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Monday, December 29, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 17.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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Shostakovich's Tenth Symphony steals the show at MSO's concert with violinist Henning Kraggerud
Kraggerud is one of the outstanding violinists of the day, full of flawless skill and polished tone.
Kraggerud is one of the outstanding violinists of the day, full of flawless skill and polished tone.

Last night at Overture Hall, the Madison Symphony Orchestra launched its March concert program with high promise, partly fulfilled.

The opening half of the concert was devoted to Mozart, and there I found disappointment. Conductor John DeMain led the overture to Mozart's little farce, The Impresario, with a degree of stiffness that overlooked the fun that lies behind its swagger.

Then there was the guest and his concerto. There is no question that Henning Kraggerud is one of the outstanding violinists of the day, full of flawless skill and polished tone. I was intrigued that he chose as his display piece Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 4, a particularly charming work.

But, to my distress, he adopted a tempo that rushed the first movement gracelessly. The second movement, one of Mozart's most lovely, was delivered rather superficially, with some sweetness suggested only in bits of a cadenza. Variety and nuance ultimately emerged in the rondo finale, but even so, the sum total struck me as more of a shallow display than a realization of the music's mercurial richness. It was not a really Mozartean performance, to my taste. On top of that, Kraggerud seems to be developing the kinds of bodily gyrations for which Joshua Bell is infamous.

Well, those were my reactions, but the audience loved him. There was also a solo encore Friday evening, quite unidentified. (From one of Ysae's sonatas, perhaps?)

It was a different story, by any standard, in the concert's second half. DeMain's bravery in programming was vindicated by Dmitri Shostakovich's Tenth Symphony. One of the searing masterpieces of 20th-century music, this score has been given more autobiographical meaning than any other of his works. It was composed in 1953, in the aftermath of Stalin's death. Its successions of unease, terror, brooding and eventual rejoicing can be interpreted as the composer's sense of escape and release from the years of fear and danger he suffered under Stalinist rule. Such interpretations are furthered by his use of a motto representing his name: the notes D, E-flat, C, and B-natural. The German names for the notes (D, S, C, H) stand for the opening letters of his name in German transliteration: D. SCHostakovitsch. This motto appears prominently in the third movement and emerges in powerful triumph -- survival! -- by the end of the fourth and final movement.

This score's rich thematic explorations are fascinating. The work is also charged with wide-ranging emotional extremes, from deceptive gentleness to grotesque frenzy. DeMain has gone beyond its details to grasp the element of tension that marks not just the individual movements but the full 50-minute score. Drilled to a fare-thee-well, the MSO players follow him with superb precision and color, matched with a fierce determination.

This was a magnificent performance of a truly major work, and rewarded, justly, with a standing ovation last night.

The MSO will perform this program again tonight at 8 p.m. and on Sunday at 2:30 p.m.

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