The Madison Symphony Orchestra's April concert series featured a stylistic contrast between its two acts, captivating the audience with an unforgettable performance.
The first half highlighted German composers, the second French composers — an enjoyable juxtaposition. Guest pianist Marc-André Hamelin and the MSO transitioned seamlessly from one half to the other with the utmost musicality.
Maestro John DeMain began the program with Mozart’s “Prague Symphony,” a piece Mozart composed shortly after the success of his opera, “The Marriage of Figaro.” Those familiar with the opera may notice “Figaro” Easter eggs scattered throughout the symphony. The work is a tour de force of classical composition, creating a web of interrelated themes.
I most enjoyed the opening movement when, at certain moments, the melodic phrasing became out of sync with the underlying rhythmic structure. This created a palpable unsettled feeling that propelled the music forward, a tension the MSO maintained well.
Closing the first half, Richard Strauss’s “Burleske,” a light-hearted single-movement concerto, is not among the composer’s most well-known works, but Hamelin’s rendition made a strong case that it could be. A consummate entertainer, Hamelin maintained a relaxed demeanor whether he was performing a delicate melody or a feverishly raucous passage. This program repeats Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon; for those attending the concert this weekend, I recommend sitting stage right so that you may have a clear view of Hamelin’s acrobatic hands as they fly across the keyboard.
One of Strauss’s earlier compositions, “Burleske” had a certain adventurous quality, the sign of a creative mind trying out ideas and testing boundaries. In a pre-show lecture (free, held an hour before each concert in the hall) J. Michael Allsen called the piece “kooky.”
“Burleske” opened with the solo timpani performing the main theme. As the piece progressed, the timpani became a significant voice, often in dialogue with the piano.
If the first act of the concert was a delight, the second act was unbeatable. It began with Maurice Ravel’s “Piano Concerto in G,” a work which was greatly influenced by the composer’s trip to the United States. To accompany his French impressionistic style, Ravel added American jazz elements to this work, producing a unique sound all his own.
The second movement was pure magic. It began with a tender and intimate piano solo, establishing a steady pulse that kept the movement grounded even as it felt as if it would float away. Hamelin blended with the MSO beautifully, crafting a musical tapestry. This was without a doubt the most memorable moment of the concert.
To close, Debussy’s “La Mer” filled Overture Hall with luscious colors and vibrant timbres. This orchestral masterpiece is Debussy’s tribute to the sea, and while it doesn’t have a definitive narrative, its subject matter is clear. Calling upon the full strength and breadth of the MSO, the work evokes both the untamed might and the gentle beauty of the sea.
Each movement of “La Mer” had its own narrative. The first, “From dawn to noon at sea,” moved in slow waves that swelled in orchestral density and volume, accompanied by glittering orchestral textures.
The irregular musical texture of the second, “Game of the waves,” suggested the shifting and unpredictable sea, playful but dangerous. In the third, “Dialogues of the wind and sea,” the orchestra created an impression of a rising tide, leading to a grand finale.