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MSO: Brahms

Brahms: Ein Deutsches Requiem, Op. 45
Brahms: Symphony No. 1 in C Minor, Op. 68

Madison Symphony Orchestra
Madison Symphony Chorus
Debra Hogan, soprano
James Delmer, baritone
Roland Johnson, conductor


Amid thunderous sustained applause at the conclusion of the program Saturday evening, Roland Johnson took his baton from the music stand and placed it on the conductor's platform, metaphorically and literally passing the Madison Symphony Orchestra to his successor. Apart from that gesture and an enormous bouquet of flowers, one might have thought it was just another concert, rather than a landmark occasion. In an important sense, it was: the main thing was the music and the playing of it. Both were very beautiful, and that, indeed, was the real tribute as Johnson stepped down after 33 years of being the orchestra's music director.

The program was outwardly simple: two pieces by Brahms, both very well known, the German Requiem and the Symphony No. 1, each enormous, each a major challenge to perform. Therein lies the complexity of the event. The Madison Symphony Chorus (more than 160 strong), two soloists, and a larger than normal orchestra, jammed into every nook of the Oscar Mayer Theatre's stage, is a lot to handle, especially in a work as immense and varied as the Requiem, which takes well over an hour to perform. Especially demanding is preserving the intimate, personal nature of the text and the delicacy of the music while commanding such a massive instrument, and this Johnson managed with great skill and a sensitivity that can only be called loving.

Soprano Debra Hogan's voice, with a fairly wide vibrato, was not my own ideal for this work, for it did not achieve the ethereal, soaring quality it takes to sustain feelings of nurture and comfort as one moves away from this life. Baritone James Delmer's voice was more nearly in line with what the part requires, but he too lacked intimacy and warmth in keeping with the text. By contrast, the chorus, though singing in German, seemed to flow smoothly and flexibly with every shift of dynamics, rhythm, and character in the text and music. In any case, the music is so overwhelmingly lovely that neither soloists nor choral singers can help but succeed.

Success on a grand scale is the only way to characterize the performance of the First Symphony. Back for a final stint as concertmaster, Norman Paulu led the violins in the most in-tune playing I've ever heard from the MSO, as well as offering solo playing quite the equal of any I've heard. Indeed, solo playing in the context of a large orchestra is one thing central to this giant work, beginning with 50-some timpany strokes and leading on to major roles for oboe, clarinet, flute, and above all horns. On this occasion, oboeist Marc Fink and clarinetist Linda Bartley went far beyond mere excellence. The MSO is certainly blessed in the wind division, and not least in the five horns, led by Douglas Hill, who played brilliantly. Johnson, true to his own prediction, took a relaxed, confident line in managing the many subtleties and flexibilities the work requires.

This last provides a key to the whole concert, I think. Johnson and his players did their job and did it very well. There was no great drama and no empty hype of the occasion, as one might have expected. Rather, they played their hearts out, just as they should for any concert, for every concert. If there was anything out of the ordinary, it would be that Johnson leaves the podium and delivers up to his successor, John DeMain, the best orchestra the town has ever had. That should make anyone proud, I think.

Isthmus, May, 1994
Copyright 1994 Jess Anderson

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