The biggest challenge for creators of art is to tackle the difficulties inherent in the object they seek to craft. In the name of originality and expression, for instance, a composer must tackle the constraints of form, the “rules” of orchestration, and the limitations of each specific instrument. Then comes the ultimate test, which has an entirely separate criteria for judgment: the realization of the concept, the sonic experience.
The Madison Symphony Orchestra opened its 2017-2018 season Friday with a program entitled “Orchestral Brilliance,” which first featured two composers who used music as an extension of their faith.
Johann Sebastian Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor, a work originally for solo organ that was transcribed for orchestra by Leopold Stokowski, began the program and was immediately followed by Felix Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 5 in D minor (aptly titled his “Reformation” symphony). Hector Berlioz’s rarely programmed Harold in Italy, which featured principal violist Chris Dozoryst, closed the program.
During the first half of the twentieth century, many major American orchestra operated under the baton of Stokowski. One of Stokowski’s signature achievements was his many orchestral transcriptions of J.S. Bach’s music.
Among the inherent decisions an ensemble must make in its interpretation of such a piece is to what degree the collective’s sound should emulate the character and timbre of the original instrument. Bach already seemed to think symphonically through his use of organ stops to change the combination of the instrument’s pipes, which may be why Stokowski felt comfortable imagining the work for orchestra.
The Madison Symphony Orchestra’s performance of the Toccata and Fugue in D minor ignored that original source material, perhaps to demonstrate that the orchestral version deserves to be considered on its own merits, semi-detached from history and standard performance practice. Stokowski, known for taking artistic liberties, would have certainly approved.
Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 5 in D minor featured a familiar tune to many of Friday’s concertgoers, the hymn “A Mighty Fortress is Our God”. Like Bach, Mendelssohn was influenced by the Lutheran faith and wanted to write a piece for the Church’s 300th anniversary. The form of each of Mendelssohn’s four movements was aurally clear, technical passages were synchronized well, and the counterpoint contained in the fourth movement was both pure and confident.
Rather than religious devotion, Berlioz turned to fellow artistic figures Lord Byron and Niccolò Paganini during the creation of Harold in Italy. After Paganini complained about the first movement’s “many rests” in the viola part, Berlioz decided to feature the very instrument through “poetic recollections” fashioned after the wanderings of Byron’s ‘Child Harold’.
The ensemble’s balance and tone quality became a bit suspect during Harold in Italy. Especially during thicker textures, the strained, top-heavy strings unintentionally covered up snippets of melody floating from the rear of the ensemble. Even with the amount of spirited engagement on stage, the lack of both orchestral color and refined supplementary material became monotonous. Additionally, Mr. Dozoryst remained faithful to the score, yet lacked the rigor and pomp of his counterparts. Thus, the realization of the printed page was noticeably beneath the composition’s potential.
Overall, however, the MSO showcased its understanding of the conceptual framework of Bach’s and Mendelssohn’s works. The group has, indeed, begun its 2017-2018 season with orchestral brilliance.