At the risk of perpetuating a cliché, the Madison Symphony Orchestra’s current program, “Music, The Food of Love,” is full of heart. Lead by guest conductor Daniel Hege, the orchestra performs works that span not just 100 years, but also vast stylistic differences, means of representation, and even approaches to the idea of musical expression. And they do so with style.
Tchaikovsky’s overture-fantasy Romeo and Juliet, which opened the program, depicts several scenes and characters from Shakespeare’s story — the lovers, of course, but also Friar Lawrence, the conflict between the Montagues and Capulets, etc.
The lovers’ theme is one of western civilization’s most well-known musical themes. As Michael Allsen writes in the program notes, it’s the musical soundtrack to a slow motion movie scene of two lovers running toward one another across a field of flowers. In the language of critical theory, the meaning of that theme is “overdetermined” — it’s so familiar that it’s nearly impossible to hear in a fresh way, without all those other layers from film and popular culture coming into play. And thus, it presents a performance challenge for contemporary ensembles: how can such well known sounds be kept fresh and interesting?
In this performance, I found the less well-known aspects of the overture to be the most beautifully performed. The opening, for instance, is lovely, dark, and woody, and orchestra treated it with depth and tenderness. The tension mounts as the piece proceeds, until the lovers’ theme erupts, overwhelming and without doubt. But from there the themes overlap and weave together, complicating the story, and it sometimes felt like the orchestra was muddled too, perhaps losing focus as if it was almost too responsive to music that depicted confusion and conflict.
Romeo and Juliet were followed by Daphnis and Chloe — the Greek pastoral lovers — as depicted by Maurice Ravel in music originally composed in 1910 for an hour-long performance by the Ballet Russe, and later extracted into a shorter suite.
The suite’s three components, presented continuously, depict the waking of the day, a pantomime of the story of Pan and Syrinx, and a whirling dance. The orchestra was absolutely stellar here.
They fluttered and shimmered in the first section, light dappling soft ground, morning birds atwitter. At its most intense, the music and the orchestra were dramatically alive, compellingly reproducing the feeling of observing a sunrise with all one’s sense engaged. Having come on the heels of the Tchaikovsky, it was striking to see an entirely different way of presenting dramatic power. Where Tchaikovsky developed long themes and twined them together, Ravel lessened the contrast between foreground and background and used, instead, short motives, density, and sound mass.
Stephanie Jutt (flute), playing Daphnis-as-Pan, ruled the second section. Her playing was dazzling, flying, and dancing.
The concert closed with Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D. Alina Ibragimova, soloist, was brilliant. She is both expressively and technically nimble, and she owned the material, prodding and pulling on the tempo, balancing the decorum of the classical era with ease and play.
Ibragimova’s cadenza in the first movement was captivating: long, extravagant, and technically challenging, and immediately followed by a simple iteration of the theme that was forever changed by what had preceded it. The audience responded with inter-movement applause, uncharacteristically breaking a major prohibition of modern concert-going protocol, but it was a breech that was heartfelt. Ibragimova’s playing was similarly captivating in the other movements.
Music is, indeed, nourishing, whether of love or some other experience, and it was a treat to visit these three works with such different relationships to tradition and innovation. If the orchestra was stronger at some points than at others, that is always the case, and the concert as a whole was, at any rate, well-executed and engaging of both heart and mind.