There is perhaps a little too much enterprise in the case of the opening selection. Aaron Jay Kernis (born in 1960) is generally esteemed as one of today's outstanding American composers, so playing his music is a kind of fashion statement. Just how seriously to take his short jamboree Too Hot Toccata is a question posed by the slick title itself. The piece was composed in 1996 for the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, meant to show off the virtuosity of its players by giving them constant flashes of solo and group prominence amid a frenetic scramble. The MSO certainly meets its demands, in six minutes of in-one-ear-and-out-the-other rhythms and blasting, without a note of identifiable music left behind. It's a pity to waste the talents of our MSO players on such nothingness.
The two main works, however, make for a memorable concert indeed. The first involves this month's soloist, the admirable young violinist Augustin Hadelich. This gifted musician and valiant human being has already won the hearts of Madison music lovers, not the least (certainly for me) for avoiding overworked warhorses and exploring less-traveled realms of classical literature.
Edouard Lalo is, to my mind, one of the cruelly neglected but quite important French composers of the 19th century. What helped launch his career in his day was his association with the superstar violin virtuoso Pablo de Sarasate. While Lalo was himself of Spanish ancestry, it was Sarasate's extroverted Hispanic identity that prompted Lalo to capitalize on France's craze for Spanish-style music. Lalo's Symphonie Espagnole premiered in 1875, the same year as Bizet's Carmen. This "Spanish Symphony" is full of paradoxes. It is a "symphony" in five movements, not the conventional four, and is really a violin concerto within a folkloric feast.
Lalo's use of Spanish dance rhythms in most of the movements, within his own highly colorful writing, produced a delightful score, one that was once a highly popular vehicle for virtuoso fiddlers, but seems to have fallen into neglect in recent years. Hadelich's championing of it is, therefore, most welcome, in restoring to prominence a crowd pleaser. Hadelich may not pour out the most opulent violin tone, but his technical brilliance is undeniable, and the key to his success is his absolute identity with the score's rhythmic vitality. He finished with an encore, the Sarabande from Bach's Second Partita for unaccompanied violin.
For many, the image of the really long symphony is fixed to Bruckner and Mahler. But Rachmaninoff's Second Symphony -- which, when played in full, lasts almost exactly one hour -- is longer than most of the symphonies by those two Austrians. When first encountered, and when taken superficially, it sounds like a wonderful wallow in "Russian soul" via an hour of lush late-Romantic orchestral glory. And one may find traces of influence from Tchaikovsky's Pathètique Symphony. But, as I get to know this work better and better, it seems to me that the symphonic mentality (if not the orchestral sound) of Bruckner is a much better key to understanding.
Indeed, Rachmaninoff's consistent craftsmanship, especially his concern with a carefully integrated musical architecture, is what marks this score. There are constant cross-references among the four movements. The "motto" that opens the first movement is restated and reworked throughout, and is the starting point for others in the rich array of melodies. (Oh, those hit tunes!) Subtle references to the opening notes of the Dies irae chant that became a fixation in Rachmaninoff's compositions are first introduced here. Yes, the score seems to alternate between super-Romantic lyricism and exuberant frenzy, but a remarkably coherent sense of structure underlies it all. It is a truly fascinating work to get to know through long exposure and study, once you put aside simplistic stereotypes about Rachmaninoff as a composer.
Music director John DeMain charges his conducting with passion and coloristic sensitivity, but he also knows how to phrase and how to balance all the lavish sound. The orchestra responds robustly, and the entire performance was magnificent on Friday.