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Wednesday, December 17, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 23.0° F  Partly Cloudy
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Beginner's luck
Madison Symphony makes the most of early Chopin

The opening concerts of the Madison Symphony Orchestra's new season offered, in conductor John DeMain's own words, "an un­abashedly all-Romantic program."

The opener was truly rousing. I have heard many performances, both live and recorded, of the Overture to Smetana's opera The Bartered Bride, but never one, I think, with such extra exuberance. The juxtaposition of fugal counterpoint with a folksy dance, in veritably symphonic synthesis, was delineated with unusual clarity and verve.

The soloist this time was Cuban-born, American-trained Horacio Gutiérrez. His vehicle was Chopin's "Piano Concerto No. 1," intended as one of the works with which the young Chopin hoped to win international fame as both performer and composer. Its orchestral writing is banal and mostly perfunctory, no better than what was common in piano concertos of the 1820s and 1830s. Indeed, much of the time the orchestra could be dispensed with, and the majority of the piano part could easily be broken up into completely self-sufficient solo pieces. What makes us cherish the work is its foreshadowing of Chopin's great output of piano pieces to come. If he had died prematurely in 1830, not achieving that later legacy, would we take this labored concerto so seriously now? Well, probably we would, given the quality of lyrical and pianistic invention.

Gutiérrez was fully equal to that invention. Genial and unpretentious in both stage demeanor and artistry, he gave clear voice to Chopin's unique style. His use of rubato was extensive but expressively tasteful, while the runs of rapid passagework, notably in the final movement, were delivered with crystalline brilliance.

From a vastly distant pole of inspiration came the massive closer. Richard Strauss based one of his larger symphonic poems on the ideas and imagery of Friedrich Nietzsche's philosophical fantasy Also Sprach Zarathustra (Thus Spake Zoroaster), even appropriating its title. Between Michael Allsen's always-excellent program notes and maestro DeMain's own lucid pre-performance comments, the audience was given helpful guidelines for appreciating this rich and fascinating score, so easily dismissed as a bombastic muddle without some preparation. The complex score also served to showcase the confident sonorities of the MSO, now so well-balanced between and within sections.

In all, a profoundly rewarding start to a season of exciting promise.

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