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Monday, September 1, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 70.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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Madison-raised pianists Christina and Michelle Naughton flaunt their technique and charm with the Madison Symphony Orchestra
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A perfectly coordinated pair.
Credit:Paul Efland

"Twice as Nice," the Madison Symphony Orchestra program for the first weekend of November, features a pair of soloists -- twins, in fact, and local ones to boot. I took in Friday night's performance at Overture Hall.

Since 2008, Madison natives Christina and Michelle Naughton have moved into international careers, committed to their pairing as a piano duo. Instinctively in sync, they are brilliant technicians, but with the added -- and quite evident -- distinction of relishing their partnership.

Their official contribution to the program was Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra by Poulenc. It displays a jolly range of influences, from Mozart to jazz, music-hall songs and gamelan music. Though it is anything but profound music, its bouncy and often tuneful charm is quite irresistible.

The sisters followed the concerto with an unusually long encore: Scaramouche, Milhaud's three-movement suite for two pianos. This sassy, Brazilian-inspired work offers them just the flashy display in which they revel -- and present with such polished flair. The twins' future career will be something to follow.

The program opened with a different kind of razzle-dazzle, Kodály's Dances from Galanta. Together with his friend and colleague Bartók, Kodály was a pioneer in seeking out authentic Hungarian folk music that had long been obscured by Gypsy veneer. For this piece, he honored that veneer by drawing upon childhood memories of regional Gypsy bands and their intoxicating rhythms and tunes. The result is a 16-minute romp of Central European exuberance, brilliantly scored and just as brilliantly played by the MSO under John DeMain.

The second half was devoted to Schubert's Symphony No. 9, also known as The Great C-major Symphony. This has been a staple of orchestral repertoire for so long that it takes a powerful but lucid performance, such as the one Maestro DeMain and his players gave it last night, to make listeners approach it afresh.

DeMain has chosen generally propulsive tempi, pushing the non troppo (not too fast) indication of the first movement a bit, but working to a noble conclusion. The "walking" tempo of the andante second movement was rightly observed con moto (briskly), as specified. The scherzo, more expansive than most anything until Bruckner came along, was wonderfully flowing, while the sonata-form finale was shaped with eloquent coherence.

Because this was such a lucid performance, I set out to re-analyze this great work. Its grandeur of structure, and Schubert's experimentation with wide-ranging tonality progressions, marks it as a truly forward looking. Yet it struck me that Schubert's orchestration is basically simplistic, set far behind the orchestral world that Berlioz would explode into being with his Symphonie fantastique only four years after Schubert finished this score.

In addition, there are Schubert's gifts as a melodist, which made him the genius of songwriting we know him as today. Especially in the finale, the wind sections set forth wonderful melodies, as if in a Lied or a small choral work, while the strings explored the same kind of repetitive but energetic figurations that Schubert often used in his vocal works' piano accompaniments. There was a revealing consistency of style and texture.

Being able to balance the score's shortcomings with its glories made me appreciate it even more. For this, I must thank Maestro DeMain.

You can get caught up in this diverse but wonderful program Saturday, Nov. 3, at 8 p.m. or Sunday, Nov. 4, at 2:30 p.m.

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