Midori tackles an off-the-beaten-path masterpiece.
Last weekend we had the appearance in Memorial Union concerts of Caroline Goulding, the 19-year-old violinist who is making the transition from child prodigy to mature artist, on a pattern already followed by Midori and Hilary Hahn. So it is appropriate that this weekend we should have Midori herself with us, as a guest soloist with the Madison Symphony Orchestra. The program debuted Friday night in Overture Hall.
The deceptively diminutive Japanese lady is certainly a powerhouse player, and she does us the favor of tackling an off-the-beaten-path masterpiece, the Violin Concerto No. 1 of Shostakovich. One of his darkly introspective works, reflecting its undercover composition during the Stalinist era, it belongs with the Cello Concerto No. 1 as a towering contribution to the concerto literature of the 20th century.
Midori clearly believes in it passionately, and she throws herself into performing it with total commitment. To be sure, she does not downplay the bravura demands of the long and fearsome cadenza that ends the third of the four movements. But it is her emotional involvement, rather than mere virtuosic display, that makes her performance so eloquent. The MSO are inspired to give powerful support, diving lustily into the brooding and swirling effects that vary through the work.
This concerto, constituting the concert's second half, serves to elevate a program whose first half is, to be frank, less than inspiring.
The symphonies of Haydn have increasingly been claimed by early-music and period-instrument groups of late. Andrew Sewell has proven to be a very sympathetic interpreter of them, using modern instruments but in the proper balances and transparent sound of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra. There is nothing wrong, to be sure, with the return of these works, especially the final 12 symphonies of Haydn's two London visits, to a modern orchestra with large string bands. Unfortunately, MSO music director John DeMain spoils his case by delivering a stiff interpretation of the Symphony No. 104, lacking much flexibility, humor or humanity, in deference to projecting a kind of proto-Beethoven sound.
For some unfathomable reason, too, he chooses to revise the string section seating, piling the second violins back behind the firsts again, and moving all the other groupings as well, only to reshift everything back afterwards to the more sensible arrangement of recent seasons.
This stage-sweeping is done to set up for Ravel's "La Valse," a pseudo-choreographic commentary on the fake vision of a Viennese culture in three-four time. DeMain does make a point of stressing traditional Viennese lilt early on. But this is a work of powerful Gallic irony, and DeMain, egging on an overly aggressive percussion battery, conveys it instead as an accumulation of noisy vulgarity. Very disappointing.
The program is repeated Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. Whatever other considerations are involved, Midori in Shostakovich should not be missed.