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Friday, October 31, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 37.0° F  Overcast
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Mahler's last stand
John DeMain conducts a deeply disturbing symphony
DeMain evokes Mahler's emotional stress
DeMain evokes Mahler's emotional stress

Victor Herbert (1859-1924) and Gustav Mahler (1860-1911), born only one year apart, had very different careers. A masterpiece by each helped to make the Madison Symphony Orchestra's program at Overture Hall last weekend an unusually rewarding one.

Herbert was a virtuoso cellist and composer of admired concert works before turning to the operettas for which he is now remembered. Modeled on the "Cello Concerto No. 1" (1872) by Saint-Saëns, Herbert's "Cello Concerto No. 2" (1894) immediately inspired Dvorak to compose his own glorious "Cello Concerto" (1895).

Herbert's passionate ABA triptych has become a signature work for American cellist Lynn Harrell, the MSO's guest soloist. Big tone (à la Rostropovich) is less his concern than expressive refinement, as he showed well in the concerto's central movement. Harrell played two encores: Pablo Casals' bit of fluff "The Song of the Birds" and the Prelude to Bach's first suite for unaccompanied cello. Particularly in the former, Harrell's exquisite delicacy was simply breathtaking.

The concert's second half represented the homestretch for one of conductor John DeMain's most ambitious projects, the cumulative traversal of Mahler's symphonies. This season brought us the (officially) last of those works, the Ninth. Commentators have argued that Mahler understood it as his farewell to the form. Some have even heard the final movement's closing as representing dying gasps of breath. But there is ample evidence against all that. Mahler did, after all, draft a Tenth Symphony - though he left the orchestration largely incomplete - and it hardly shows a lack of will to go on.

Mahler certainly composed the Ninth under staggering emotional stress, and DeMain pulled no punches in revealing the work as a deeply disturbing one. The first three movements are studies in nervous energy, filled with the kind of orchestral frenzy for which Mahler is famous. Some commentators have even imagined this to be Mahler's prophecy of the 20th century's horrors to follow. As with his Third Symphony's finale, Mahler demonstrated in the Ninth's fourth and final movement his ability to take a simple motive and build out of it a vast and varied 20-minute structure. But is it an elegy? or a lamentation? or a hymn of thanksgiving? Lots to think about at the end.

There was wonderful work from various wind players (notably first horn Linda Kimball); while the strings, dominating the final movement, enveloped us in magnificent sonority. How lucky is Madison to have so bold a conductor and so superb an or­chestra!

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