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MSO: Britten, Mozart, Rachmaninoff

Britten: Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes, Op. 33
Mozart: Concerto in C Major for Flute, Harp and Orchestra, K. 297c
Rachmaninoff: Symphonic Dances, Op. 45

Madison Symphony Orchestra
Carol Wincenc, flute
Nancy Allen, harp
John DeMain, conductor


With John DeMain once again at the helm, the Madison Symphony Orchestra continued its subscription season at the Oscar Mayer Theatre Saturday evening with excellent playing by orchestra and soloists alike, but with a program that to my mind did not hang together especially well.

Each of the four movements of Benjamin Britten's Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes, Op. 33 presents another aspect of England's greatest composer since Henry Purcell. Purely orchestral evocations of the unique weather that is Britain demand consummate timbral and rhythmic bravura, items that surely are the special genius of Britten, whose management of lyricism and massive waves of sound is always exciting to witness. From a conducting point of view the work is incredibly difficult, its complex textures and shifting rhythms requiring intense concentration and very quick cueing. DeMain's skill and inspiration in this regard were brilliantly displayed.

The first problem with the program itself came next. Mozart's Concerto in C Major for Flute, Harp and Orchestra, K. 297c afforded soloists Carol Wincenc (flute) and Nancy Allen (harp) a more than sufficient vehicle for showing their talents. Not to slight Wincenc at all, Allen played with a most extraordinary attention to clear lines and dynamic shading. Thought its outer movements are not the strongest of Mozart's achievements, the suave and sophisticated harmonies of the slow movement (andantino) more than sustain the whole. The soloists were called back to the stage for an encore, Jacques Ibert's very flashy, Spanish-style Entr'acte, beautifully played.

And now the second problem. After scaling back the huge orchestra of the opening work to the strings plus two oboes and two horns required for the Mozart, the post-intermission ensemble was again back to massive proportions for the final work, Rachmaninoff's Symphonic Dances, Op. 45. This is a very unusual piece, utterly lacking in outward formalisms, built up instead as a sequence of great blocks of rhythmic and orchestrational devices. One effect is to make the work seem longer than it is, which is long enough. Like the Britten, the Rachmaninoff is a conductor's piece: it offers countless opportunities to display a large repertory of gestures, though all of them are necessary to keep the vast work from falling apart. Typical of the demand this work places on the conductor was the waltz movement, with every tempo and character one can imagine encountering in triple time. Though there was much good playing, for example oboe solos by Marc Fink, I was at first startled to hear really gorgeous saxophone sound until I looked up and noticed Les Thimmig, who is a world-class virtuoso on that whole family of instruments.

As I was driving home after the concert, I realized that my whole problem with the program was about form. Poor Mozart, squeezed between two works for mammoth forces, and especially followed by the somewhat shapeless mass of the Rachmaninoff piece. I really wanted a more classical work at the end, something with sonata form in it, perhaps a symphony of Schubert or even Schumann. I should add that the capacity audience did not share my reservations, for they shouted and clapped with enthusiasm at the conclusion of the program.

Isthmus, February, 1995
Copyright 1995 Jess Anderson

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