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MSO John DeMain (copy)

DeMain opened the 2015-16 MSO season by featuring the orchestra itself, drawing the concerto soloist from within its ranks and choosing repertoire that truly let the individual sections shine.

By the end of the Madison Symphony Orchestra’s season opening concert, conductor John DeMain seemed both proud of his orchestra and tired. Both of these were fairly earned: his orchestra worked hard and they worked well.

Where most symphony concerts feature famed international soloists, DeMain opened the 2015-16 MSO season by featuring the orchestra itself, drawing the concerto soloist from within its ranks and choosing repertoire that truly let the individual sections shine.

The concert-opening Leonore Overture No. 3 is one of several overtures Beethoven composed for Fidelio, his only opera. It’s an unusual overture in the way it balances a pervasive sweetness with the more common 19th century tendency toward triumphalism, and it was lovely to hear the orchestra handle that kind of emotionalism with subtlety.

Section chair Joseph Morris performed Aaron Copland’s Concerto for Clarinet. Commissioned by Benny Goodman, the concerto’s two movements are performed without stopping and are connected to one another by an extended cadenza.

The first movement is almost meditative. The prominently featured harp sets up the orchestra to mark time quietly as the clarinet’s ribbon-like solo floats over the top, traveling through unexpected intervals but doing so in such an unhurried fashion that it all feels rather relaxed.

Joseph Morris, clarinet

Clarinetist Joseph Morris 

During the cadenza, though, that ribbon of sound metamorphosizes into a forceful, punctuated portrait of modernity itself. This gives way to the second movement’s blending of tropes from jazz, Latin American music, and then-modern trends in art music.

Morris’ performance was by turns subtle and fierce. The string orchestra supported him ably, though by the end of the piece I wanted them to push even harder, matching the almost smeared quality of his sound with something a little grittier.

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Tchaikovsky’s fourth symphony is a monster of a piece — long and complex, with themes that are sometimes rhythmically off-kilter, sometimes so forceful that they seem about to smother the listener. At times it nearly drips in 19th century romanticism, but in other moments a 21st century listener might want to hear the impossible: tinges of some of the musical experimentalism of, say, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (not literally, of course, but in terms of quality of disorientation) or the conflict between the individual and institutional power that is so forcefully brought to light in Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony (which the orchestra played in its 2014-15 season).

The symphony opens with the call of the fates, manifested as a horrible brass fanfare and ends with a kind of triumphalism (not so different from that of the Beethoven overture). In between the fates tangle again and again with curious, loping themes and the obsessive return across all movements of dizzying little runs in the winds. It’s exhausting — and it’s never been clear to me who really wins in the end —but it is a gloriously interesting journey.

If DeMain’s goal was to feature his orchestra as an ensemble full of incredibly talented musicians, his choice of the Tchaikovsky fourth symphony served him well. It’s a piece beloved by wind players for their prominent role, and all members of those sections performed beautifully — special praise goes to the section chairs. The brass get the emotionally tough role of the fates but, again, they were extraordinarily convincing.

If this concert sets the pace for the season, then we’re off to a good start.