Sometimes one piece alone is worth the price of admission for an entire concert.
In the last few years, John DeMain and the Madison Symphony Orchestra have taken on some big, chewy symphonies. Pieces like Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony and Mahler’s Fourth, that simultaneously showcase the power of the orchestra working together as a unified, expressive ensemble and feature the talents of individual musicians.
Add Witold Lutosławski's Concerto for Orchestra to that list.
Lutosławski (1913-1994), a Polish composer, came from a family scarred by both the Russian Revolution of 1917 and World War II. He was active as a professional composer in Communist Poland, a regime in which the arts were to be shaped by and deployed to support political ideologies.
The Concerto for Orchestra, composed 1950-54 at the request of conductor Witold Rowicki, marks a turning point in Lutosławski's repertoire: it was one of his last compositions to draw from folk music; his first piece performed frequently outside of Poland; and one of the most popular pieces of his entire oeuvre.
The aesthetic draw of the piece lies in balancing opposing elements: the beauty of fine textures in conversation with big, ensemble-wide sweeps; the modernist harmonic vocabulary expressed through accessible, compelling themes and structures.
The explosive opening of the first movement, for instance, opens with a timpani tattoo, the same note being struck over and over and over as members of the string family introduce and develop a theme. For a long time, those incessantly repeated notes contribute tension and turbulence. By the end of the movement, though, both the repeated notes and the melodic gestures float into the upper registers of the winds and harps (two of them!), and the music transforms into something of utter delicacy: small pieces fitting together in wondrous beauty—crystals growing, or molecules floating through space.
The second and third movements are similarly stunning, intriguing, and surprising, and the MSO’s performance was so absorbing that had the concert consisted of nothing else it would have been a satisfying experience.
Of course, symphony concerts are big things: the Lutosławski was prefaced by Schumann’s Overture to Manfred and followed by Rachmaninoff’s Concerto No. 3, with the incomparable Philippe Bianconi as soloist.
In composing the Manfred overture, Schumann was inspired by Lord Byron’s dramatic poem of the same name about an emotionally tortured freedom-fighter. It’s a classic example of Romantics’ obsession with both heroes and emotions. Repeatedly the music is shaped by gestures that well up from below and build into something more powerful, yet the piece ends quietly, as if all that emergent energy had to sink back into its source.
Rachmaninoff, too, was a romantic composer—some say he was the last great romantic one—and, of course, his music shifts between simple, clear statements of his themes and churning, virtuosic passages for the soloist. Longtime MSO audiences will be familiar with Bianconi, as he has performed in Madison several times. He is always wonderful: calm, collected, and in utter control of his material, no matter how difficult. It is a delight to hear a performer so at ease in his work.
The MSO faced a few personnel oddities in this concert: Concertmaster Naha Greenholtz was absent, though Co-Concertmaster Suzanne Beia took her place ably, and one performer evidently went missing for a while, delaying the start of the Lutosławski. In end the orchestra weathered these disruptions and seemed no worse for the wear. Indeed, they shone particularly brightly.