Olga Kern

Guest artist pianist Olga Kern returns to play with the Madison Symphony Orchestra in October's "From the New World."

This weekend's program from the Madison Symphony Orchestra starts with children’s stories and ends with myths. In between something extraordinary happens.

Maurice Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite serves as the concert’s overture. Originally created in 1910 as a duet for a pair of young piano students, Ravel orchestrated the score a year later to be used in a ballet.

The five movements depict Sleeping Beauty, Hop-o’ My Thumb (Tom Thumb), an island in which little ceramic figures take a wandering princess as their queen, Beauty and the Beast, and a fairy garden. All are lovely, none are childish or cute.

The Tom Thumb movement, for instance, is warm and magical. Introduced by the oboe, the main musical idea winds through and over the ensemble restlessly as Tom searches for his way home. Likewise, the fairy garden of the final movement is luxurious and rich, but with a tinge of mournfulness, as if depicting not a child’s fantasy, but an adult’s longing for innocence.

For audience members who know Samuel Barber only as the composer of the somber Adagio for Strings, the Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 38 will come as a sonic shock. Composed in 1961-62, more than 20 years after the Adagio, it has a thoroughly modern aesthetic. It churns and pushes, thick, pointed motives tumbling over one another, and yet it remains eminently accessible.

The first movement is a conversation between piano and orchestra, each bringing very different musical materials. Olga Kern’s entrance was robust and assertive, while the orchestra’s first material is more lyrical, almost recalling Ravel’s world. When the piano returns it is in a tumult, notes pouring forth in bursts of sound like stars in the sky.

Canzone: moderato, the second movement, is songlike and mysterious. The flute introduces a theme which is then picked up first by the piano and later by the strings. Even in its most angular moments the music shimmers.

The final movement is shaped by an ostinato in 5/8 time—a relentlessly repeating figure in an off-kilter meter. As melodies come and go above the ostinato, it provides propulsion and energy.

Kern’s performance is charismatic and dazzling, and tender when it ought to be. And, delightfully, Music Director John DeMain and his orchestra kept pace, with numerous well-played solos from ensemble members. Had the concert ended after the concerto it would have been a fully satisfying musical evening.

As it was, the concert actually closed with Antonín Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9, “From the New World.” The piece’s origins are a familiar tale: in 1892 (that’s 125 years ago, if you’re counting) Jeannette Thurber invited Dvořák to come to America to teach and compose, with the hope that the great European composer would help raise the musical culture of the US. Dvořák spent a few years here, and the 9th symphony is the most famous result of that stay.

In an attempt to make something uniquely American, Dvořák used themes inspired by African American spirituals and Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha, both placed in an heroic context. Much has been said on the accuracy of and ideology in Dvořák’s supposed American sounds, and it’s always right to question what myths we are telling about ourselves. It’s clear that Maestro and orchestra alike love the sonic qualities of Dvořák’s answer: they played with gusto and conviction. What would we hear if the same question were asked today?

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