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MSO: Mozart, Bernstein, Mahler

Mozart: Ave verum corpus, K. 618
Bernstein: Chichester Psalms (1965)
Mahler: Symphony No. 1 in D Major

Madison Symphony Orchestra
Madison Symphony Chorus
Andrew Morgan, treble
John DeMain, conductor


If anyone has been holding back support or enthusiasm for the new direction the Madison Symphony Orchestra might take under the musical guidance of John DeMain, right now is the time to get over it! The MSO's gala inaugural concert at the Oscar Mayer Theatre Saturday evening was by any reckoning an artistic triumph of the first magnitude. The orchestra itself has changed: its players, old and new alike, seem to have a new attitude of dedication to professionalism. The programming concept and execution are different, combining and presenting repertory old and new with a boldness and confidence that have not been realized before. Audience interaction too seemed different, with greater attention and concentration on the music than in the past. Then there was the performance itself, which was magnificent. Though I tend to distrust the star concept, there can be no doubt that the chief focus and principal agent of all this very positive change is John DeMain himself.

I think what we have in DeMain is a highly skilled, superbly trained musician of great imagination, animated by considerable theatrical experience, and sensibly aware of what will work in our own times. He expects no compromise in the quality of the playing, and standing backstage after the concert I overheard more than one player comment that DeMain makes them want to play their best, or maybe even a little better than that! DeMain is properly concerned that people should understand how changes in MSO personnel for the new season occurred. The auditions he and the principal chairs recently conducted were voluntary, not required. Replacements have come about as a result of elective retirement and normal attrition and the recruitment of talented newcomers. In addition, DeMain believes in concentrating rehearsal time in the final week prior to a concert date, a scheduling feature that can be difficult to coordinate with other demands in a player's life. The main thing, of course, is that it has all worked out quite well, and the proof was there to be heard in the music.

Mozart's brief motet Ave verum corpus, K. 618 (1791) shares with his other late works an appearance of outward simplicty that in fact masks an underlying sophistication in every musical dimension. The Madison Symphony Chorus showed steadiness of pitch and clarity of diction several notches higher than their previous standard. The muted strings were virtually flawless, and the whole was characterized by a delicacy of nuance that was, simply, sublime.

In a lightning bolt of programming imagination, DeMain held off applause at the end of the Mozart by the force of his up-raised arm and launched without pause into the crashing opening bars of Bernstein's Chichester Psalms (1965). The effect was startling, but it made good expressive sense -- this performance was DeMain's memorial tribute to the composer, and the Hebrew psalms coming on the very tail of Mozart's Latin text (in mortis examine) underscored this reverence. The Bernstein work is quite difficult to perform cleanly; not only are there a lot of notes and constantly changing rhythms, but there was the extra challenge of singing in Hebrew, which both the chorus and the alto soloist Andrew Morgan carried off skillfully. Morgan's clear treble voice was slightly amplified to help it balance the larger-scale sound of chorus and orchestra.

Practical reasons alone may explain why this was the first MSO performance ever of Mahler's Symphony No. 1 in D Major (1888): it calls for unusual forces, including expanded percussion with two full sets of tympani, eight horns, four clarinets, three flutes, and so on. One could single out quite a number of first-rate individual performances in the course of the 40-minute work, but what counts in the end is the total effect, and to bring that off successfully, DeMain had to steer his huge instrumental armada through the troubling seas of constantly shifting tempi, rhythms, textures, and dynamics, all the while maintaining a steady course toward the fulfillment of Mahler's expressive intent. That he did so with supreme fluidity and flexibility, yet without once abandoning firm command, is convincing evidence, I think, of his talent and his thorough preparation of the monumental score.

As for the orchestra, they have given fine performances in the past, to be sure. But not like this one; to be candid, I was not quite prepared for how good the playing would be. If you love fine music, don't miss out: the next MSO concert is October 15. The short report on this first chapter of the MSO's new era is: ohmygod, he's done it! Bravo, Maestro, and well done, everyone.

Isthmus, September, 1994
Copyright 1994 Jess Anderson

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