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MSO: Mozart, Honneger, Ott, Mendelssohn

Mozart: Symphony No. 32 in G Major, K. 318
Honneger: Summer Pastorale
David Ott: Concerto for Two Cellos and Orchestra (1987)
Mendelssohn: Symphony No. 4 in A Major

Madison Symphony Orchestra
Warren Downs, cello
Parry Karp, cello
Roland Johnson, conductor


Roland Johnson conducted the Madison Symphony's Chamber Orchestra concert at the Civic Center Saturday evening, highlighting David Ott's Concerto for Two Cellos and Orchestra, written in 1987 and premiered the following year. The soloists were the MSO's principal cellist, Warren Downs, and the cellist of the Pro Arte Quartet, Parry Karp. A native of Janesville and alumnus of UW-Platteville, Ott is quoted in the program notes as having rejected serialism and post-serialism in favor of "the pre-1945 strain of composition -- Shostakovich, Stravinsky, Copland, [and] Bernstein," an aesthetic that strikes me as a bit strange, given the historical importance of Schoenberg. Shostakovich appears to have been the primary sound-picture animating this double concerto, particularly in matters of solo line and orchestral colorations. The concerto offers expressive lyrical opportunities, lots of virtuoso display, and a certain amount of dialog. Bearing in mind that a first hearing is slim evidence for grand conclusions about either the work or the composer, my impression was that neither is first-rate.

Set in three movements, the work begins with a long excursion of the two solo cellos, the strongest music in the entire piece, I thought. To say the least, Downs and Karp played entirely competently. But after the opening, the rest of the work seemed less like a concerto than two separate pieces being played simultaneously -- one an orchestral work that would have been better without the interference of the cellos, the other a two-cello piece that would have been better without the intrusions of the orchestra. The climax of the first movement is so enormous that anything further from the soloists amounts to an anticlimax. With two movements to go, this doesn't seem a wise plan. The second movement, indeed, seemed to wander without much clear purpose, and the final movement, with the exception of an interesting long cadenza, was given over to largely empty virtuosity. The end result, then, was a group of missed potentials, a less than clear formal organization, and a somewhat derivative sound. I found the work as a whole flawed and unsatisfying.

Arthur Honneger's 1920 symphonic poem, Summer Pastorale, preceded the cello concerto. I'd not heard this work before, either. It's a fine short piece, well made, very adroitly orchestrated, and in keeping with its title, relaxed and gentle. It was here the orchestra acheived its best playing of the evening, though that old bugbear, intonation in the violins, once again made a small showing.

More classical, Italianate repertory both opened and closed the program. Mozart's Symphony No. 32 in G Major is an opera overture, framing a lovely andante with two spirited allegros of characteristic thematic and rhythmic vigor. The ensemble was fairly good and the intonation slips not too wild. Alas, the same cannot be said for the performance of Mendelssohn's Symphony No. 4 in A Major. Here both ensemble and intonation were occasionally in serious disarray in three of the four movements. Mendelssohn has always been s bit of a problem. Though he was obviously enormously gifted and excellent in his crafting of the music, it seldom adds up to something terribly interesting. The Italian Symphony is no exception. Its best movement is the andante con moto, which sounds for all the world like a premonition of things to come much later in the 19th century, a scene from Verdi in which villains are going about in the night, with consequences soon to be dire.

Well, this concert didn't involve villains, and the consequences were surely better than dire. A full house enjoyed it. But the whole thing could have been a lot better.

Isthmus, January, 1993
Copyright 1993 Jess Anderson

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