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MSO: Elmar Oliveira, Violin

Beethoven: "Egmont" Overture
Beethoven: Concerto for Violin in D Major, Op. 61
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 10 in E Minor, Op. 93

Madison Symphony Orchestra
Elmar Oliveira, violin
John DeMain, conductor


The Madison Symphony Orchestra's season-opening concert was, I thought, the group's most brilliant performance yet. Equally exciting is what this achievement portends for the future, both in the current season and in the years ahead. A number of factors are at work, moving the organization as a whole in an upward-cycling direction.

At long last the MSO's strings are at full strength: 16 first violins, 14 second violins, ten violas, ten cellos and eight contrabasses. This affords a fullness and a sheen to the sound that was never quite there before. It was put to good use in a particularly fine, solidly musical program: the Overture to Egmont, Op. 84 and the Concerto in D Major for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 61, both by Beethoven, and the Symphony No. 10 in E Minor, Op. 83 by Shostakovich.

Also very important, the MSO has decided to sacrifice the first several rows of seats on the main floor by raising the pit stage and moving the whole orchestra forward about a dozen feet. This brightens the sound and gives it presence and clarity. Here too all three works benefitted.

Maestro John DeMain's decision to launch the new season with an unabashedly very serious program certainly made a convincing display of his orchestra's ever-stronger assets in repertory of surpassing difficulty, with attending musical rewards for both players and audience.

There is a gravity and solemn grandeur to the Egmont overture that requires faultless ensemble and crisp, bright articulation to achieve maximum effect. And so indeed it did. The violin concerto, which featured the brilliant virtuoso Elmar Oliveira, though a more contemplative, inward-looking piece, achieved a different kind of brilliance. Rather more classical in outline and less dramatic than many middle-period works of Beethoven, the concerto's appeal rests mainly on its lyrical, cantabile character, an almost aching beauty carried as much by the solo line as by the orchestral ensemble.

Oliveira's command of the part was extraordinary. He didn't overdramatize the work's contrasts, which is a common failing in this piece, but instead did something much more difficult: he tenderly brought out Beethoven's deep lyricism and long phrases through classical restraint. To be sure, in the first and last movements' long cadenzas he made ample display of his amazing technical prowess, but in a convincingly musical way. The orchestra's support, for instance in perfect ensemble in the deceptively tricky slow movement, was exemplary, DeMain as always being extremely attentive to the soloist.

Shostakovich's 10th symphony, despite its nearly hour-long size, is a very tightly organized work. DeMain and the MSO gave it a most satisfying reading indeed: deeply insightful, sonically sumptuous and technically precise as to articulation, ensemble and intonation. They fully realized the score's potentials, not least for its incredible orchestration, and certainly earned the immediate standing ovation the performance received. Yet again, the MSO has moved its own standard upward a notch; this performance would invite favorable comparison with any orchestra anywhere.

Overall, this concert clearly signals what's ahead. Not only does the Shostakovich symphony echo the orchestrational palette of the Tchaikowsky "Pathetique" symphony, to be heard next month, but the whole effort to summarize and complete the century by programming works that challenge players and audience alike says to me that cultural life here in Madison is alert, aware and alive with positive potentials. Revisiting some of our century's great masterworks, both in the orchestra series and in the Decade By Decade chamber-music series, affirms our musical heritage in the same gesture as it expands our perceptions and imaginations for the future.

I don't think it's the least exaggerated to say that the past six years have seen a veritable explosion of interest and support for the MSO, sustained by inspired artistic and community leadership and hard work by all concerned. If this orchestra can play a concert as fine as this one was, the mind has to boggle at least a bit at what the prospects will be in a new hall, when not only will the audience be in better contact with the sound, but at least as important, the musicians will finally be able to hear each other. Expect another great leap forward; I'm sure it's coming.

Isthmus, September, 1999
Copyright 1999 Jess Anderson

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