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Tuesday, January 27, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 25.0° F  Fog/Mist
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Different sounds of spring
The Madison Symphony Orchestra welcomes the coming season with a delightful concert

On the premise of celebrating the advent of spring, the Madison Symphony Orchestra this weekend offers a pairing of works from two utterly different musical worlds. For all the contrast, they combined to make a quite successful concert at the initial Friday evening performance.

At one end of the spectrum, Vivaldi's "Four Seasons" has become enough of a warhorse to earn a dubious place on the symphony orchestra scene. To be sure, maestro John DeMain reduced his forces to a modest band of 18 string players (plus Ann Stanke on the First Unitarian Society's fine new harpsichord). For more authentic texture, there could have been even fewer players, but in the Overture Hall the numbers proved sensible.

For this is no antiquarian performance. No vibratoless playing from either orchestra or soloist, Robert McDuffie. He is all efficiency, less interested in lyricism or sentimentality, and more attuned to the dramatic and sonic effects that Vivaldi carried to extremes in these four frankly "programmatic" concertos. The aggressiveness of his performance is matched by the ensemble in high spirit and elegant coherence. The slow movement of the "Autumn Concerto" was deliberately designed for continuo elaboration, and Stanke provides for that with a nice keyboard descant. In all, a remarkably successful rendition in the context of a large symphonic hall.

McDuffie used his opportunity for an encore to remarkably gracious effect. He brought out the 17-year-old Krista Stewart, a truly talented young violinist from Middleton, with whom he has worked. He had her join him -- playing the primo part, at that -- in the slow movement of Bach's "Concerto for Two Violins." This is sublimely beautiful music and it struck me that, in working with this partner McDuffie, opens up to a somewhat more lush tone than he allows himself in the bravura Vivaldi. I don't think I have ever enjoyed a concert encore display as much as this generous gesture.

It was off to a different world altogether with the second half, devoted to Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring." First performed in 1913, it was one of the opening guns in the rush to "modernism." Nearly a century has passed now, and it remains on the one hand an historic landmark in the musical literature and, on the other, still a demanding work for both players and audience.

It was not only designed as a ballet score but was created with choreographer Nijinsky's powerfully "primitivist" movements embodied in every measure. Listening to just the score alone as a concert work does, of course, lose that visual dimension of bodies in action. On the other hand, one can concentrate on the extraordinary boldness of Stravinsky's orchestral writing -' like nothing done before it. In the concert hall, one can relish the riot of orchestral colors and textures Stravinsky created, in music of powerful physicality.

DeMain used the composer's 1947 revision of the score, augmenting some of its writing. Once the terror of orchestral players, it is still a challenge, but it is now well within the normal capacities of an orchestra willing to work hard. And work hard the MSO troops do '- in full array and in full strength. I understand that the rehearsals went remarkably smoothly, and the results demonstrate anew what a virtuoso orchestra this has become under DeMain's leadership. This is the first time the MSO has tackled this work, but we can only wonder now why they took so long. They show no sense of strain. Individual players contribute their moments of prominence with the utmost confidence and professionalism. The audience, too, clearly responded to this bracing experience with enjoyment and pride. There are still two more performances to catch this weekend, with satisfaction guaranteed.

By the way, I would like to take the opportunity to point out how lucky we are to have the regular program annotations by Michael Allsen'otherwise visible blasting on bass trombone. His notes are literate, thorough, well-informed, and always worth reading.

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