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Thursday, November 27, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 20.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra is highlight of Madison Symphony Orchestra's 2010-11 season debut
Olga Kern performed Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2.
Olga Kern performed Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2.
Credit:Christian Steiner

Friday night in Overture Hall, the Madison Symphony Orchestra opened its new season with a weekend program of mixed results.

The "Academic Festival Overture" by Brahms was his response to the award of an honorary doctoral degree. A bit perversely, he chose not to compose some lofty tribute to scholarship and intellect, but instead created an orchestral collage of student songs. That can make for a roistering score, but music director John DeMain almost seemed to invest the piece a bit more propriety, leaning heavily on the pompous side, instead of relishing the fun.

The inevitable guest soloist was pianist Olga Kern, in a second visit here. She seems to have developed a strong affinity for the music of Rachmaninoff. Now, Rachmaninoff was one of the greatest pianists of all time. He could also be a great composer, but only -- heresy though it be to say so -- when he got away from the piano. His piano works, solo or concerted, he wrote for himself, to show off his powerhouse strength, with its tinges of sentimentalism. Kern has mastered all of his concerted works, and I would have loved to hear her in the Concertos 1 or 3, or the Paganini variations. But her choice has fallen on that warhorse, the Concerto No. 2.

A rising talent, and a lovely woman who knows how to capitalize on her stage presence, Kern dug into this popular work boldly. Her rendition of the first movement was unduly hard and icy. She showed more flexibility in the second movement, but in the third her sensitivities turned poetry more into rhetoric.

Fortunately, with the Rachmaninoff left behind, the second half of the program brought the real reward, Bartók's magical Concerto for Orchestra. Here the MSO players really showed their stuff in a work explicitly designed to display an orchestra's strengths, section by section, with instrumental solos or combinations in numerous moments of prominence.

In ill health at the end of his life, and an unhappy exile from his native Hungary, drowning his feelings in deep mourning or in reckless Hungarian dance rhythms, even moved to a nasty bit of joking at the expense of Shostakovich in the fourth of the five movements, Bartók put all his final energies and genius into this ultimate orchestral masterpiece.

What a joy to have the wonderful players of our MSO given such a chance to show off, unencumbered by visiting soloists! The winds were superbly responsive to their challenges, while the string band truly relied on its rich and polished sonority. What a reminder of how fine an orchestra we have here! For such a performance alone, this opening concert should not be missed. It is repeated at 8 Saturday evening the 15th, and at 2:30 Sunday afternoon the 17th.

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