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Wednesday, August 20, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 63.0° F  A Few Clouds
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Guest conductor Anu Tali, pianist Stephen Hough grace Madison Symphony Orchestra
Anu Tali drew from the orchestra a riot of brilliant sound in Sibelius' "Symphony No. 1."
Anu Tali drew from the orchestra a riot of brilliant sound in Sibelius' "Symphony No. 1."

Two guests visit for the latest Madison Symphony Orchestra program, which debuted Friday night in Overture Hall.

After her splendid success last season, conductor Anu Tali made a most welcome return. As last time, she brought with her a work by a fellow countryman revered back in Estonia but little known outside: Heino Eller (1887-1970). His short but atmospheric symphonic picture "Dawn" was most attractive. One is tempted to listen for influences, and I think I might have spotted a few. But I was surprised to perceive a great closeness in Eller's music to the assertive impressionism of Frederick Delius.

The other visitor is Englishman Stephen Hough. One of the outstanding pianists of our time, he has technique by the carload but he also the intelligence and sensitivity that make a great artist. His recording of all the piano concertos of Tchaikovsky is about to appear, and he is clearly deep into this literature right now. For his appearance this time I wish he had chosen the sadly underrated and truly wonderful Second Concerto, instead of that roof-raising warhorse the First.

But that's his choice, and he played the socks off it. His bold energy and powerful sonority, plus crisp articulation, created a truly rousing performance of this crowd-pleaser. But he also recognized moments of genuine poetry in a score too often played just for sensationalism. My only concern is that, at least in the Friday evening performance, there were some tiny moments when soloist and orchestra were not perfectly in sync rhythmically.

As an encore Friday night, Hough played a solo piano arrangement of Tchaikovsky's beloved song "None but the lonely heart".

After the intermission, the petite Baltic fireball of a conductor had the field to herself in the "Symphony No. 1" of Jean Sibelius. Already developing both his personal sound and a nationalist Finnish idiom, for his first full venture into the symphony (as also in the Second), Sibelius was still unable to transcend completely the Russian orchestral style against which he was patriotically rebelling, and above all that of Tchaikovsky. Bits of the truly Finnish and personal Sibelius peek out here and there, but under the cover of Slavic lavishness.

Tali clearly goes for color, drama, and loudness in her realization of this powerful score. That the results verge on blowsiness is mainly the composer's fault, but there is no doubt that Tali makes a valid case for her approach. No Baltic brooding for her, but a riot of brilliant sound is what she draws from the fully responsive MSO.

Repeat performances are Saturday evening at 7:30 and Sunday at 2:30.

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