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MSO: Dunner Conducts, with Alban Gerhardt, Cello

Mozart: Overture to Don Giovanni, K. 527
John Corigliano: Gazebo Dances for Orchestra
Benjamin Lees: Passacaglia for Orchestra
Richard Strauss: Don Quixote, Op. 35

Madison Symphony Orchestra
Alban Gerhardt, cello
Leslie B. Dunner, conductor


Madison Symphony Orchestra guest conductor Leslie B. Dunner and cello soloist Alban Gerhardt achieved a resounding success in a program of four engaging works, all of them high on the cerebral index, technically very demanding, and well received by a large audience.

Small instabilities and nervousness present on Saturday had disappeared by the Sunday performance. The order of the four pieces, changed for Sunday, also worked better musically, enabling Gerhardt to play before the intermission, rather than at the end of the program.

And play he did, indeed stupefyingly well, in Richard Strauss's Don Quixote, Fantastic Variations on a Theme of Knightly Character, Op. 35 (1897), scored for a greatly expanded ensemble, including seven horns, tenor tuba and wind machine, with solo cello. If concentration in this 43-minute work falters even a little, it dissolves into a mishmash of episodes rather than projecting a grand musical vision of Quixote's quest.

Considerable credit for creating the vision on Sunday goes to the MSO players, who raise the level of their playing with each concert. Dunner's adroitness at realizing the score, managing consantly shifting tempos and faultlessly cueing every important entrance was fantastic; he is a very fine conductor.

Gerhardt is one of those rare musicians upon whom the gods must have smiled, for not only does musical intensity of the highest order pour forth from his instrument but his ardor is visible in every gesture and expression while he performs. That unusual gift makes the performance both an inward and an outward odyssey of musical discovery, and in this complex and achingly lyrical work it was extremely affecting.

Dunner's guiding tempo ideal in Mozart's overture to Don Giovanni, which opened the program, was that the slow introduction should be just half the speed of the allegro molto body of the piece. To my ear this made the opening too slow, undercutting its sinister drama, while rushing the allegro, obscuring delicate details and cutting off phrase-ends before their proper breathing time had elapsed. The derring-do was nevertheless pretty exciting.

Two works from the 70s, part of the MSO's decade-by-decade retrospective of 20th-century American masters, formed the balance of the program. John Corigliano's Gazebo Dances for Orchestra (1974) was upbeat rhythmically and very touching lyrically. Benjamin Lees's Passacaglia for Orchestra (1976) challenged the musical mind with every rhythmic and motivic ploy the composer might conjure. Both works were marvels of orchestration. In both, the MSO was on top of things and Dunner's sharp attention to detail rendered it all intelligible.

Isthmus, January, 1999
Copyright 1999 Jess Anderson

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