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MSO: Bach, Krol, Bolcom, Mendelssohn, Haydn

J. S. Bach: Brandenburg Concerto No. 1 in F Major
Berhard Krol: Magnificat Variations for Bach Trumpet and Strings, Op. 40
William Bolcom: Commedia for 18th-Century Orchestra
Mendelssohn: Incidental Music to A Midsummer Night's Dream
Haydn: Symphony No. 104 in D Major

Madison Symphony Orchestra
John Aley, trumpet
Roland Johnson, conductor


One of Madison's brightest-sounding instrumentalists, trumpeter John Aley, joined the Madison Symphony Orchestra (here reduced to chamber-orchestra size) Saturday evening at the Oscar Mayer Theatre for a very impressive performance of a somewhat problematic work. The program as a whole was quite good. Opening with J. S. Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 1 in F Major, conductor Roland Johnson paced his scaled-down forces through the well-known piece at crisp but not forced tempos. The work features very demanding horn, oboe, and violin solos. The winds managed this with aplomb, but concertmaster Tyrone Grieve had trouble with adequate forcefulness and some of the passagework. It continues to be a great pity that a continuo harpsichord is not readily available for this repertory, because it would have considerably starched up the sometimes limp bass line throughout this work.

The major problem with Berhard Krol's Magnificat Variations for Bach Trumpet and Strings, Op. 40 certainly had nothing to do with Aley's solo playing. Using the high-pitched "piccolo" trumpet to attain the stratosphere of the brass range, Aley tossed off the difficult part with evident ease. Though the louder sections of the piece revealed how poorly high brass sound blends with string sound, the very soft playing -- much more difficult than the loud kind -- was simply a marvel of delicacy and beauty. The work itself, though, despite having an engaging concept derived from a major theme in Bach's Magnificat, doesn't succeed very well. By far its strongest aspect, the solo line alternately scurries and floats along, while the accompanying strings contrast or compete in fairly unfocused ways. The variations don't seem to have a clear organizing principle to tie them in orderly sequence. It's apparently a random amalgam of ideas without much sense of form. In sum, a good vehicle for a fabulous soloist, but not much else.

Far more engaging as contemporary repertory was William Bolcom's Commedia for (almost) 18th-Century Orchestra, a highly entertaining pastiche in all manner of styles. Bolcom is a consummate orchestrator, piling up and letting trickle away enormous masses of unusual sound and rhythm. The work emphasizes the humorous aspect of its title, chiefly through dialog between an offstage string group and the bigger band on stage.

Two sections from Mendelssohn's Incidental Music to "A Midsummer Night's Dream", the Nocturne and Scherzo, opened the second half of the concert. Strangely, there were ensemble problems in the Nocturne. The famous Scherzo was properly dashing and crisp.

The major offering was Haydn's Symphony No. 104 in D Major, surely one of the great works in the Classical period's long list of masterpieces. Johnson seated his players on a plan used in London in Haydn's day, splitting the string voices to either side of the conductor. This split gives a distinctly unusual acoustic impression, blending the orchestra's sections in a novel way. A hallmark of this symphony, indeed of much Haydn, is truly lovely writing for winds. Fortunately, some of the strongest musicians in our orchestra are wind players. Overall, the performance was a good one, marred only by some faulty intonation in the violins early on.

The nearly full house reacted to all the music, apart from Aley, with what felt to me like too much reserve. Perhaps they missed the other half of the Madison Symphony Orchestra's regular complement, but there is so much great repertory that would be ruined by the full-sized group. That makes these chamber concerts particularly valuable, I think. Small forces are also ideal for much new music. There should be many more chamber-orchestra concerts.

Isthmus, January, 1992
Copyright 1992 Jess Anderson

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