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MSO: Lynn Harrell, Cello

Chris Theofanidas: This Dream, Strange and Moving
Ernest Bloch: Schelomo
Tchaikowsky: Pezzo Capriccioso, Op. 62
Beethoven: Symphony No. 4 in B-Flat Major, Op. 60

Madison Symphony Orchestra
Lynn Harrell, cello
John DeMain, conductor


The Madison Symphony Orchestra, with cellist Lynn Harrell, by some miracle surpassed itself once again in a pair of concerts at the Civic Center. And again the two concerts were different but both exemplary. Music director John DeMain's program of four pieces presented in reverse chronological order spanned the long interval from 1995 to 1808 intelligently. All four works were supremely difficult for soloist, orchestra players and conductor alike, yet these challenges were met with outward ease. Apart from a lot of coughing, the audience was alert and lively, as well as enormously moved, I think.

Totally new works are always exciting. Chris Theofanidas's This Dream, Strange and Moving (a title taken from a poem by Paul Verlaine) is in one sense an acoustic exercise, lasting about eight minutes, composed originally for synthesizer, but expertly recast for very large orchestra by the composer. Structurally, it rests on a two-note motif, heard by itself in many guises and extended in various combinations to build up a very large sound, full of acoustic events like echo effects, etc. On the second hearing, for whatever reason, the soundscape evoked a vast prehistoric landscape with pterodactyls soaring overhead. I think it's the sort of work one could be pleased hearing many times, for there's a lot in it. This from someone who just turned 30!

Harrell's two performances of Bloch's extended Hebraic rhapsody for cello and large orchestra, Schelomo (Hebrew for Solomon) were of such an incredible intensity that, particularly after the second time, there was a part of me that wanted to quit the program right there, fuses blown, batteries drained, overwhelmed by it all. There are a lot of great musicians in this world, but there aren't so many who make it as clear as Harrell does that you are in the company of genius. No doubt stimulated by this themselves, the orchestra's players rose to yet another high-water mark in executing extremely demanding parts. No less a miracle took place on the podium. Intermission was a welcome break at that point, allowing for at least some recovery from a gut-wrenching performance.

Harrell also opened the second half in the rarely heard Pezzo Capriccioso, Op. 62, by Tchaikovsky. It doesn't look or sound that hard to play, despite death-defying speed in its two quick sections, but especially for the conductor, who must manage the band in following the soloist's extremely varied lyrical imperatives, it's a major handfull.

Audience pandemonium ensued both times, and Harrell offered encores dedicated to "my colleagues in this fine orchestra," a gesture of uncommon graciousness. Saturday night it was an arrangement of Chopin's famous Nocture in E-Flat Major, Op. 9, and Sunday afternoon it was the theme from Gluck's opera Orpheus and Euridice. Absolutely magical, both.

Beethoven's Symphony No. 4 in B-Flat Major, Op. 60 is unjustly overshadowed by its more frequently heard neighbors the 3rd and 5th. It is a magnificent work, bright and cheerful, and very hard to play. The first reading was tight, controlled, and about as close to flawless as it gets. The second was less tense but perhaps a bit more profoundly expressive. The playing was at the highest level both times, with especially outstanding performances in the second movement by clarinetist Linda Bartley and in the fourth by bassoonist Richard Lottridge. DeMain too was under tremendous pressure, steering the ensemble skillfully through many rhythmically tricky turns.

Having used up all my superlatives, I'll just fall back on this: it was great, you shoulda been there!

Isthmus, March, 1998
Copyright 1998 Jess Anderson

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