|Berlioz:||Overture Le Corsaire, Op. 21|
|Barber:||Concerto for Piano, Op. 38|
|Tchaikowsky:||Symphony No. 6 in B Minor, Op. 74|
Madison Symphony Orchestra
John Browning, piano
John DeMain, conductor
This past weekend's pair of concerts by the Madison Symphony Orchestra, with John DeMain conducting and pianist John Browning as the soloist in the Samuel Barber Piano Concerto, had the eerie quality of going beyond what one normally expects from mortals.
Browning is an all-too-rare phenomenon: a true master musician in a world today occupied largely by incredible technicians. The Barber concerto was written for him in 1962 and is difficult on the level of the death-defying Tchaikowsky 1st, Brahms 2nd and Rachmaninov 3rd concertos. It has things in common with those works as well in terms of the piano writing and the relationships between the solo and orchestral components, except that it is a genuine 20th-century American masterwork, very tightly constructed from a few basic musical ideas brilliantly combined and contrasted, embodying angular, high-energy intensity, great rhythmic drive, and moments of aching lyricism. The orchestra parts are also extremely difficult and the players deserve high praise for a remarkable achievement. DeMain welded all these forces into a deeply satisfying, highly affecting whole. At both concerts Browning generously followed a well-deserved standing ovation with Chopin's Nocturne in D-Flat Major, Op. 27, No. 2 as an encore. To put it very plainly: sublime would be an understatement, not once but twice!
The wonderfully orchestrated Overture Le Corsair, Op. 21 by Berlioz provided an impressively festive opening for the program, replete with shimmeringly fleet strings, sharply etched brass, elaborate syncopations and richly Romantic coloration. All those resources and more were called for in the closing work, Tchaikowsky's Symphony No. 6 in B Minor, Op. 74. Outstanding solo playing by bassoonist Richard Lottridge and clarinetist Linda Bartley helped sustain the whole ensemble at an impressively high level. DeMain was careful not to let the work's intense lyricism become cloying and kept its full-orchestra drama on the safe side of stridency as well, but for me the great beauty points in his reading were clean, transparent orchestral sound, firm dynamic and tempo control, long lyrical arches and subtle phrase endings.
The season opener last month was not an easy act to follow, but by some miracle -- hard work and lots of practice, I expect -- this second concert was no less rewarding. The MSO has never sounded better: these players and this music director continue to raise the bar of excellence, and the two audiences were appropriately effusive in their enthusiasm.
Isthmus, October, 1999
Copyright 1999 Jess Anderson