Having worked up considerable momentum in its first season under the leadership of John DeMain, the Madison Symphony Orchestra is poised for another forward leap as it launches the 95-96 subscription series with a pair of concerts at the Civic Center Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon, the 23rd and 24th. The repertory for this program is also notable, for it includes not only a major symphonic work not heard during the 30-plus Roland Johnson years -- the Sibelius Second Symphony -- it also features the premiere of a new suite for chorus and orchestra by Daron Hagen, derived from his highly successful recent opera: Taliesin: Choruses from Shining Brow.
In addition, approximately 20 vacancies, including both replacements and a small expansion (two seats) in the first violins, have now mostly been filled by new auditions. "The pace has been slightly frenetic," allowed MSO General Manager Sandy Madden, "we've all been sort of on auto-pilot during a succession of 12-hour days." I was curious how the Hagen piece came to pass. Madden was mum on the subject of who and how much, but she did tell me the commission was underwritten by the gift of a single donor, for 15-25 minutes of music based on the opera, which received its first performance here in 1994. The new work, which lasts about 18 minutes, combines orchestral and choral segments with a brand-new closing section. "Parts of the music are very demanding to play" DeMain said, "especially the movement taken from the dramatic fire and murder scene." Based on what I heard at the first orchestral rehearsal, the work is a cinch to please the audience.
The Sibelius Second is also no mean feat as an undertaking. Outlining the structure of the 40-minute symphony, DeMain referred to its basically classical leitmotivic approach, superimposed on a Romantic idiom very much in the vein of Tchaikowsky and Rimsky-Korsakov, especially in its use of a strong brass section. "Its ideas are set on top of one another," he said, "and though he did not really know Finnish folk music, Sibelius intuitively captured the nationalistic ethos, associated with the awakening of a Finnish consciousness, episodic energetic outbursts contrasting with rural melancholy."
Artistically, DeMain noted, this season will likely be more challenging than the last. "We have created an expectation," he told his players at the rehearsal, "that will not be easy to live up to. It's going to be a lot of hard work, and some of the pieces on this year's schedule are especially difficult." The reference is to music from Romeo and Juliet by Berlioz, which guest conductor Joan Faletta has programmed in October, and to Bartok's whirling Dance Suite, which will be heard in November.
Behind the scenes, Madden and her staff are working feverishly to bring all the elements together to sustain and expand the MSO's progress. There remains the tantalizing prospect of a major new venue for acoustic concerts, as well as ongoing staff refinement and artistic development for the MSO organization. Audience anticipation for the new season seems to be running high, as Madden reports an unprecedented subscription rate for this year's series. DeMain echoed this promising development, though it remains to be seen whether support for the Sunday matinee performances will provide the hoped-for growth. The matinees will provide better seating at an overall lower cost than the larger Saturday night series. In addition, many potential new listeners who can't fit a Saturday evening into their schedule could attend on Sunday afternoon. It seems to me "poised" is exactly the right word at this juncture in the venerable institution's fast-moving life.
Isthmus, September, 1995
Copyright 1995 Jess Anderson