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MSO: Schermerhorn Conducts, with Ignat Solzhentsin, Piano

Barber: Overture to The School for Scandal
Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 25 in C Major, K. 503
Brahms: Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 73

Madison Symphony Orchestra
Ignat Solzhentsin, piano
Kenneth Schermerhorn, conductor


With its music director John DeMain in Australia conducting opera, the Madison Symphony Orchestra opened a new season Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon at the Civic Center under the baton of guest conductor Kenneth Schermerhorn, who played a good program of Barber, Mozart and Brahms. Schermerhorn conducted the first and last works from memory, a very impressive feat considering the complexity of the two pieces. Also very impressive was the soloist in the Mozart, Ignat Solzhenitsyn, who explored the elusive subtleties of the "Piano Concerto No. 25 in C Major, K. 503" with extraordinary sophistication and depth, not to mention flawless precision.

Schermerhorn's style of conducting is quite unlike DeMain's. Where the latter's primary force focuses on the baton, which he works in a relatively small space and shades with tightly controlled gestures involving mostly his left hand, Schermerhorn's baton is a less-controlling element as he shapes his intent with his entire upper body. This is usually called a "large" style; the point is not that it's better or worse, but only that it is very different, for musicians and audience alike. However, larger gives up a measure of close control over detail, and it's a compliment to our musicians that they have the training and discipline now to be faithful to a score's details within more than one conducting style.

As for the music itself, Barber's "Overture to the School for Scandal" is an uncommonly fine example of early-30's American music, his first completed orchestral score. It is crisp and bright and still sounds fresh nearly 65 years later. It was well played, with a very few small glitches here and there, a fine achievment, given its high degree of technical difficulty. The Sunday performance was to my ear more coherent, the whole more clearly embracing the parts.

Solzhenitsyn's performance was also warmer the second time around, but in both instances he made of Mozart's disarming outward simplicity something deeply moving and profound, I thought. The opening allegro maestoso has a somewhat contradictory, understated grandeur to it, with a very spare solo line. It would be easy to overlook how elegantly each phrase is shaped and finished off. The even less elaborate andante explores a similar gesture in a deliciously lyrical way, while preparing for the extremely flashy and exciting rondo (allegretto) that closes the work. A truly great work, in two truly great performances.

Brahms' "Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 73" reminded me that my favorite Brahms symphony is always the one I last heard. The two performances were not at all the same. The Saturday one was more impassioned and exciting, while the Sunday one was more open and lyrical. Brahms was never kind to string players, and given a substantial personnel turnover in the rear parts of the strings, the good performances are a tribute to how hard the players must have worked. Much of the glory goes to the winds, however.

The audience response, both times, was very enthusiastic, I thought with good reason. Musicians are generally well pleased to have a success, and I believe they got it here.

Isthmus, September, 1997
Copyright 1997 Jess Anderson

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