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MSO: Weber, Grieg, Wagner, Ravel

Weber: Overture to Oberon
Grieg: Piano Concerto in A Minor
Wagner: Prelude to Tristan and Isolde
Ravel: Daphnis and Chloe Suite No. 2

Madison Symphony Orchestra
Santiago Rodriguez, piano
Roland Johnson, conductor


Roland Johnson closed out the regular subscription season of the Madison Symphony Orchestra at the Oscar Mayer Theater Saturday evening with a terrific performance of Ravel's Daphnis and Chloe Suite No. 2. And that wasn't the only good thing about this concert, which had got off to a rather rough start, I thought. The opening piece, Weber's Overture to "Oberon", never came together with respect to ensemble, and oddly enough this time the winds joined the strings in occasionally wavering from the pitch. It's a quite spirited piece that never quite got in the spirit, so I was at first concerned about the rest of the program, which would present far greater challenges to both conductor and players. I needn't have worried; things improved with the appearance of the evening's soloist, pianist Santiago Rodriguez.

Johnson has always had a special talent for supporting soloists, I think, and he was especially attentive to Rodriguez's somewhat rubato reading of the Grieg Piano Concerto in A Minor. Rodriguez is a first-rate, highly accurate young virtuoso. In addition to his cleanly articulated finger technique, he amply demonstrated a strong and sensitive lyrical sense. Though the piece itself is not quite first-rate, it has long been popular with audiences. It's a good vehicle for pianists wishing to display their wares, for it sounds big and flashy without actually being all that hard to play, save for a couple tricky figures here and there. Programmed to mark Grieg's 150th anniversary, the concerto made a satisfying close to the first half of the evening and earned the soloist enthusiastic applause.

The second half was really quite a lot better. I can't think of an earlier occasion when I've seen Johnson be as outwardly emotional in his performance of a piece as he was in Wagner's Prelude to "Tristan and Isolde". My surmise is that the piece (the opera, not the prelude per se) has a special significance for him. This guess is supported by what I felt to be a notable restraint in his reading of the lavishly rich orchestration, as though its aching succession of harmonic and dynamic climaxes, should they get out of hand, would somehow sweep him away. He seemed visibly moved when he turned to face the audience at the work's conclusion.

No such reserve was evident, however, in his remarkable performance of the Ravel. For both orchestra and conductor, it is a fiendishly complicated and demanding work. Ravel builds up massive timbral color and texture by successively accreting myriad tiny details, sometimes with inordinately complex rhythmic devices and, at the level of any single instrument, very subtle dynamic effects. Simply put, in Ravel's large-orchestra works, like the suites from the ballet Daphnis and Chloe, there's a tremendous amount of playing going on, in soft passages as much as in louder ones.

Cast in three movements, the Suite No. 2 opens with a section called "Daybreak," in which the lulling, watery coolness of night gives way to the dazzling brightness of morning. In the ballet, the second section, "Pantomime," with its gorgeous flute solo, accompanies the lovers as they enact the mythic story of Syrinx and Pan. The final "General Dance," with its unusual 5/4 gait, builds up from an elegant, graceful beginning to a nearly frantic tumult at its clangorous close. In response to wild applause, the orchestra repeated this final movement as an encore. Johnson's earlier introspection yielded to evident pleasure as he blew his players a kiss and directed the audience's appreciation to them.

It's an enjoyment they all richly deserved, for I think it was the most outstanding single performance I've heard from Johnson and the MSO. Bravi tutti, gentlemen, brave tutte, ladies, and thank you very much.

Isthmus, May, 1993
Copyright 1993 Jess Anderson

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