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MSO: Robert McDuffie, Violin

Schumann: Konzertstück for Four Horns and Orchestra in F Major, Op. 86
John Adams: Violin Concerto
Dvorak: Symphony No. 8 in G Major, Op. 88

Madison Symphony Orchestra
Douglas Hill, horn
Linda Kimball, horn
Patty Schlafer, horn
William Muir, horn
Robert McDuffie, violin
John DeMain, conductor


With John DeMain returned to the podium, the Madison Symphony Orchestra opened their penultimate subscription concerts of the current season with an unusual piece by Schumann, one new to me, the Konzertstück for Four Horns and Orchestra in F Major, Op. 86, featuring the MSO Horn Quartet: Douglas Hill, Linda Kimball, Patty Schlafer and William Muir. Flanked by two energetic quick movements replete with technical fireworks and stratospherically high pitches beautifully played by the soloists, the center slow movement was the most engaging part of this work, I thought.

Completing the MSO's two-year survey of 20th-century American masterworks, violinist Robert McDuffie was utterly astounding in John Adams' Violin Concerto (1993). It's a long piece -- 35 minutes -- and inordinately difficult technically, offering the soloist only a few brief periods of respite from its complex rhythms and even more complex acoustic textures. Indeed, there's so much music in it that two hearings can probably only scratch the surface. But that was enough to fall in love at once with the fabulous slow movement and to get the main ideas of the drivingly kinetic final movement. For me, the first movement remained something of a riddle, fare too large and too rich to be digested in two bites. What was completely clear, however, was a truly impressive performance by the orchestra, which included augmented percussion and two keyboard synthesizers. The solo part is everywhere at once: above, below, in and around the huge wash of orchestral rhythms and timbres. As for McDuffie, music streams off him in every direction, a kind of golden aura, galvanzing the orchestra and audience alike. There was a huge demonstration at the end of both performances, and fittingly so, with shouts of "Bravo!" and standing ovations.

After intermission came the Symphony No. 8 in G Major, Op. 88 by Dvorak. It's a well known, much beloved piece, but what set it apart on this occasion, I thought, was the oneness of the players and the conductor. Here, as in the Shostakovich 10th Symphony earlier in the season, DeMain and the orchestra were fully merged in musical and imaginative space, working together as a single instrument. It was precise yet fluid, clean yet flexible, disciplined yet free. Performances like these are tremendously exciting: the thing that so much energy has been directed toward creating is really happening: this orchestra is getting very good.

Isthmus, March, 2000
Copyright 2000 Jess Anderson

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