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MSO: Mozart, St.-Saens, Kodaly

Mozart: Symphony No. 38 in D Major, K. 504
St.-Saëns: Piano Concerto No. 4 in C Minor, Op. 44
Kodály: Suite from Háry János (1927)

Madison Symphony Orchestra
Awadagin Pratt, piano
Laurence Kaptain, cimbalom
John DeMain, conductor


With John DeMain on the podium and the exciting young pianist Awadagin Pratt as soloist, the Madison Symphony Orchestra presented its second concert of the season Saturday evening at the Oscar Mayer Theatre. To my ears, the event was solidly on track, continuing the MSO's precipitous rise in the level of its playing and programming.

Mozart's Symphony No. 38 in D Major, K. 504 opened the program. As befits such a serious work, DeMain was subtle and extremely careful in his conception, maintaining tight control of his players but always yielding to the opportunity to nuance the awesome beauty points that abound in the symphony's three movements. The smooth opening adagio gives way to an allegro that was crisp and exceptionally clean. The ensemble and dynamic management were flawless. In the second movement (andante), the unusually long line of the primary theme afforded impressive melodic phrasing and full exposition of its amazing harmonic development. A very fleet presto concludes the work; there was especially fine wind playing, though I am glad to say the string playing has reached a higher standard than ever before.

In St.-Saëns Piano Concerto No. 4 in C Minor, Op. 44 Pratt gave what can only be called a totally committed performance, which while it was not flawless technically, was at all times intense almost to the point of being overwhelming. Winner of the 1992 Naumberg competition, Pratt is does not yet have a fully finished piano technic, but from the several incandescent flashes this performance afforded, it's clearly just a matter of time. Music is one of those arts that requires 20 to 30 years of performing before greatness fully emerges. What Pratt already has, I think, is a clear concept of the grandeur of the instrument, how to make it sound immense and powerful. He has as well an evident sense of lyricism that nicely complements his enormous strength. Plagued by occasional memory slips and fluffed passagework, he nevertheless remained right on course. These accidents stop your heart if you know the score, so it's an enormous relief when it all comes out well, which it certainly did. The audience response, an immediate standing ovation, was in my view entirely appropriate. Promise on the scale this fellow has should receive any and all forms of encouragement.

The concluding piece, Kodály's Suite from Háry János (1927), with cimbalom soloist Laurence Kaptain, is drawn from Kodály's Hungarian folk opera written the previous year. The music follows the improbable antics of the opera's main character, who single-handedly defeats Napolean. And indeed the score is loaded with musical antics and good humor. But it is also incredibly difficult, and as in the Mozart -- how could two pieces be more different? -- DeMain was in complete control, mastering its whirling melange of styles and characters with apparent ease. One must also mention really outstanding wind and percussion playing, which figure prominently in two of the suite's six movements. The cimbalom, a type of large hammered dulcimer popular in Hungarian folk music, has a major role in the piece and added its exotic echoes to the general pandemonium.

In all, another first-rate concert for the new MSO. I couldn't be more delighted.

Isthmus, October, 1994
Copyright 1994 Jess Anderson

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