When John DeMain takes the podium to conduct the Madison Symphony Orchestra's mid-winter concerts this weekend, the emphasis "will be on songs and singing," he says. Not in any way to slight Mozart's Overture to "The Impressario", an opera about dueling divas, or Mahler's joyful Symphony No. 4, in which soprano Helen Donath will sing the last movement's extended song, audience interest will probably gravitate toward David DiChiera's Four Sonnets of Edna St. Vincent Millay. Somewhat in keeping with the impressario aspect of the Mozart, composer DiChiera is now the founding general director of the highly successful Michigan Opera Theater in Detroit.
Donath and the MSO will present the premiere performance of the DiChiera work, written in 1965 for voice and piano, in a setting for voice and orchestra by composer Steven Mercurio, commissioned by the MSO. Based on the texts of the songs, which come from Millay's collections of 1917 and 1922, the work is intensely emotional, suffused with a spirit of living on the edge, shaded with nostalgia and love's regrets.
Donath has performed the songs many times in their piano version. DeMain describes the music as "perhaps deceptively simple outwardly, but very beautifully set." As a general indicator of DiChiera's musical style, DeMain characterizes it as "lyrically conservative, a romantic language in post-impressionist idiom." This past fall, Donath and the composer received a very enthusiastic review in The Washington Post after a performance of the cycle in the U.S. capital.
Mahler's 4th symphony is the shortest (about an hour) of his works in this form. It is also arguably the most cheerful and upbeat of his symphonies. DeMain observes that "The 4th closes Mahler's early period, to be followed by purely orchestral style."
The concerts are Saturday, Jan. 31, at 8:00 p.m. and Sunday, Feb. 1, at 2:30 p.m. in the Oscar Mayer Theater at the Madison Civic Center.
Isthmus, January, 1998
Copyright 1998 Jess Anderson