John DeMain and the Madison Symphony Orchestra’s Sunday afternoon concert "Beyond the Score: Mendelssohn Symphony No. 4: Why Italy?," provided audience members with a warm and jubilant respite from the cold and snowy Madison weekend.
It was also an innovative way to conceive of the concert-going experience altogether.
From incorporating repertoire outside of the classical canon to inviting community members to perform on stage, professional orchestras have attempted many ways of redefining the standard classical music concert. Beyon the Score appeals to the most fundamental medium of human entertainment: storytelling. The concert series is a production of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and the MSO has incorporated it as an additional concert to their calendar for the past few seasons to the delight of their viewership.
Beyond the Score concerts break with the form of the standard symphony orchestra concert and focus on a single featured piece. In the first act, actors take on the roles of historical figures (such as the featured composer) and narrate the history of the piece, defining relevant terms, providing context, and discussing some of the music’s most salient features.
At significant moments, the orchestra chimes in with musical excerpts supporting the actors’ descriptions while images of the people, places, and portions of the score are projected behind them. All of this serves to enhance the audience’s listening of the featured work in the second act.
For this Beyond the Score, the MSO chose Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 4, often referred to as his “Italian Symphony.” True to the title, Mendelssohn began work on this symphony in Italy on his “Grand Tour” (a trip around Europe taken by wealthy young men to celebrate completing their formal education). There, the pastoral countryside and lively urban lifestyle inspired him to write this most lively composition.
The three members of the American Players Theater who joined the MSO on stage—Nate Burger, Sarah Day, and Jonathan Smoots—each brought their own voice to the performance. Burger, who played the composer, was especially captivating in his readings of Mendelssohn’s letters. Joined by images of Italy and the individuals relevant to the symphony’s history, the actors transported the audience to nineteenth-century Italy, where we were given a glimpse into Mendelssohn’s life.
Classical musicians are often compared to poets, painters, and sculptures, but perhaps a more appropriate analogue would be archaeologists. As archaeologists do with an artifact, classical musicians reconstruct a score originally created for a time past, and Beyond the Score is a perfect venue to excavate its contemporaneous meaning. In recounting of the historical context of the work in the first act, the audience hears in in the second act with enlightened ears, able to listen for evidence of musical ideas through time.
I was most intrigued by the history of the symphony’s composition and subsequent recomposition. Narrated by the APT actors, the orchestra performed portions of early renditions, edits, and cuts made to Mendelssohn’s score, offering insight into the compositional choices of the composer. Much to my delight, these excerpts were often accompanied by artistically animated images of the score so that music nerds (such as myself) were entertained by matching sound to image.
As intended, it was satisfying to hear what had been mentioned in the first act play out in the full work, much like discovering musical Easter Eggs. These connections were made all the more vivid by the MSO’s vivacious performance, which remained true to Mendelssohn’s claim that this was “the most sportive piece” he had written.
From the start of the first movement, the MSO maneuvered the work’s quick rhythms with precision. Demain maintained lively tempos throughout, particularly in the final movement, the Salterello, its lively dance rhythms proving an exciting challenge for the orchestra’s players for which they were well-suited.
While the galloping first movement and the energetic finale are often the highlights of this work, the MSO’s rendering of the Con moto moderato third movement stood out for its vibrant timbral coloring. Its minuet flowed seamlessly into the trio while also providing expressive sonic contrast.