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MSO: Jean-Yves Thibaudet, piano

Copland: Suite from The Tender Land
Khachaturian: Concerto for Piano and Orchestra
César Franck: Symphony in D Minor

Madison Symphony Orchestra
Jean-Yves Thibaudet, piano
John DeMain, conductor


Two 20th-century works opened the Madison Symphony Orchestra's second subscription pair at the Oscar Mayer Theatre, Copland's suite from The Tender Land and the Khachaturian piano concerto. Neither of these works, however, would be likely to offend the tastes of musical conservatives, who in any case got their lengthy due in the form of the Franck Symphony that concluded the program. Audiences for these concerts continue to be large and enthusiastic.

In 1958, Copland excerpted an orchestral suite from his 1954 made-for-television opera The Tender Land (cancelled before it could be performed). The three sections of the orchestral work derive from various scenes of the opera and incorporate the composer's "open" style of setting folk-music elements, drawing upon the resources of a large orchestra. There is, unsurprisingly, considerable modernity in the suite: complex rhythms, large-scale dissonance and subtle orchestration.

By far the most successful is the closing section, "The Promise of Living." However, the purely orchestral arrangement fails to convey the emotional content of this music in the context of the opera itself, where it is set as a vocal quintet that closes the first of the three acts and establishes a deeply affecting aura of hopefulness that the drama's subsequent action will dissipate. That said, the MSO gave a first-rate performance of the music, a style for which DeMain has a particular affinity, I think.

Any music lover old enough will recall that the Khachaturian piano concerto was a famous vehicle for the legendary young American pianist William Kapell before his untimely death in an air crash in the 50s. I was then a budding pianist and fell completely in love with this work for its stirring pianistic fireworks and above all for its achingly lyrical slow movement.

But over the nearly five decades since, I had largely forgotten about it. As a result, hearing it again in these performances brought fresh excitements. Among other things, the piece, written in 1936, was much more modern, full of angularities and dissonances, than I remembered it. I had also forgotten its formal flaws, consisting chiefly of a number of huge, cadenza-like solo passages that leave the full orchestra sitting with nothing to do for long stretches. Be that as it may, Thibaudet, a fast-rising young star who possesses both a towering technical ability and a keen lyricism, made everything of the work that can be made. It was really exciting, as well as coming back to an old musical friend.

The Franck symphony, it seems to me, has to be perfect to be anything, yet it's hard to articulate what it was that left me with a feeling of being unmoved by DeMain's reading of this sprawling work. It was not in the details, for the orchestra played very well and the sound was bright and clear. Nevertheless -- perhaps nothing more than a certain reserve on my own part -- it never quite amounted to the sweeping tide that it can become in those rare masterful performances.

Madison Music Review, October, 2002
Copyright 2002 Jess Anderson

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