Two distinguished but very different visitors brighten the season's second Madison Symphony Orchestra program, whose first performance was Friday night in Overture Hall.
Composer John Harbison has strong local ties, so it is fitting that music director John DeMain should pick up Harbison's new orchestral suite derived from his opera The Great Gatsby. Bypassing the overture and the selected arias that he has already released for concert use, Harbison has drawn on solely orchestral passages in the opera, for a kind of guided tour of the plot.
An important feature of the opera was the recreation of jazz and popular dance music of the 1920s. With a long collateral interest of his own in jazz, Harbison could bring off that style successfully, and so he has woven a good many of such tidbits into this suite (played in this performance by a jazz combo "embedded" in the orchestra). They do serve to give a period counterpoint to his own, latter-day, compositional style.
To tell the truth, though, such vignettes seem a bit artificial, and it is only when Harbison writes in his own voice, rather than in an imitative one, that he achieves passages of considerable eloquence and genuine beauty -- the end of the suite's first part is a case in point. The composer himself introduced the performance, enthusiastically delivered by the enlarged MSO under DeMain.
For instant contrast, there was the familiar symphonic poem by Richard Strauss, "Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks". This portrait of a medieval jokester is a genuine workout for an orchestra. It seemed to me that maestro DeMain pushed the tempos a bit, and drove hard for blazing color. But the orchestra came through with dash and gusto, in a lusty performance.
The other visitor was guest soloist Alisa Weilerstein, by now a familiar performer in Madison. This time, she climbed a towering summit of her literature, Dvorak's Cello Concerto. One of the greatest concertos ever written for any instrument, this work is both a challenge and an opportunity for the soloist.
Weilerstein embraced both with flair. Anyone who knows her playing cannot be surprised by the passion with which she throws herself into this wonderful music. What did surprise me, though, is the subtle nuancing with which she balanced the passion. She reduced soft passages to a whisper. Her treatment of the second movement was pure poetry. And her gripping, sensitive playing at the end of the final movement was truly edge-of-the-seat listening.
On Friday evening, though, I was struck with unexpected disappointment by her solo encore, the final Gigue from Bach's Third Suite for Cello. Her super-speedy, glitzy playing was more showy than musical, and quite out of place, much as it dazzled the audience.
But there is no denying: Weilerstein is emerging as one of the commanding instrumentalists of our time. How lucky we are to have here yet again. And she can still be caught in the remaining performances, Saturday, Nov. 13 at 8 p.m., and Sunday the 14th at 2:30 p.m.