Most guest soloists bring along a popular warhorse as a display piece that's sure to please. All praise, then, to cellist Lynn Harrell - and to visiting conductor Ward Stare - for venturing instead a rare but truly worthwhile novelty. Harrell and Stare joined the Madison Symphony Orchestra Friday night in Overture Hall.
Edouard Lalo (1823-1892) has not been given his due in public awareness. His colorful super-concerto, the "Symphonie Espagnole," used to be a frequently heard vehicle for violinists but has lost favor in recent years. His wonderful opera Le Roi d'Ys really should have a place in the working repertoire. There is a violin concerto, a clutch of fine orchestral works, including a full symphony plus some shorter items, and the charming Namouna ballet score, as well as a number of fine chamber pieces. Performers and audiences alike are missing a lot with our neglect of his scores.
All the more reason to welcome Harrell's taking up Lalo's Cello Concerto in D minor. It is a full-blooded score, rich in elegant display passages for the soloist, set against bold orchestral statements. Its three movements contrast nicely: a stormy and dramatic first, a playfully teasing second, and a bouncy, optimistic third. Harrell let the orchestra enjoy the bigger statements while using his opportunities to deliver gracefully sensitive playing.
For an encore, he gave a somewhat overstated playing of the Gigue from Bach's Third Suite for Unaccompanied Cello.
Surrounding the concerto rarity were two chestnuts. The opener was the most popular of Rossini's overtures, to the most popular of his operas: The Barber of Seville. Stare seemed to want to make a statement of this piece, whipping up the rich MSO forces for a somewhat overblown rendition of this easygoing joyride.
For the second half, there was one of the big showpieces by Sibelius, beloved of conductors who may not know much about Sibelius beyond this. His Second Symphony is a big bowser of a work, with the composer's gradually emerging sound palette still submerged in vestiges of Tchaikovskian Technicolor.
At first Stare mustered the orchestra for conventionally big and blustery sound, and he certainly had the advantage of high-voltage string playing. When the many big, surging moments came, he pushed them for all their volume. But, as this disjunct and variegated score progressed, it was in the softer moments that Stare began to show his talent. When he has long lines to work with, he can turn them into flows of great and moving beauty. As this approach moved to the forefront, the ending avoided the stereotypical triumphalist bombast and became a hymn of heroic tragedy.
Young, handsome, bold but precise in gestures, Stare is clearly a podium talent to watch, and it was interesting for Madison to have this early sample of his work.