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MSO: Andre Watts, piano

Berlioz: Roman Carnival Overture
Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor, Op. 18
Beethoven: Symphony No. 7 in A Major, Op. 92

Madison Symphony Orchestra
André Watts, piano
John DeMain, conductor


The Madison Symphony Orchestra made a festive if noisy beginning to the current subscription season with a pair of concerts under the baton of John DeMain. The featured soloist was pianist André Watts. The Oscar Mayer Theatre was full to the rafters on Saturday evening and nearly so on Sunday afternoon, and both audiences responded with considerable enthusiasm.

Berlioz's Roman Carnival Overture opened the program. As is usual for a new MSO season, there were many fresh faces in the orchestra, especially in the strings, and it was impressive that these young players were fully up to speed right away. The string sound was spirited, rich and in tune. The Berlioz provides ample opportunity for all divisions of the full orchestra to strut their stuff -- brilliant sound, close ensemble and a full dynamic range -- and so they did, in both readings.

Watts was originally scheduled to play the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 2 when he was here two years ago, but an injury to his left hand mandated a switch to less bombastic repertory on that occasion. I didn't mind, since the work chosen was Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4, surely near the top of every pianist's list of favorites. One element that was present then -- a straightforward, non-self-indulgent reading of a great solo part -- was also present this time, despite the large stylistic gulf that otherwise separtates these two concertos.

It's common for pianists and conductors to exploit the romantic idiom for expressivity that isn't really there, mainly in the form of huge rubatos. Watts would have none of that, simply playing the score as written, an interpretation supported by the composer's own recorded preformances. On the other hand, Watts placed greater emphasis on the large-sounding technical brilliance of the piece than most pianists do, at times verging on bombast. He nevertheless made much of the work's many opportunities for sublimely lyrical, delicate playing, especially in the most obvious place, the heavenly slow movement. Though I did not cherish to the same degree every moment of Watts's interpretation, this is the kind of piece that affords a performer considerable leeway, I think, and it was clear his choices were deliberate and thoughtful.

DeMain was, as he always is with MSO soloists, a very attentive, responsive collaborator. This showed to advantage in the second of the two readings: soloist and conductor were able to relax a bit, to communicate a bit more fully and to exchange spontaneous musical ideas during their performance.

The program concluded with Beethoven's 7th symphony. Tempos in Beethoven are always something of a debate, and here in the last two movements I thought the tempos a bit too restrained, especially the scherzo. On the whole, the performance could have been more lucid, not quite so heavily accented and more varied dynamically. In the last movement, however, the fault lies with Beethoven's relentless repetition of off-beat emphasis and unflaggingly blaring fortissimos.

Madison Music Review, September, 2002
Copyright 2002 Jess Anderson

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