly loves this music, and the audience certainly loves his playing of it. He rewarded their enthusiasm with the encore of a moody Chopin Nocturne.

The orchestra's curtain-raiser was one of two suites from Manuel de Falla's "Three-Cornered Hat." That complete ballet score is full of delights, but the suites have made some its high points into concert favorites. Of at least the first two of this suite's three dance movements, conductor John DeMain seemed to take a somewhat tentative view, in slightly slack tempos that missed the full rhythmic bite and tension these pungent dances should have. Still, they are a colorful workout for the full orchestra.

But the orchestra's glory was the second half of the concert, devoted to "A London Symphony" by Ralph Vaughan Williams. Retrospectively, it is his second symphony, but the composer did not officially use numbers for such essays until his fourth, giving its predecessors only titles. Preceding this one was the grand choral work "A Sea Symphony," on Whitman texts; and on the other side came the gentle "Pastoral Symphony."

In this second symphony, Vaughan Williams created probably the grandest large-scale tribute to a great city ever written. The title might suggest some parallel with Gershwin's "An American in Paris," but the composer of that music was an alien in his featured metropolis. Vaughan Williams' score might be called "A Londoner in London."

His own explanations, and those of others, have proposed that specific times and places in London were meant to be evoked. The famous chime of Big Ben is clearly sounded, and there are obvious suggestions of daily bustle and nocturnal repose, of urban moods and rhythms, of vulgarity and grandeur, with hints of street-sellers' cries and popular or folk styles. The finale is dominated by what has been nicknamed "the March of the Poor."

For all that, though, the material is all pure Vaughan Williams, any simplistic "descriptive" qualities subsumed within the conventional format of a four-movement symphony. Without any title or analyses, it still stands as music on its own terms.

And what wondrous music it is! It sticks to your ribs, it puts hair on your chest, it readies you for the morrow with a stout heart. What a treat to hear it given such a full-throated rendition by maestro DeMain and the MSO.

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