The Madison Symphony Orchestra’s weekend concert series, “The Miracle,” features works from three of the most widely played composers of the Western musical canon: Joseph Haydn, Felix Mendelssohn and Richard Strauss. Though from different generations, each are of a similar Austro-German tradition that endeavored for musical expressiveness. In Friday’s concert, the MSO, joined by a couple of special guests, found its expressive voice.
The MSO has a guest conductor for the weekend, Kenneth Woods, and while we always miss John DeMain when he is away, on Friday night Woods proved a capable substitute. A towering figure at the podium, Woods skillfully handled the full force of the MSO, most notably in the final work of the evening, where his animated gestures seemed to draw out the MSO’s full spectrum of sound.
The MSO began the night with Haydn’s Symphony No. 96, the “Miracle.” The work has a miraculous humor and wittiness about it. It plays with listeners’ expectations, keeping them on their toes with harmonic, melodic and rhythmic jokes and surprises from its very start.
In his wittiness, Haydn demonstrates his expert understanding of musical style. The work cleverly grabs a listener’s attention with well composed tunes but just as quickly seems to parody its own style for humorous purpose. The work’s lightheartedness should not be confused for simplicity, for it is of intricate design with motifs that develop across its movements.
Save some intonation issues, the MSO sustained the work’s jovial nature. I found the second movement especially charming, wherein the MSO struck a convincing balance between the playful and dramatic. The Minuet movement, an Austrian folk dance, features a spirited oboe solo during its Trio section that tickles the ear. The lighter finale of the symphony acts as a palate cleanser but still tastes of wit and surprise.
Blake Pouliot joined the MSO for the second work on the program, Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor. Rarely do I see a soloist enjoying themselves as much as Pouliot, even when he was tacit. He is an animated player, his body arcing with the contour of the melody and his smile shining out at the audience. Though he performed the quick darting passages of the demanding concerto well, Pouliot seemed most at home with slower, lyrical themes. He also displayed a gorgeous high register, ringing notes that resonated beautifully in Overture Hall.
By the middle of the Violin Concerto’s first movement, the MSO remedied the intonation issues of the Haydn Symphony but fell a bit behind the soloist during some of the faster patterns of the concerto. That said, the soloists and orchestra locked in nicely during the soloist’s rapid bariolage figure.
The highlight of the evening may have been the second movement of the concerto. Stylistically, this movement resembles Mendelssohn’s well-known “Songs Without Words.” Pouliot tastefully rendered the songful tune and kept the audience hanging on every last note — pure gorgeousness.
In the third movement, the soloist showed his more playful side, particularly in a momentary back and forth between him and the orchestra. In this quicker movement, Pouliot danced between high and low registers, displaying expert dexterity and embodying the melody’s shape all the way from his fingers to his toes.
While standing ovations are not irregular at Overture Hall, it is rare to see Madison audiences leap to their feet as quickly as they did for Pouliot. The consummate performer reciprocated, calling Wisconsin one of the “most hospitable places in the U.S.”
He went on to perform an encore: his own arrangement of the Celtic song “Last Rose of the Summer.” Though an unassuming tune, Pouliot’s rendition rang with emotive power. He impressively maneuvered delicate and complex passages that combined pizzicato and legato articulations and found a rich and sweet heartfelt tone.
The final work in the concert, Richard Strauss’s Ein Hendeleben (“A Hero’s Life”), is a programmatic symphonic poem, widely thought to be about the composer himself.
In this work, Strauss finds a balance between disparate forces: pretty and harsh, harmonic tradition and freedom, and vulnerability and strength. Strauss’s hero is a complex one who knows that the true struggle worth fighting is within one’s self.
The work calls for a large orchestra. Bringing in a few extra players for this piece, the MSO found new expressive power as a larger ensemble. The brass and woodwinds sections nearly overwhelmed the strings, but the extra power proved most effective during the brash march section.
The MSO’s concertmaster, Naha Greenholtz, was spotlighted for an extended solo section of this piece. A truly skilled player, she shaped her melodies with artful grace, charging them with a certain rhetorical potency.
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