John DeMain clearly designed the opening program of his 20th season with the Madison Symphony Orchestra to show off what a magnificent ensemble he has developed. That brought a festive air to the initial performance at Overture Hall on Friday, Sept. 27. Dispensing with the usual glitzy distraction of a guest soloist, this program is all about the orchestra.
DeMain has selected three works to illustrate different themes. For the opening piece, he wanted something American. So he chose the Suite from Aaron Copland's ballet Appalachian Spring. I might have chosen otherwise. Something of Barber, perhaps. Copland was constrained to use only 13 players for the original score. For this concert, the full work and this suite were prepared for full orchestra. I have the feeling that such expansion rather spoils the original's sense of gentle intimacy. But the orchestra presents this genial expansion beautifully, with particularly sensitive contributions from the woodwind players.
Honoring the bicentennial year of Richard Wagner's birth, DeMain then offers the Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde. Wagner's opulent, sensual orchestral writing is realized stunningly, with the violin sections demonstrating the powerful, almost overwhelming brilliance of which they have become capable.
The second half of the program is devoted to Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's expansive, four-movement symphonic suite entitled Scheherazade, which is inspired by the tales in the One Thousand and One Nights collection of Arabic literature.
This score is a gaudy extravaganza, created by one of the supreme masters of orchestral writing. Its function in this program is to show off Madison's orchestra, collectively and individually. The work has a lot of solo writing, most notably for the concertmaster, and Naha Greenholtz brought off her concerto-like violin assignments as a true virtuoso. But, along the way, there are also solos for the first cello, and for individual wind instruments. In these, the appropriate members of the orchestra are given their moments in the spotlight, and they deliver superbly.
DeMain manages the surging orchestral sonorities with consummate skill. But he also impressed me in subtle details of phrasing and balances, especially amid the solo moments. This is a magnificent fulfillment of one of the grandest orchestral scores.
Gratitude was free-flowing both from and to the stage. When DeMain took over Madison's podium in 1994, many wondered why a conductor with such a national reputation would want it. What he wanted, indeed, was an orchestra he could call his own, one he could build and polish, and make into something wonderful. This he has done, in the process making himself a part of the Madison community in every sense. He has made of the Madison Symphony a "regional" orchestra of national quality.
This season-opening program will be presented again on Saturday, Sept. 28, at 8 p.m., and on Sunday, Sept. 29, at 2:30 p.m. In case you have forgotten what a wonderful orchestra and conductor Madison is fortunate to have, try to catch one of these performances.