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Monday, October 20, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 52.0° F  Overcast
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The Madison Symphony Orchestra: Verve and vulgarity
MSO goes all-Russian
brings out Shostakovich's trashy side.
Spivakov brings out Shostakovich's trashy side.

The Madison Symphony Orchestra closed its season last weekend at Overture Hall with an all-Russian festival, in both repertoire and performers. Vladimir Spivakov, familiar from past visits as both conductor and violin soloist, took the podium to open with Shostakovich's "Festive Overture." This glitzy piece was commissioned in 1954 to celebrate a Bolshevik anniversary. As such, it demonstrates what made Western critics often consider the composer a superficial Soviet party hack, before we came to understand his full range and depth. It is, in fact, gloriously loud and successfully trashy music only a master craftsman could create, and Spivakov made no bones about its extroverted vulgarity.

The other guest was Russian-Israeli pianist Yefim Bronfman. He joined the orchestra in Prokofiev's "Piano Concerto No. 3," which integrates brashness and virtuosic energy into vibrant coherence. A Prokofiev specialist, Bronfman is a powerhouse virtuoso who commanded every note of the solo part, including fiendishly demanding passagework of almost frenzied character. I perceived a deficiency in that brashness the work calls for. But it may have been problematical projection for where I sat, or overbalancing by the orchestra, that made his challenge to them sound weak at times. I found Bronfman more at home in the whimsy of the middle-movement variations than in the blustering wing movements. Still, it was exciting to hear this dynamic player and this striking work in our hall.

To conclude, Spivakov moved to pre-Soviet Russia with Tchaikovsky's "Symphony No. 6." A serious hearing of this work always reveals this underrespected composer's capacity for reckless innovation in symphonic writing. I liked the way Spivakov eschewed space between the movements and treated them as a powerful continuum. This pointed up the nervous lilt of the second movement's jerky almost-waltz and the forced bravado of the third's roof-raising march, each as enfolded within the real meat of the work: the emotional overpowering of traditional sonata-form in the first movement and the tragic despair of the last. I thought of Schubert's final major works, so different stylistically, but equally frightening as a composer's contemplation of imminent death - a dimension of the score so probingly explored by Michael Allsen's always-admirable program notes.

In both the Saturday and Sunday performances I was able to attend, I noticed some scant blemishes in individual playing and tiny blurrings of ensemble. Generally, though, the orchestra followed Spivakov in truly powerful music-making.

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