On its opening night, Friday in Overture Hall, the Madison Symphony Orchestra's latest program yielded that rarity, the perfect concert, when everything comes together just right.
Guest soloists can be a drag as much as a blessing, but this time we had a welcome pair of them, a husband-and-wife team no less: Pinchas Zukerman, familiar as both violinist and conductor, and cellist Amanda Forsyth. Each had a solo number with the orchestra, and the two joined in a duo.
Forsyth started with Max Bruch's beloved "Kol Nidrei," a fantasy on an Hebraic melody, revealing a richly rounded tone. Then Zukerman directed a reduced (but still ample) orchestra in Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 5, the "Turkish," with himself as soloist. His move into conducting has not dulled his virtuosity as a violinist. He still plays with confidence, but also with appropriately elegant grace -- even with touches of humor, in the episode in the finale imitating the Turkish Janissary music that gives the work its nickname. Notable, too, was his confidence in the orchestra. He recognized the need for only minimal conducting and treated the ensemble as trusty colleagues.
After the intermission, the two soloists joined in a novelty by Camille Saint-Saëns, a 15-minute fantasy with orchestra titled "The Muse and the Poet". The title need not be taken too seriously. While it is true that sometimes the violin (the "Muse") introduces ideas that the cello (the "Poet") then takes up, their roles are actually quite balanced, and the cello even has some of the livelier passages. The composer himself preferred to think of it as "a conversation between the two instruments instead of a debate between two virtuosos" -- as Michael Allsen's always-excellent program notes point out. The two soloists seemed to find particular meaning in this pairing, and Forsyth's playing took on particular vivacity in her interaction with her partner.
Saint-Saëns remained in the spotlight. His Symphony No. 3, nicknamed the "Organ Symphony," is unusual in its amplified scoring (four-hand piano and organ, with the large orchestra), as well as in the structural fusion of traditional movement form. It's also an extravaganza whose grandiose conclusion is guaranteed to bring an audience to its feet. Music director John DeMain had conducted it in the special 2004 concert inaugurating the then-brand-new Overture Hall. But he has also wanted to offer it to the regular subscription audience. His interpretation evidenced meticulous and analytical care from the outset, but in the service of clarifying structure and building wonderful, swelling climaxes. The orchestra responded triumphantly.
And, by the way, the work includes passages where the now-standardized separation of first and second violins pays off beautifully.
The program is repeated Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon. Don't miss!