The podium guest for the latest Madison Symphony Orchestra program, German conductor Patrick Strub, made a fine local debut Friday night in Overture Hall. His vivid gestures and lively body language conveyed a profound musicality and a deep involvement in what he conducts.
The opera overtures of Carl Maria von Weber are more than casual curtain-raisers, and make tricky demands on the players, that for Oberon particularly so. There were a few ragged string moments and bad woodwind tunings at the Friday evening performance, but Strub shaped the piece artfully and seemed to enjoy what he gets from the orchestra.
The guest soloist is the young American pianist Jonathan Biss. Endowed with an extraordinary technique, he revels in clear, crisp playing. His delivery of Mozart's "Concerto No. 9" was propulsive and fluent. It was just a little coldly precise at times, but with elastic phrasing and good dynamic nuance. The high point was his truly moving realization of the second movement's subtle cadenza. Slightly reduced strings made for intimate balances.
The ultimate treat, however, comes in the second half, devoted to the rarely heard "Serenade No. 1" by Brahms, written in his early 20s. This work began as a chamber piece, a nonet for woodwinds and strings, which no longer survives in original form. Brahms expanded it into his very first score for full orchestra. The heavy dominance of woodwinds in the original version is still carried over into this expansion, which reveals the composer already learning how to exploit their particular colors, even as he makes his first efforts at creating an orchestral voice of his own.
The six-movement work is long, perhaps a trifle over-extended at nearly 50 minutes' time. But it is full of absolutely wonderful things: two rollicking scherzos, embracing a dreamy Adagio, plus an absolutely charming, wind-dominated Minuet, all framed by vigorous wing movements ambitiously constructed and already displaying that characteristic burliness of Brahms' writing.
Strub showed himself fully committed to making this score succeed. This was clear particularly in the Adagio middle movement, which can easily sag in careless hands, but which Strub made absorbingly coherent. Indeed, all of the movements were beautifully contoured, and the orchestra, winds especially, played exquisitely.
Sadly, there were a lot of empty seats for the Brahms Friday evening. Now, if Brahms's First Symphony were played, would all those seats be full, with nobody learning anything? From the delighted remarks of audience members at the end, it was clear they were happy to make a discovery. People don't need to be afraid of music they have not heard before.
There are still two performances left, Saturday the 20th at 8 p.m., and Sunday afternoon, the 21st, at 2:30 p.m. This is a program that richly deserves to be heard and enjoyed.