Madison Symphony Chorus

The Madison Symphony Chorus performs Beethoven's 9th Symphony with the MSO in Overture Hall this weekend.

They weren't exactly bookends, but in many ways it feels like the classical music season in Madison began and ended with Beethoven's choral masterpieces.

Madison Opera opened its 2014-15 season with "Fidelio," Beethoven's one remarkable opera, full of passion and optimism.

This weekend, the Madison Symphony Orchestra closes its season in Overture Hall with similar drama — Beethoven's Symphony No. 9, best known as the "Choral" symphony.

Beethoven, as Madison Symphony Chorus director Beverly Taylor explained in a pre-show talk, wrote beautifully for singers but he "wasn't kind" to them.

The vocal work in the ninth is very difficult, especially for the soloists. Even so, only the chorus and the tenor (Eric Barry did a fantastic, joyful job), have even moderately meaty parts in terms of length. It's tough, but it's short.

That said, Taylor's chorus, under the direction of Maestro John DeMain, gave a rich, nuanced performance of Beethoven's aggressively celebratory final movement.

Familiar to most of the Christian world as the hymn tune for "Ode to Joy," that last "Allegro" was articulate, dynamically exciting and full of energy. The internal voices — altos and tenors — were strong and well-balanced.

Each of the soloists, including Barry, soprano Melody Moore, contralto Gwendolyn Brown and bass Morris Robinson, gave fine performances, enough that it was almost sad not to hear more of them on the rest of the program. (One could tell by Robinson's expression that he would have loved to join in on those bass choral parts.)

Beethoven closed the concert, and the season, on a literal high note. DeMain wisely opened the concert with a showcase for young concertmaster Naha Greenholtz, who joined the symphony in 2011.

In Leonard Bernstein's "Serenade," inspired by Plato's "Symposium," Greenholtz showed impressive range.

She kept both notes singing evenly in tone on every double stop, with clear articulation and agile bowing. Especially lovely were her long, hymn-like melodies, contrasting brilliantly fast sections.

Highlights of the "Serenade," which was all about love in its various forms — Bernstein was newly married and fairly besotted when he wrote it in 1954 — included the opening movement, inspired by "a lyrical oration in praise of Eros." It had varied textures in the percussion, with rolling timpani and the ringing bell-tones of the chimes.

There and in the final movement, inspired by writings by Socrates, Bernstein revealed an entertaining playfulness. The intensity of the work ebbed and flowed, reaching a peak in the furiously fast third movement and relenting again in the fourth.

And of course, though most of us remember the singing, there's more to Beethoven's ninth symphony than the chorus at the end.

The rest of the work, composed after Beethoven had already lost his hearing, was full of his signature musical storms, winds rushing headlong toward something on the horizon, basses mildly sinister. This symphony is beloved in part because of its wonderful contrasts, with a peaceful, hymn-like third movement contrasting lively, dancing themes in the second.

The symphony performs Beethoven's ninth about every ten to 15 years because, as J. Michael Allsen pointed out in his program notes, it's one of the Great Works, an "innovative" piece that "had a profound effect on virtually every 19th century composer." Luckily, there are always new ears hearing it for the first time.

That's how DeMain has designed the coming season, too, with superstar pianists like Garrick Ohlsson and Emanuel Ax, as well as crowd-pleasing works like "Carmina Burana."

"It's a delicious season for serious music listeners," DeMain said before Friday night's concert began.

With such a performance, the MSO has also chosen a very fine way to end this one. 

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