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MSO: Helen Donath, Soprano

Mozart: Overture to "The Impressario", K. 486
David DiChiera: Four Sonnets of Edna St. Vincent Millay
Mahler: Symphony No. 4 in G Major

Madison Symphony Orchestra
Helen Donath, soprano
John DeMain, conductor


Everyone not present at the Oscar Mayer Theater Saturday evening or Sunday afternoon to see and hear Madison Symphony Orchestra's concert with soprano Helen Donath missed what I thought was the best playing ever achieved by that ensemble, as well as a voice of incredible beauty commanded by a truly world-class musician.

John DeMain's choices of tempi and articulations in Mozart's Overture to "The Impressario", K. 486 brought out the good humor and puckishness of the score without trivializing its very serious harmonic and contrapuntal elements. The playing was crisp, light, clean and highly accurate.

Four Sonnets of Edna St. Vincent Millay, by David DiChiera, heard in a world premiere performance of settings for voice and orchestra -- the songs were written in 1965 for voice and piano -- are based on texts imbued with a wide range of emotions, but marvelously heightened by DiChiera's lyrical muse and Donath's consummate realizations. Though quite original, the orchestrations were permeated by a thoroughly American sensibility, perhaps suggesting the best of Samuel Barber in timbre and texture.

For both performances there was wild applause for the performers and the composer, who was present. Perhaps best of all, there was the chance both times to hear the complete cycle twice -- what a delicious opportunity that was! I liked all four pieces better on each of the four hearings, and was each time more moved by the soaring and passionate conclusion:

   I cannot say what loves have come and gone;
   I only know that summer sang in me
   A little while, that in me sings no more.

Though the dryness of the hall caused Donath to be a little careful of her instrument Saturday, for the Sunday performance she let the full range of her wonderfully controlled, bright, and unerringly accurate voice be heard. Well known in Europe, it's a great pity that we don't hear her more often here. DeMain was in his element as a vocal collaborator, ever attentive to the nuances of the singing line.

The second half of the program was given to the continuing series of Mahler symphonies, this time the Symphony No. 4 in G Major. Though it's the shortest of the composer's works in this form, it is highly concentrated and full of challenges for both conductor and players. The performance was not without a few small mishaps, but these were nothing compared to the overall level of accomplishment. In many sections, the first and second violins are in the stratosphere and the accuracy of their intonation was astounding. Indeed there were comparable technical difficulties for all sections of the ensemble, winds and percussion as well as strings. The final movement includes a lilting soprano solo on a text drawn from the collection Des Knaben Wunderhorn, the source of so much inspiration for Mahler. Here Donath exuded extraordinary youthfulness in her voice and uplifting hope in her interpretation, with a sound that melded perfectly with the instrumental ensemble.

The Sunday performance was more secure, I think, but both readings were a more than adequate basis for great civic pride and an enormous credit to DeMain, the MSO organization, and the musicians. I'm sure they will eclipse even this in due course, but it was to my ears the pinnacle of their shared achievements so far.

Isthmus, February, 1998
Copyright 1998 Jess Anderson

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