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MSO: Stewart Wallace's "Kaddish for Harvey Milk"

Haydn: Symphony No. 101 in D Major
Richard Strauss: Concerto in D Major for Oboe and Small Orchestra
Stewart Wallace: Kaddish for Harvey Milk

Madison Symphony Orchestra
Madison Symphony Chorus
Jill Grove, mezzo-soprano
Randall Wong, soprano
Kurt Ollman, baritone
John DeMain, conductor


A nearly full house was on hand Saturday evening to hear John DeMain conduct the Madison Symphony Orchestra in an intensely passionate performance that showcased the highly successful premiere of a new work commissioned for the MSO, Stewart Wallace's "Kaddish for Harvey Milk."

Even the opening adagio of Haydn's "Symphony No. 101 in D Major" for me presaged things to come, echoing strongly the yawning void that begins his "Creation," sounds that suggest the unrolling of Fate, suffused with elements of deep faith in the ancient texts. The clarity of tempo and articulation in the Haydn symphony as a whole was a vivid testament to the huge progress our orchestra has made in the DeMain years: perfect ensemble and intonation, and evident enjoyment in making music. Truly a marvel.

The Strauss "Concerto in D Major for Oboe and Small Orchestra," with Marc Fink as soloist, contrasted structurally with the Haydn. Its lyrical long lines merge with a largely orchestral texture, rather than offering extended passages of soloistic brilliance. The concerto was very beautifully played, and to be sure there were a few brief passages of great technical difficulty. It's an understatement to call Fink a great master of his instrument.

In 1978, San Francisco Supervisor Dan White murdered Mayor Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk, the latter the first openly gay elected major public official in the country. The killings deeply shocked the lesbian, gay and bisexual communities, who had found in Milk a figure around whom to rally their hopes for a better tomorrow. Composer Stewart Wallace was commissioned by the Houston Grand Opera, the New York City Opera and the San Francisco Opera to write the opera "Harvey Milk." With a libretto by Michael Korie (both Wallace and Korie were on hand for the MSO concert), the opera premiered in Houston in early 1995, in Dortmund in early 1996, and in San Francisco this past November.

The Jewish prayer for the remembrance of the dead, "Kaddish," figures in fragmented form at the end of the opera. Collaborating with DeMain, Wallace and Korie expanded this close and combined the complete liturgical text with other elements to create a 30-minute work for three soloists, large chorus and orchestra, "Kaddish for Harvey Milk."

The piece is extremely complex and of near-terrifying intensity, vividly portraying violence, horror, and the deep wounding of the human spirit. Yet it is permeated with lyricism, with the yearning to be free.

Mezzo-soprano Jill Grove and male soprano Randall Wong, who created the operatic roles of Milk's friends Anne and Wong, were here to perform in the new work; both sang superbly. As the chorus intones the liturgical text, the friends recall the silent marches that filled all of San Francisco's Market Street while a Messenger (baritone Kurt Ollmann) sings of the higher purposes of hope and grief. Symbolizing the overwhelming feeling lodged in both music and text is the uplifting quotation: "In every generation there are those Just Few who stand for the sake of others, who follow the path of the sun to its end and come to the mountain top singing." Amen.

Isthmus, February, 1997
Copyright 1997 Jess Anderson

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