Featuring impressive virtuosic playing, amusing programmatic pieces, referential music and a multimedia experience, the Madison Symphony Orchestra’s Friday evening concert was wonderfully varied, and the contrast from piece to piece kept the audience captivated and entertained.
The evening began with Honegger’s Rugby, a high-energy musical depiction of a rugby match. Throughout the work, musical features take on the competitive nature of a match. Rhythms of two are set against three, low register against high, and melody against countermelody, all playing out in romping fashion. Though short, the piece is rhythmically demanding, and the MSO strings fell slightly out of sync during some of the offbeat rhythms but more than made up for it in the more songful passages. Notably, the MSO’s brass section sounded particularly unified, resolute and clean in their harmonies, though overpowering in volume at times.
The second piece on the program, Dvorák’s Concerto for Cello and Orchestra in B minor featuring cellist Thomas Mesa, was an absolute hit. The work is extremely virtuosic, and Mesa was well up to the task. Mesa blended wonderfully with the MSO and shined during solo moments. The audience enjoyed so much Mesa’s performance of the first movement that they felt compelled to applaud directly afterward, unable to contain their excitement until the final movement.
The second movement was a highlight of the evening. It features gorgeous orchestral colors, especially between the horns and orchestral cellos, and long, gorgeous melodies. Throughout the Adagio, Mesa displayed great rhetorical prowess with his artful phrasing. His virtuosity reached a peak when, during one passage, his right hand bowed while at the same time his left hand both stopped a string and plucked another.
Mesa proved his sense of humor when he announced his encore piece as something “obscure” and then played Bach’s G major Prelude. Though the piece tends to be overplayed, Mesa gave it new life and displayed a keen sense for cadence in his rendering.
When introducing the program, maestro John DeMain announced that he is “embarking on a project” to feature more music from composers from populations currently underrepresented. It was wonderful to see DeMain make a public commitment toward long overdue change. The third piece on the program, George Walker’s Lyric for Strings, represents the early stages of this effort.
Walker, a Black American composer, dedicated Lyric to his once enslaved grandmother, and more recently, as DeMain described, the piece has been taken up as a “signature hymn of (Black Lives Matter).” The work is light and airy, yet powerful with beautifully orchestrated dissonances. The MSO strings found brilliant balance through delicate textures, most effectively at the climactic moment when, in a pairing both complementary and contrasting, the high end of the violins sound together with the low end of the basses.
The concert ended with an exciting multimedia experience: Ferde Grofé’s Grand Canyon Suite paired with images of the title landmark by Stephen Lias. Images of the Grand Canyon, including animals, landscapes and skies, appeared above the orchestra in sync with their performance.
When the well-known “donkey trotting” melody in the third movement was accompanied by images and short video clips of donkeys walking around the Grand Canyon, the audience was brought to laughter. The synchronized images were most impressive, though, during the final movement, “Cloudburst.” Breathtaking images of lightning over the Grand Canyon filled the screen with dramatic scenes and vibrant colors, matching the Sturm und Drang music. At the moment when beautiful sonorities break through the movement’s stormy chaos, an image of a rainbow appeared on the screen, as if the rainbow itself insisted on the musical relief.
A grand ending to the varied concert.