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Tuesday, March 3, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 25.0° F  Light Snow Fog/Mist
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Cellist Ralph Kirshbaum brings grace, tenderness to Madison Symphony Orchestra program
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Kirshbaum performed the Bloch with passionate, big-toned eloquence.
Kirshbaum performed the Bloch with passionate, big-toned eloquence.

Consistently excellent, if contrasting, music distinguished the Madison Symphony Orchestra's third concert program this season, Friday night in Overture Hall.

The true jewel, and the most coherently constructed, of Respighi's "Roman Trilogy" of four-movement symphonic poems, "The Fountains of Rome," launched the program. Ranging from delicacy to calculated grandeur, it posed a test that the MSO met beautifully, notwithstanding just a brief smudge or two.

There were more challenges in the vehicle brought by the guest artist, cellist Ralph Kirshbaum. Ernest Bloch's seething, sensuous evocation of the Biblical King Solomon -- or "Schelomo" -- in what he called an "Hebraic Rhapsody" was given a "Bloch-buster" performance by the orchestra, with Kirshbaum rising above it all in passionate, big-toned eloquence.

Kirshbaum brought a supplemental vehicle, the brief "Silent Woods" by Dvorák. Starting as one of six scenic piano duets called "From the Bohemian Woods" and titled "Klid" (in Czech) or "Silence," it was transcribed individually by the composer, first for cello and piano, then (under the German title of "Waldesruhe") for cello and orchestra, the form used in our concert. It is a gentle, nostalgic, and lyric piece, quite in contrast to the Bloch work, and Kirshbaum played it with loving tenderness. As a solo encore, he added a brief movement from one of Bach's cello suites.

The second half of the concert was devoted to Tchaikovsky's "Symphony No. 5." It was last played by the MSO in 2003 under Vladimir Spivakov, who stressed its deeply Slavonic flavor. For all its many moments of melting beauty, the work is hardly a subtle one, and music director John DeMain quite frankly dispensed with subtlety. Yes, the songful interludes and the whimsical charm of the middle movements received due justice. But DeMain treated the work generally as a drama -- as full-blooded, rich and just plain noisy as can be. I could wish for a little more restraint from the trumpets and timpani. But if you share DeMain's vision of the score as lush and blazing sound, this is a performance for you. Certainly the orchestra gave him all the intensity and color it possibly could, and the new seating plan helped clarify a lot of details and balances in the strings. The prominent woodwind passages were beautifully handled, and Linda Kimball was predictably moving in her second-movement horn solo.

In all, this is a performance that reminds us why this symphony is so popular. And this is a splendid concert, repeated Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30 p.m., not to be missed.

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