New met old and East met West at the Madison Symphony Orchestra's concerts last weekend. The new was the world premiere of "The Forty Steps" by Canadian American composer Joel Hoffman. It was written for cellist Uri Vardi, of the UW Music School faculty, and his friend and frequent collaborator, the Israeli-Arab musicologist-performer Taiseer Elias. Elias is a master of the quintessential Arab instrument, the oud - ancestor of the European lute. The work envisioned a sharing of distinct traditions (Western and Arabic), certainly a noble ideal, downright urgent just now. The title evokes the intricate symbolisms of the number 40 in both Judaic and Islamic thought.
From the Overture Hall stage, Hoffman himself explained how he built such symbolism into his score, though rightly admitting that his efforts would not be readily apparent to the ear. What certainly emerged was the warm cross-cultural comradeship of the two soloists, but as applied to little creative substance. Two cultural traditions met for 30 minutes, but never really meshed. When the two soloists played in unison (their instruments, by the way, heavily amplified, at the composer's direction), the clunky tunking of the oud seemed obviously incompatible with the cello's sustained cantillation: plucking against bowing.
Each soloist had substantial cadenzas. Left to his idiom, Elias displayed his instrument's disposition to rapid passagework, idiomatically improvised, while Vardi's cello spun lines of almost Hebraic rapture. And, to some extent, each tried to take on small elements of the other's cultural expression.
The cross-cultural meeting might have been better realized against a coherent orchestral context. But the writing there was all too deliberately fragmented, built on rhythmic rather than thematic elements. Lots of varied instrumental color, but ineptly used - for one embarrassing stretch, suggesting the belly-dance music of an Arab nightclub. In all, ideals to admire, but not music to cherish or return to.
Idealism yielded to old-fashioned fun with Rossini's "Stabat Mater," one of the early works confirming the appropriation of sacred texts for concert-hall entertainment. There is no denying the score's spiritual elements, which conductor John DeMain took pains to stress, but its overall style belongs to the operatic world from which Rossini had retired. A quartet of four young soloists (Celena Shafer, Kirstin Chávez, Lawrence Brownlee, Arthur Woodley) sang beautifully. The Madison Symphony Chorus delivered strong, rich tone, if homogenized by the still problematic distance at which they are set at stage rear.