Emanuel Ax (copy)

The highlight of the entire concert was Emanuel Ax, one of the great pianists of our time, playing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4.

A Beethoven overture followed by a Beethoven concerto followed by a Mahler symphony. John DeMain has put together a big, serious program for the Madison Symphony Orchestra and, to go with it, performances that are solid. And sometimes so much better than that.

Beethoven’s "Coriolan Overture" was inspired by the Roman general Coriolanus as depicted in a play by Beethoven’s contemporary and friend Heinrich Joseph von Collin. The overture has two main themes — one roiling and one almost pastoral — but the piece’s spectacle comes less from the relationship between those themes than from the tension within the first one. It contrasts big, almost violent chords that may be both fierce and heroic against a quiet, anxious, scurrying motif. Layered together, they provide unceasing drama that lets neither audience nor performers rest until the very end.

On Friday evening, the orchestra gave a compelling, technically polished performance. They played with great clarity, even when the music was especially dense. Near the end of the piece those opening chords return, though freed of the scurrying motif. They rang and reverberated throughout the hall, their sonic shadow nearly as powerful as their initial articulation. The orchestra was as fierce as the music.

The highlight of the entire concert was Emanuel Ax, one of the great pianists of our time, playing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4. It was hard not to feel starstruck by such an accomplished musician, and when he walked onstage with a relaxed smile he seemed not only confident but also gracious and generous.

Ax provided a level of musical leadership unlike any I have witnessed with other MSO guest artists. His solo playing was crisp and precise, even with the numerous fast, knotty passages scattered throughout the concerto, but he also used solo passages to shift the energy of the entire orchestra. For example, near the end of the first movement and after a long stretch that was big and loud, Ax entered with a slower, quieter passage. It was introspective, to be sure, but rather than proceeding along the path of individualism, Ax pulled and dragged at the tempo and tone in a way the brought the orchestra along with him.

Ax gave Chopin’s Waltz 34 opus 2 as an encore. Always a beautiful piece — a rolling, decorated melody above a waltz accompaniment — Ax gave a lesson in the proper use of rubato, bending and curling the tempo and melody for best expression.

The MSO has been specializing in big, dense symphonies this season, and it closed the concert with Mahler’s Symphony No. 4. It’s small for Mahler, but still complex and substantial. The first movement ranges from the pastoral to the brilliant; the second is spooky, with a demonic country fiddler; the third is at times unabashedly beautiful; and the fourth features a soprano singing about a complex vision of heaven. 

At its best, the orchestra was celestial; at one point my concert-going companion almost gasped with reverence. The string theme that opens the third movement makes the heart ache, and the cellos were just gorgeous there. Now and again, though, things got murky. The second and third movements require an enormous amount of expressive agility, and occasionally I wondered if the musicians were experiencing a bit of the disorientation they were supposed to be expressing.

But the fourth movement, a song with orchestral accompaniment, was lovely with soprano Alisa Jordheim giving a performance that was dazzling and both musically and physically expressive. 

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