The February program by the Madison Symphony Orchestra is quite a mixed bag. It offers, essentially, two pairs of works separated by an intermission and introduced with a prologue. The program will be repeated in Overture Hall on Saturday, Feb. 15, at 8 p.m., and Sunday, Feb. 16, at 2:30 p.m.
The prologue is the most famous work of Jean Sibelius, his piece of patriotic bombast, Finlandia. Led by conductor John DeMain, the orchestra gives it an appropriately roof-raising performance.
Of the two pairs of works, one involved the guest soloist, Norwegian trumpet virtuoso Tine Thing Helseth. The trumpet is not commonly thought of as a solo instrument in classical literature, but Helseth is the latest master of it to push it to prominence. She is a musician of great skill and artistry. With her trumpet, she can make truly mighty sounds, but she can also offer refinement of tone and a very sensitive nuancing of line.
Her initial vehicle is the first and still the most famous concerto for the keyed or valve trumpet. Written by Haydn in 1796, it is a work of great charm, as well as one that still gives the solo instrument a workout. I found Helseth's self-serving cadenza at the end of the first movement rather inappropriate, but otherwise she gives the full work a very strong and polished rendition, marked by some subtle dynamic contrasts.
Helseth's second vehicle is one of a growing number of recent trumpet concertos, that completed in 1950 by Soviet-Armenian composer Alexander Arutiunian (1920-2012). Set in an orchestral score rooted in Armenian traditional song and dance, the solo writing is a rich demonstration of the trumpet's capacities for a diversity of musical effects. Helseth plays them to the hilt.
A comedown in taste is her encore, whose sole purpose is to show how many comic sounds a trumpet can produce. Well, she makes quite a little show of it, and the audience loves it.
The other pair of works on the program involves suites drawn from two very different operas. In the first half comes the Doctor Atomic Symphony, which John Adams drew from his 2005 opera about Robert Oppenheimer and the creation of the atomic bomb. Adams has come a long way from his early identification with repetitive "minimalist" whirrings. He can create massive orchestral canvases that explore a vast scope of color and rhythm, with passages of genuine lyric interest. It is likely to sound rather amorphous to many on first hearing, but DeMain gives it an intense exposition that carries conviction.
The other operatic synthesis is that based upon Richard Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier. With a hop-skip-and-jump approach to the full stage score, the suite hits a lot of high points, extending from the sumptuous to the gorgeously lyrical, with healthy doses of Viennese waltzes along the way. The orchestra gives a full-blooded rendition, and I was impressed by the elasticity of pacing that DeMain brings to it, especially in its most expressive passages.
This is not your conventional kind of program, then, but one that reflects DeMain's sense of enterprise in repertoire.