The Madison Symphony Orchestra’s ambitious Friday night concert “Orchestral Brilliance: Three Virtuosi” was utterly entertaining.
Maestro John DeMain has made it a yearly tradition for the MSO to “focus on the talent within it,” and this concert featured three of the MSO’s own fine players as soloists. Violinist Naha Greenholtz, clarinet principal JJ Koh, and principal tuba Josh Biere showed they belong in front of the orchestra just as much as they do within it.
Schubert’s “Unfinished Symphony,” a work that would sweeten any program, began the concert. The orchestra delivered the first movement and its signature melody wonderfully, outshined only by the orchestra’s delicate though dynamic rendering of the second movement. Entrusted with some of the most salient melodies, the principal clarinetist JJ Koh and principal oboist Marc Fink displayed beautiful tone, and the orchestra as a whole blended well throughout.
Concertmaster Naha Greenholtz was the first soloist on the program, performing Prokofiev’s Second Violin Concerto. Greenholtz performed the opening solo melody with full bodied tone and striking timbre, setting the scene for the dramatic first movement. While the orchestra and soloist seemed slightly out of sync during some of the more rhythmically erratic passages of this movement, Greenholtz performed its quick melodic runs cleanly, with a lovely tone.
In the prelude discussion (held an hour before every concert), DeMain highlighted the second movement, saying it is “like a spider weaving a web — the most beautiful web you’ve ever seen.” In this movement, soloist and orchestra established a harmonious partnership.
Greenholtz’s tone matched perfectly with the MSO. In one moment, her intricate violin filigree blended seamlessly with the orchestra’s glistening figurations. It was pure magic.
After intermission, clarinetist Koh delivered a wistful rendition of Debussy’s “Premièr rhapsodie.” Koh’s playing had an impressive dexterity; he gave shape and depth to the long, held out pitches that make this piece such a dream. Supporting Koh, the MSO gave the audience the feeling of swimming in sound.
The crowd favorite of the evening seemed to be Vaughn Williams’s “Tuba Concerto,” written in the 1950s “purely out of regard for the sound of the instrument and a general fascination with unusual timbres,” according to J. Michael Allsen’s program notes. Biere, principal tubist since 2013, kept the audience watching with his smiles while his technical skills kept them listening. More than a show piece, the Concerto was replete with jaunty passages and moving melodies, all handled masterfully by Biere and the MSO.
Biere proved the tuba can be both lyrical and agile, crafting elegant melodies with lovely shape and playing exciting trill patterns that mesmerized. He also demonstrated the full range of the instrument, reaching notes at the far left of the piano all the way up to an alto’s vocal range. After hearing this performance, I am motivated to seek out more tuba repertoire.
Gershwin’s “An American in Paris” was a perfect choice to close the concert, as each of the night’s soloists had a smaller solo at some point in the work. Composed shortly after “Rhapsody in Blue,” this work sports some of the same musical devices and reflects a strong influence from contemporaneous French music.
“American in Paris” gave an impressionistic glimpse of the streets of Paris through the eyes of an American, perhaps how Gershwin viewed it during his travels. Car horns and raucous soundscapes evoked a bustling French city, while American-style blues melodies sparked moments of nostalgia. By the end, a seductive Parisian aesthetic took over.
DeMain was particularly animated conducting this one — you could tell he felt at home with a work of this genre.