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MSO: Eroica Trio (Isthmus)

Beethoven: Concerto for Violin, Cello and Piano in C Major, Op. 56
Rachmaninoff: Symphony No. 2 in C Minor, Op. 27

Madison Symphony Orchestra
Eroica Trio
Erika Nickrenz, piano
Adela Peña, violin
Sara Sant'Ambrogio, cello
John DeMain, conductor


The season-opening pair of concerts by the Madison Symphony Orchestra, conducted by John DeMain, was remarkable in several dimensions. In honor of the victims of September 11, DeMain began with a simple, heartfelt speech stressing the importance of music as a second language, one that through beauty and love renews and sustains us all, and pledged that now and in the future, "the Madison Symphony Orchestra will be here for you." He then led the orchestra in an exquisite performance of Barber's Adagio for Strings, followed without applause by the National Anthem and the concert program as originally planned.

The Eroica Trio (Erika Nickrenz, piano; Adela Peña, violin; Sara Sant'Ambrogio, cello) gave a clean, competent reading of Beethoven's Concerto for Violin, Cello and Piano in C Major, Op. 56 on Saturday, but on Sunday were much more relaxed, resulting in a stronger performance. The difference, I discovered, was because they had listened backstage to the speech and the Barber Adagio on Saturday, and understandably -- they are from New York -- had difficulty composing themselves before coming on stage so soon afterward. On Sunday the dressing room and backstage speakers were turned off. They nailed the notes without any apparent difficulty and played with considerable musical charm and obvious enjoyment.

The balance of the program was Rachmaninoff's Symphony No. 2 in C Minor, Op. 27 (1907), a late-Romantic, hour-long work, one that until now had never excited me much. It requires the sound of a large orchestra able to meet very exacting technical demands -- in strings, winds, and percussion -- as well as a conductor who can effectively control these massive forces and shape huge, complex blocks of sound.

The MSO's growth to a full complement of 60 string players, coupled with steady improvement in the quality of the whole orchestra's playing, has resulted in accurate intonation, strong ensemble within and between sections, clarity and vividness in the details, plus, thanks to DeMain's lyrical gifts, the full range of expressivity the work requires. All the playing was spectacular, but even beyond that, Linda Bartley rendered the slow movement's long clarinet solo with heartbreakingly soulful beauty, well deserving a solo bow and her own shouts of "Bravo!" in the ecstatic applause that arose at the end of both concerts.

I've little doubt that the two sold-out houses felt sustained and renewed, and I'm certain that I did, with gratitude to all.

Isthmus, September, 2001
Copyright 2001 Jess Anderson

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