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MSO: Eroica Trio (Mad.Mus.Rev.)

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 Madison Symphony Orchestra, conducted by John DeMain, achieved an unquestionable musical triumph and also fittingly observed our recent national tragedy in its first pair of subscription concerts of the new season Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon at the Oscar Mayer Theatre.

To honor of the victims of September 11, DeMain addressed the audience before the concert (see sidebar), his heartfelt speech pointing out the role of music as a second language that through beauty and love can renew and sustain us. He then led the orchestra in a performance of Barber's Adagio for Strings, followed without applause by the National Anthem and the concert program as originally planned. The Barber was exquisitely played on both days. It's a piece that I find moving under any circumstances, but in the context it was especially so and a particularly thoughtful choice as a memorial work.

The regular program consisted of two works: Beethoven's Concerto for Violin, Cello and Piano in C Major, Op. 56, with the Eroica Trio (Erika Nickrenz, piano; Adela Peña, violin; Sara Sant'Ambrogio, cello) as soloists, and Rachmaninoff's Symphony No. 2 in C Minor, Op. 27.

The Beethoven Triple Concerto has always been a peculiar piece. Although DeMain was as usual very attentive to the soloists, the orchestral part is by nature rather awkward in places, overpowering and obscuring the solo lines. In terms of performance quality, the work tends toward one of two extremes: brilliant playing by a superstar ensemble like Isaac Stern, Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax, or a ho-hum reading by an orchestra's first-chair players.

The Eroica Trio landed somewhere between. They gave a clean, competent reading on Saturday. They nailed the notes, but the playing didn't quite gel, as though they were all feeling nervous or tentative. On Sunday they were much more relaxed, which resulted in a performance that was markedly more secure and musically engaged, though somewhat less exciting than my ideal for Beethoven.

I was told that on Saturday they had listened backstage to the speech and the Barber, and understandably enough -- they are from New York -- had difficulty recovering their composure before coming on stage soon afterward. On Sunday the dressing room and backstage speakers were turned off, and they played without any apparent difficulty and with obvious enjoyment.

Rachmaninoff's Second Symphony is a late-Romantic work of about an hour's duration. I confess that until now it had never excited me much. It requires the sound of a large orchestra whose players can meet its very exacting technical demands in strings, winds, and percussion. There are also challenging solos for several instruments: violin, oboe, English horn, clarinet and French horn. Because of the size of its forces and its constantly shifting tempos, dynamics and colors, it must also have a conductor equal to the tasks of effective control and shaping of huge, complex blocks of sound.

The MSO was finally able to achieve a full complement of 60 string players last season, and here they were put to very good use. In addition there has been steady improvement in the quality of the whole orchestra's playing. The result is accurate intonation, strong ensemble within and between sections, and clarity and vibrancy in the many small details.

Thanks to DeMain's lyrical gifts, the symphony got the full range of expressivity it requires. For instance, in the scherzo there is a grand pause; DeMain let the sound of silence ring just long enough, alive but in suspended animation, before resuming. Because it has served as the basis of a pop song, the melody of the slow movement often sounds sentimental. DeMain proportioned the arch perfectly, avoiding sentimentality and sustaining forward momentum in the lushly beautiful line.

A number of solos were beautifully played, including oboe (Marc Fink), English horn (Jennifer Morgan) and French horn (Douglas Hill). Eclipsing even that, Linda Bartley rendered the slow movement's long clarinet solo with heartbreakingly soulful beauty, earning a well deserved 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 by the emotional catharsis of this wonderful performance, and I know that I did, with gratitude to all.

Sidebar [Maestro DeMain's remarks to the audience before the concert.]

The Honorable Scott McCallum, Governor of the State of Wisconsin; The Honorable Tammy Baldwin, United States Representative; The Honorable Kathleen Falk, Dane County Executive; The Honorable Susan Bauman, Mayor Of the City of Madison; Ladies and Gentlemen:

Welcome to the opening concert of the MSO's 76th season.

On Tuesday, September 11, we saw an attack on America that came from hatred and evil. This attack on all of the civilized world has left us shocked, bereaved, confused and uncertain.

As our country's leaders renew their efforts to protect its citizens and attempt to root out terrorism, we have been encouraged to return to our daily lives -- to do our part to show America's indomitable spirit, which will triumph against this insidious evil.

In the uncertainty of the coming months, perhaps even years, we will often turn to the world's second language, the language of music, for spiritual sustenance. Music will express what words cannot and will help us to mourn, to renew our spirit and to fill us with determination and strength.

The MSO will be here for you to do just that.

In the words of an American musical hero, Leonard Bernstein, I quote:

"This will be our reply to violence, to make music more intensely, more beautifully and more devotedly than ever before."

Tonight we honor those who were victims of these terrible acts. We do so with a program filled with beauty and love.

We begin this evening's concert by asking all of you to light a candle of remembrance in your hearts as we play American composer Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings.

We respectfully ask you to withhold your applause and then rise to sing together our National Anthem. We will then resume our program as planned.

Thank you and God bless us all.

Madison Music Review, September, 2001
Copyright 2001 Jess Anderson

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