Madison Symphony Orchestra
Naha Greenholtz captured the power that lies behind the virtuosic passages as well as the lovely melodies.
The final concert program of the 2012-13 season at the Madison Symphony Orchestra offers a mix of conventional and unusual. It was performed last night at Overture Hall, and it will be presented again Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30 p.m.
The conventional is the inevitable solo concerto, and it is certainly a beloved warhorse: Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto in E minor. It helps if you don't hear warhorses for a while, and I was able to listen to it this time with relatively fresh ears. Fresh, too, is the soloist. She is not truly a guest, but the regular concertmaster, Naha Greenholtz. (When first violin himself, Tyrone Greive set a precedent by playing this work back in 1985.)
Greenholtz is clearly a gifted player, and she displays skill and confidence. What struck me was her avoidance of the flashy, and a sensitivity to the real power that lies behind the virtuosic passages as well as the lovely melodies. On Friday night, I was particularly impressed by her subtly elastic teasing of the first-movement cadenza, which had the audience holding its breath. In all, joined by her loyal colleagues in the orchestra, she delivered a very musical, artistic performance -- one reminding us that, with our fine local talent, it is not necessary to bring in an expensive "guest" soloist from outside for every concerto. (Also of note: Greenholtz modestly resumes the first violin chair for the second half of the program.)
The rest of the concert represents the orchestra's tradition of using the season finale to showcase the Madison Symphony Chorus. First the familiar Part III introduction, known as "The Entry of the Queen of Sheba." Then the opening double chorus, "Your harps and cymbals," followed by the delicate "nightingale" chorus that ends Part I, and rounded out by the double chorus "Praise the Lord" from Part III, a movement sometimes unwisely transferred to the work's end.
Not a specialist in this literature, conductor John DeMain makes a serious effort at a responsible approach. He reduces the strings somewhat and includes an organ. A body of more than 135 singers is hardly viable these days for Handel. But, as carefully trained by Beverly Taylor, the chorus makes a very brave effort, despite the notorious acoustical trap of the far-rear stage. They cope earnestly with Handel's tricky counterpoint, they avoid crushing the delicate "nightingale" chorus, and they even manage to get some of the words out into the hall. But the tempos lack spring and deftness.
This performance reminds me that Madison has not for decades had full performances of Handel's great oratorios, never mind his Messiah. When will these complete masterpieces be made available on a proper scale, in a valid venue, and under knowing direction?
The second half of the program reminds us that the writings of two of our most characteristic American writers were first appreciated and utilized by European composers.
Rachmaninoff became aware of Edgar Allan Poe's four-part poem, The Bells, through a Russian translation by Konstantin Balmont. The poem struck the composer for its parallel to the Russian consciousness of bells as a constant presence -- bells rung for all occasions, and in a very unique and complicated system of peals. (And these from mounted bells, not hand-bells.) As a result, he conceived the poem as a kind of four-movement choral symphony for three soloists, chorus and orchestra, with extraordinarily contrasting moods, from somber to frenetic.
It is not pretty music, but it is powerful, and here the chorus is on firm ground. The simple, block-like choral writing allows the Chorus to use their massive muscle to project. It is common in American performances, and even in some recordings, to use a re-translation of Balmont's version back into English. But our performers boldly tackled it in the Russian that Rachmaninoff uses. They and the three fine soloists -- soprano Alexandra LoBianco, tenor Harold Meers and baritone Hugh Russell -- sound fully convincing. The orchestra gave it their intense best. This is a tricky, demanding work, so DeMain and Taylor deserve great praise.
Ralph Vaughan Williams was one of several English composers who took up the poetry of Walt Whitman before American composers. Toward the Unknown Region is one of his early works for chorus and orchestra. He projected this speculative text, on what lies beyond the life and world we know, in music of austere beauty. It's not a crowd-pleaser but a thought-provoker. Here, alas, the Chorus was again the victim of the rear-stage sound trap: We get plenty of sonority, but hardly a word (in English, mind you) escapes into the hall, for all the singers' best efforts.
This was an unusual concert, then, one of multiple dimensions.