Pianist Emanuel Ax joins the Madison Symphony Orchestra this weekend for concerts in Overture Hall. 

More than the brisk air, the beautiful colors, or the invigorating autumn scent, the thing I love most about this time of year is the start of the Madison Symphony Orchestra’s season.

From its lively beginning to its intimate end, the MSO’s opening concert Friday night set a high bar for the rest of their season.

This year marks the 25th year of John DeMain’s tenure with the MSO. And as he noted in the beautiful short film honoring his work (which preceded the concert), the MSO seems to get better year after year.

The concert began with the raucous yet engaging Fanfare Ritmico by Pulitzer Prize and Grammy Award-winning composer Jenifer Higdon. Written “on the eve of the move into the new Millennium,” when Higdon found herself “reflecting on how all things have quickened as time has progressed,” the piece’s erratic melodies and driving meter are a metaphor for the fast-paced world of the 21st century, where information moves at such an accelerated rate it is hard to follow.

The member of the MSO’s percussion section were the heroes of this piece, expertly handling the fanfare’s boisterous opening, ripe with quick rhythms and bombastic figures. Half the fun was watching the five percussionists cover a great variety of instruments.

This work was, as Michael Allson noted in his prelude lecture, “perfectly appropriate to begin the season.” Its savage rhythms proved not a challenge for the MSO, demonstrating their willingness and readiness to take on new and demanding repertoire.

Contrasting with the first piece, DeMain chose selections from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet Suites to close the first act. Prokofiev wrote three orchestral suites after having trouble getting his now famous ballet performed, a consequence of Soviet political turmoil. While the suites do not follow the drama of Shakespeare’s play, the MSO performed a collection of movements from all three that does.

The opening of the suite’s first movement, “Montagues and Capulets,” gave a sense of the MSO’s full volume, backed by the brass and percussion sections. Moving into the piece’s signature march melody, DeMain led by example, his upper body marching along with his orchestra. Proof of the orchestra’s great dynamic versatility, the movement’s somber middle section was pristine, making for a captivating build to the end.

Following the capricious second movement, “Juliet the Young Girl,” the third, “Death of Tybalt,” is perhaps the most clearly programmatic, suggesting a playful duel that slowly turns tragic. The light-hearted violin filigree eventually gives way to low orchestral hammer blows, marking the dramatic death of Juliet’s cousin.

The MSO handled the suite’s tragic end beautifully. Stringing together the delicate high strings and the arresting low brass, the orchestra weaved both love and sadness into the musical fabric of the final scene.

In contrast to their normal program order, the MSO ended their program with a concerto—Brahms’s Piano Concerto No. 2, performed by Emanuel Ax. Though it is one of the longest concertos in the repertoire, the performance was so riveting it seemed to have flown by.

Although Brahms composed the concerto for himself as soloist, Ax performed is as if it were written for him, displaying an intimacy with the work that shone through his expressive rendering of some of the most complex figures.

Ax and the MSO formed a vibrant dialogue over the course of the work, balancing each other. Piano entrances seemed to grow out organically from the orchestral milieu, and often times, the orchestra presented a theme before the soloist.

In the third movement, the piano cedes the spotlight to an introspective cello solo, brilliantly delivered by principal cellist Karl Lavine. Brahms later sets the cello melody to song about approaching death, “Immer leiser wird mein Schlummer” ("Even fainter grows my slumber"). Musicologists often draw a connection to Clara Schumman, the subject of Brahms’s affection, because the dialogue between cello and piano resembles that of her own piano concerto. Perhaps this slow movement was Brahms’s way of reflecting on his forbidden love.

Ax seemed at home in Overture Hall among the MSO. As the orchestra entered with the last return of the theme in the final movement, Ax pumped his arm with excitement as the violins took the melody over from him. For his last curtain call, Ax pulled Lavine out from behind the piano to join him, raising Lavine’s hand and bowing together—a gracious entertainer through and through.

As icing on the cake, Ax delivered an encore—a mesmerizing rendition of Chopin’s Nocturne No. 5 in F-Sharp Major. A sweet end to a delicious concert.

Rob Thomas is the features editor and social media editor for the Capital Times, as well as its film critic. He joined the Cap Times in 1999 and has written about movies, music, food and books.