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Monday, September 22, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 69.0° F  A Few Clouds
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Madison Symphony Orchestra and violinist Henning Kraggerud triumph with Tchaikovsky
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Kraggerud's full-bodied tone, crisp articulation and sensitive phrasing are all instantly recognizable.
Kraggerud's full-bodied tone, crisp articulation and sensitive phrasing are all instantly recognizable.

The first program of the new year by the Madison Symphony Orchestra is made up of three items, programmed in reverse chronological order. The program debuted Friday night in Overture Hall.

"Medea's Meditation and Dance of Vengeance" is Samuel Barber's 1955 concert revision of his 1947 ballet score for Martha Graham. It displays the composer's characteristic infusion of structure with passion, in music that is less about the mythological sorceress than about a timeless emotional passage from anxiety, through rage, to savagery. Music director John DeMain guided his orchestra through a powerful realization of this compelling score.

The guest soloist is a real winner this time, Norwegian violinist Henning Kraggerud in his second MSO appearance. His full-bodied tone, crisp articulation and sensitive phrasing, with just enough rubato, are all instantly recognizable, and he applied them brilliantly to Tchaikovsky's popular but demanding Violin Concerto. The first movement was a knockout in his hands, crowned by a dazzling delivery of the cadenza. The second movement was full of Slavic "soul," while his playful treatment of the finale was charged with wit and sparing in schmaltz. A performance like this reminds us that a great virtuoso really can make an old warhorse something gripping and vital!

Kraggerud has been active in reviving the reputation and the music of an earlier great Norwegian violinist, Ole Bull (born just over two centuries ago). Playing one of Bull's own short, sentimental compositions as an encore, Kraggerud explicitly paid homage to the earlier violinist's connections with Madison. For, in 1870, at age 60, he took as his second wife the 20-year-old daughter of a wealthy Wisconsin family and resided for some years in a mansion on Gilman Street that still survives.

Finally came Schumann's Third Symphony, which the composer called the "Rhenish," from its Rhineland inspirations. Its high point is the fourth of its fifth movements, evoking in solemn majesty the elevation of a Roman Catholic cardinal. But the other movements, full of spirit, amiability, and exuberance, were each given their due by DeMain and his forces. The composer gave special place in his scoring to the French horns, instruments that had come to fascinate him. Their stirring parts came through, though I wish the fine MSO players could be given still more license to soar.

In all, a well-balanced program that is a joy throughout. Especially for Kraggerud's stunning playing, the remaining performances -- Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2:30 p.m. -- are very much worth catching.

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