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MSO: Janina Fialkowska, Piano

John Adams: "The Chairman Dances," from Nixon in China
Chopin: Piano Concerto No. 2 in F Minor, Op. 21
Debussy: Petite Suite
Shostakovich: Symphony No.9 in E-Flat Major, Op. 70

Madison Symphony Orchestra
Janina Fialkowska, piano
Janna Hymes-Bianchi, conductor


Leading the Madison Symphony Orchestra's penultimate subscription concert pair for this season Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon, guest conductor Janna Hymes-Bianchi displayed a detailed knowledge of the scores and a firm, vigorous hand on the baton. Her program was unusual but musically very interesting and technically extremely demanding. All four works fared better Sunday than on the previous evening.

For stylistic reasons John Adams' "The Chairman Dances," an orchestral excerpt from his opera Nixon in China, takes a little getting used to, but its driving, extremely tricky rhythms create a trance-like state into which suddenly floats a dream-like character, as Jiang Ching and Mao Tzedong enjoy a nostalgic foxtrot from their simpler, revolutionary days. At the end, the music disappears in a thin wisp of pensiveness. I think that with greater familiarity, the piece would enjoy great appeal with the audience.

Pianist Janina Fialkowska's account of Chopin's Piano Concerto No. 2 in F Minor, Op. 21 was in every regard extraordinarily beautiful, fully the equal of any I've ever heard, most of all in the absolutely exquisite slow movement, where she missed no opportunity for elegant musical embellishment of the composer's long arches of lyricism. Both times, however, Chopin's admittedly awkward orchestral accompaniment tended to engulf the delicacy of the work's soloistic conception, and this proved something of a disappointment; Hymes-Biachi might have scaled the whole dynamic level of the orchestra downward substantially. On the whole, she followed the soloist's rubato attentively, which is no mean accomplishment.

The four movements of Debussy's Petite Suite went much better on Sunday, but it was also here that something of a riddle about the whole approach stood out. I can't quite put my finger on it, even now, but while each structural element of any given portion of the score seemed very well worked out, somehow all these pieces didn't quite fit together into one unified whole. It's as though something analytical prevented realization of each movement's music as an entity. The playing was on a fairly high level, however.

Concluding with a major tour de force, Shostakovich's Symphony No.9 in E-Flat Major, Op. 70, Hymes-Bianchi somewhat had a tiger by the tail, for there are elements in this piece that are simply too demanding for this violin section as presently constituted; it would need to be half again larger and twice as brilliant technically to manage the third-movement presto, for example. But after all, that is not all there is to the work, and the level of the playing by the ensemble as a whole was quite good. Indeed the winds and percussion, who always get a good workout in Shostakovich, simply blazed with glory. When it comes to Shostakovich, I'm always ready for more, and to judge by the enthusiastic applause from both good-sized audiences, so are they. To quote Capt. Picard, "Make it so!"

Isthmus, March, 1998
Copyright 1998 Jess Anderson

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