In Overture Hall on Sept. 16-18, the Madison Symphony Orchestra opens its new season with grace and gravitas. The concert contrasts Grieg's sunny piano concerto with powerful musical responses to tragedy and war in John Adams' Pulitzer Prize-winning "On the Transmigration of Souls" and Beethoven's Fifth Symphony.
At the end of 2001, the New York Philharmonic commissioned Adams for a work that would memorialize the tragedy of 9/11. He composed "On the Transmigration of Souls," a composition he calls a "memory space." John DeMain, the MSO's conductor and music director, had specific ideas about the commemorative piece for this concert. "I wanted a piece by one of our leading American composers," says DeMain. "This piece was specifically written for 9/11, and in that way, it's very meaningful."
In "Transmigration" the Madison Symphony Chorus, the Madison Youth Choirs, taped sound and a huge orchestra will layer musical textures until they reach explosive proportions. Sounds of New York City and a libretto of vital statistics of loved ones will play against a backdrop of dark sonorities.
Grieg's Piano Concerto in A minor is a stark contrast to "Transmigration." Pianist André Watts returns to the MSO for this picturesque work. Watts visited the Grieg home in Bergen, Norway, and experienced its quiet ambiance.
"If you go down by the lake where Grieg is buried, the water is very still and mirror-like," says Watts. "That image helps me play the piece."
Watts is particularly fond of the slow, reflective second movement, but there is plenty of brawn, especially in the first movement cadenza.
"This cadenza is masterfully gauged," says Watts. "Even though it's carefully written out, it doesn't deny freedom. The improvisation is in the notes."
As Beethoven wrote his Fifth Symphony, Napoleon's soldiers occupied Vienna, where the symphony premiered in 1808. In it, as in other Beethoven symphonies from this period, the composer wrestles with tyranny and aggression and defeats them on the musical battlefield.
The Fifth opens in C minor, a key that Beethoven reserved for his most serious work. The famous four-note fate motif is unsettling, as is much of the first movement. As the symphony develops, relief is felt in brighter harmonies, but the road to victory is challenging.
"The [third movement] scherzo is unusual," says DeMain. "It's more brooding than one would usually find, but there is a bright, exhilarating last movement. It's a damned good symphony."