The Madison Symphony Orchestra’s season opener “Love, Lust, and Redemption,” on Friday night gave reason to feel love and lust over an orchestra concert — no redeeming necessary.
Maestro John DeMain programmed an eclectic show for Overture Hall, what Randal Swiggum in the Prelude Discussion before the concert called a “potpourri of European music.” It featured the music of a German writing for a French audience, a Czech inspired by German musical tradition, a Parisian avant-garde, and a Prix de Rome-winning American.
Though seemingly disparate, the concert hung together well, and kept a strong hold on the audience throughout.
The MSO opened with the overture to Richard Wagner’s music-drama “Tanhäusser,” performing the Parisian premiere version of the work, which features an additional ballet that glides into the first scene of the drama. The opening’s stately “Pilgrim’s Chorus” juxtaposes the sensual first scene, set in the grotto of the Venusberg.
Serving as the Sirens in Venus’s lair, who beckon the hero Tanhäusser to come to the grotto where he may “soothe his desires,” the Madison Symphony Choir joined the MSO from backstage, surprising the audience to wonderful effect.
The work’s varied textures and tricky musical figures make this overture quite taxing on an orchestra. But the MSO performed exceptionally well, particularly the violin section, who remained in lockstep through twisting figures and difficult rhythms. Notably, Suzanne Beia, who took the helm of concert master for the evening, gave great expressivity to the violin solo in the middle of the work.
Anyone who attends a concert at Overture Hall takes note of the magnificent pipe organ that adorns the stage. When it is played as well as Greg Zelek in the MSO’s second number of the night, “Toccata Festiva for Organ and Orchestra” by Samuel Barber, it proves just as aurally stunning as it is visually. At times blending perfectly with the orchestra and other times purposefully at odds, the organ added a wonderful element to the MSO, producing a diverse pallet of textures and colors.
The sonic effect of the organ was matched by the visual show of virtuosity. This was especially true of the work’s “look mom, no hands” cadenza, where Zelek’s hands were relegated to stabilizing his body as his feat danced around his foot pedals, making for a standout moment that was alone worth the price of admission. A gracious performer, Zelek gave an equally impressive encore that closed the first act of the concert with a bang.
The MSO opened the second act with Claude Debussy’s “Prelude to the ‘Afternoon of a Faun.’” Composed for a never-performed theatrical setting of Stephane Mallarmé’s poem from which the prelude gets is title, the piece closely tracks the poem, a dialogue of a faun recounting his dream encounters with a party of nymphs.
This music has an ineffable quality to it. Subtle sways in texture and flowing melodic lines create a dream-like state of pathless delight, where listeners are not meant to sense a clear direction of musical development, making for a different kind of listening experience.
This work is a fine example of Debussy’s gift for orchestration. Likely representing the Faun, the flute features prominently in this work, especially the delicious opening solo arabesque melody, which was performed beautifully by principal flautist Stephanie Jutt. As the piece progresses, varied orchestral ensembles form a variety of lush sonorities, which whisk around the concert hall, an effect only produced by a live performance.
The final work of the evening, Antonin Dvořák’s “Symphony No. 7,” is a piece of impressive craftsmanship where small melodic ideas develop in an organic manner into larger musical phrases, an homage to the compositional technique of Johannes Brahms. The opening of the work introduces a whipping rhythmic gesture that can be traced throughout the entire piece, making for a cohesive construction.
I most enjoyed the MSO’s rendering of the third movement. Its Scherzo features a rhythmically dissonant pattern where subdivisions of three contrast the established subdivisions of two, a phenomenon known as “hemiola.” The MSO maintained this rhythmic tension well, which made the contrast of the more relaxed Trio more pronounced.
The final movement was a fantastic end to the evening. Though the movement is littered with fantastic moments, the closing was most exciting. Major and minor harmonies vie for sonic supremacy, clashing through to the very end of the work, and after a long stretch of what seems to be a balanced bout, major wins out for a triumphant conclusion.
It was an exciting concert and a great start to the MSO season.