It’s a rare symphony concert that draws its entire repertoire from the 20th century, but the Madison Symphony Orchestra opened its 2016-17 season by doing just that. Curiously, each of the program’s pieces drew on older idioms and ideas as material for shaping new sounds and aesthetics.
In Romanian Rhapsody No. 1, George Enescu used Romanian folk songs, dances, and modes to claim a modern form of musical nationalism. John Corigliano, in The Red Violin, Chaconne for Violin and Orchestra, worked from a 17th century musical form that uses an oft-repeated chord pattern as a foundation for flights of fancy. And Gustav Holst’s The Planets draws musical caricatures of the Roman gods according to their astrological significance, but he did so using an incredibly large modern orchestra.
The Enescu is boisterous and fun. With a loosely episodic structure, it is at times blithe and playful, elsewhere darker, and often a kaleidoscopic whirl of sound. It was lovely for the concert to open with a solo by the new clarinet chair, JJ Koh, and from there it gave the entire orchestra a fast, energetic warm-up.
Concertmaster Naha Greenholz was the soloist in Corigliano’s Chaconne and it was, to my ear, the stunner performance of the evening. Corigliano took as his basic material two elements — the repeated chord pattern that shifts between moments of tension and release, and a short, longing-filled melody. From these foundations comes a piece whose modern complexity is always in service of great expression.
Greenholz’s performance was spectacular here: technically adroit — no small thing in such a virtuosic piece — and emotionally intense. The orchestra supported her with clarity and strength as the piece shifted again and again between moments of loveliness and passages that were aggressive and explosive.
Holst’s The Planets is a dramatic, even theatrical piece in its own right, and in this program it is made even more so when accompanied by a film composed of planetary images sequenced to match the music’s turns and moods.
The images were truly spectacular. It was fascinating to see the many planets’ pockmarked surfaces, reflecting the kind of geological trauma that’s hidden on our own planet by the sheer force of life. The crevices and crags of Mars and the swirling surface of Jupiter were similarly stunning.
But the sheer force of the images aside, the MSO’s use of the film fell short on two important counts.
First, nowhere did the MSO give simple credit for the film’s source, a remarkable absence given the scale and creative work of the project. (For the record: the film was produced by Duncan Copp and was a collaboration between the Houston Symphony Orchestra and NASA. The still and moving images came from 35 years of space exploration, combined with some computer-generated footage.)
Second, I was surprised that the MSO provided no contextual or intellectual framework for the film’s presence. Aside from an offhand remark Randal Swiggum made in his pre-concert talk about Holst’s focus on the planets’ astrological difference as being quite different from the planets’ astronomical significance, we were given no tools for making sense of the film. Again, the images were stunning, but it’s curious that such a huge visual item was presented without remark.
All in all, it was an auspicious start to the new season — I look forward to seeing what adventures come next.