Olga Kern

Olga Kern, pianist, performs with the Madison Symphony Orchestra this weekend.

Once in a while a piece of music gets under my skin and threatens to take up residence just beneath my sternum, where it can churn and push and threaten to metaphorically crack my chest open with aching and tenderness.

I mean this in the best possible sense — it's a reminder that great performances can thrust us beyond pleasantries into the beauty and messiness of human experience.

Kudos to John DeMain and the Madison Symphony Orchestra for one of those great performances Friday night at Overture Hall.

The symphony's latest program, "The Russian Spirit," is comprised of Tchaikovsky's Suite from Swan Lake, Rachmaninoff's Concerto No. 1 for Piano and Shostakovich's Symphony No. 6.

The first two pieces did their job, summoning the elements that the title is supposed to evoke: melodrama, grandeur, scale. But it was the Shostakovich that really got to me.

Opening with the "Swan" Lake suite settled the audience in familiar territory, and the orchestra seemed to be having fun.

Oboist Marc Fink played the famed opening solo beautifully; John Aley (trumpet) had a number of loping, almost comedic solos in the Waltz and the Spanish Dance. The wind section as a whole handled a number of tricky, off-kilter entrances with grace.

Concertmaster Naha Greenholtz had a lovely, tragic solo during the "Pas d'action" (a duet between Odette and prince Siegfried). In general, the violins were terrific, shifting from a covered, almost shady tone in the Waltz to a bright shine elsewhere.

The star of the concert was pianist Olga Kern, who played the Rachmaninoff. Her performance was big and glamorous.

She handled the mountains of passage work without seeming at all fazed, and was equally at home in the dense chordal passages and the rich, romantic melodies.

Her performance certainly satisfied those itching for glitter and brilliance. For the most part the orchestra kept up their end of the job, though there were a number of times when Kern was blazing through the material that the orchestra faltered a bit before finding Kern's tempo.

Now to that Shostakovich symphony.

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Shostakovich composed the sixth during the few years immediately following a scandal that permanently altered his career, a period when Stalin's bureaucracy was especially terrifying and Shostakovich had lost many close people to the regime.

To my ears, one cannot help but hear resonances of that climate in this work. It is characterized throughout by an interplay between passages that are aching — often with a sense of torture, but sometimes with something beautiful — and a kind of cold steeliness that feels like an act of surveillance over the whole thing.

Toward the end of the first movement (Largo), for instance, anguished chordal passages in the mid-range instruments sit uneasily atop a cold, interminable trill that goes on and on in the high strings and xylophone.

The second movement (Allegro) similarly oscillates seamlessly between exuberance and terror, the latter communicating a sense of self-consciousness, of being observed.

And the third movement — Presto — has a sense of liveliness and music fountaining forth; sometimes it is spring emerging after winter, but sometimes the energy comes from being relentlessly pursued.

It's a tough piece to listen to, as many commentators have noticed before. Dense and mercurial, it describes conditions of suffering.

But DeMain led the orchestra in an affecting, humane performance. I am immensely appreciative to those musicians who provided such a moving experience.