James Ehnes

Soloist James Ehnes’s encore, Eugène Ysäye’s Violin Sonata No. 3, was perhaps the highlight of the concert.

Few concerts have left me with as big a smile on my face as the Madison Symphony Orchestra's Friday night performance, “Pictures at an Exhibition.” 

The first work on the program, John Harbison’s “The Most Often Used Chords,” was a delightful start to the show. Harbison, whom maestro John DeMain has called one of the great American composers, is celebrating his 80th birthday this year with countrywide performances. Several will be in Madison, including a world premiere of his Viola Sonata that features the Pro Arte Quartet’s Sally Chisholm on Feb. 17. 

During the school year Harbison is an Institute Professor at MIT, but in late summer Harbison hosts the famous Token Creek Music Festival with his wife Rose Mary Harbison, who grew up near Madison. They were both in attendance on Friday night, and during the Prelude Discussion, the composer offered some wonderful insight into the history of his clever piece.

“The Most Often Used Chords” was inspired by a music theory instruction guide Harbison came across in one of his spiral bound manuscript notebooks. Though such a guide is a vestige of early music manuscripts, Harbison reinvented its utility and treated some of its contents as objects for compositional exploration.

The first movement, for example, uses only the four basic types of harmonic triads (three note chords). That may sound like a limitation, but Harbison crafted an exciting musical excursion with a playful demeanor. Even those who are not “in” on the music theory jokes will find this work deeply entertaining.

About the Finale of the piece, Harbison has said, “I had a lot of fun with this one,” and it shows. Replete with a double fugue, a reference to Handel, and a romp around the “circle of fifths,” this movement kept the audience captivated and notably left smiles on the faces of the orchestra’s members.

For the second piece on the program, Brahms’s Violin Concerto, the MSO welcomed back recent Grammy Award winning violinist James Ehnes.

DeMain said after the first time he heard Ehnes play, he wanted him to return as often as possible. 

As is customary with concertos, the soloist performs a cadenza near the closing of the first movement. For this concert, Ehnes played the original cadenza that Joseph Joachim, the violinist for whom Brahms had originally composed the work, had written. The audience was so blown away by Ehnes’s mesmerizing solo that they were unable to refrain from applauding between movements.

Ehnes’s encore, Eugène Ysäye’s Violin Sonata No. 3, was perhaps the highlight of the concert. It is a ferociously difficult piece, and Ehnes performed it with poise and elegance. It begins with a single melodic line that unfolds into double and triple stop figures that display the player’s gymnastic abilities — a captivating sight.

The last piece on the program, Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition,” is programmatic, portraying the composer walking through the 1873 memorial exhibition of artist Victor Hartmann. Each movement of the piece sonically reconstructs a select work from the exhibition, separated by a recurring promenade theme, the signature of the piece.

Describing the listening experience, DeMain said, “the aural depiction of these paintings is so graphic and so imaginative. You can see the painting, you can create the painting, you can paint the painting when you’re listening to the music.”

This piece was particularly enhanced by J. Michael Allsen’s program notes, which described the pictures associated with each of Mussorgsky’s movements. It was endlessly entertaining to read about the pictures the composer had in mind and then try to imagine what they looked like.

Called on for some of the most difficult passages of “Pictures at an Exhibition,” the MSO’s brass section again proved its worth and then some, especially principal trumpeter John Aley. The section expertly performed some of the work’s most salient thematic material and added luscious coloring to the forming musical images. Altogether, the orchestra rendered a vibrant performance of the work, with great timbral and dynamic contrast.

Leaving Overture Hall, I found myself whistling the promenade theme. It was a lovely earworm souvenir from an outstanding concert.