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MSO: Catherine Comet Conducts
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Program
César Franck: Symphony in D Minor
Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition

Performers
Madison Symphony Orchestra
Catherine Comet, conductor

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Guest conductor Catherine Comet, well known to Madison audiences of the early 80s through her stint leading the University of Wisconsin Symphony Orchestra, returned to the podium at the Civic Center Sunday afternoon to guide the Madison Symphony Orchestra in a performance of two large-scale symphonic works, César Franck's Symphony in D Minor and Modest Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition. To give a hint of how well the concert went, the applause of the orchestra for their conductor was long and clearly heartfelt. The audience in the Oscar Mayer Theatre obviously shared in this enthusiasm.

When Comet lived in Madison, I always felt her readings were confined by an almost military strictness, a manner of conducting that suggested more a riding crop than a baton. The music was seldom fluid or lyrical. This has obviously changed quite dramatically in the interim. For it was not merely the inherently lyrical qualities of the famous Franck symphony that shone forth in this performance; Comet is still very tightly controlled on the podium, conducting in a style that is relatively lean and free of mere flourishes. Despite this firmness, there was in her performance a clearly articulated lyricism that allowed the shadings and surgings of the sprawling work to manifest a greater sense of form than it usually does. The symphony calls for a large band of players, but despite its size, the group played under Comet's baton as a single instrument, which is a major achievement. Tempi and dynamics were quite suitable, I felt, although my one reservation about the performance was a too-compressed dynamic range at the top: the loud playing was not varied enough. The Franck symphony is not a work one would want to hear everyday, probably, but in this performance one heard it at very nearly its best.

The Pictures at an Exhibition, written by Mussorgsky originally as a set of piano pieces, is one of a very few such works that I actually prefer in its orchestrated version, especially as this version was the work of that great master of orchestral sound, Maurice Ravel. An even larger orchestra is required, with two harps, five percussionists, and an expanded wind section that includes tuba, contrabassoon, bass clarinet, and alto saxophone. All of these forces, when combined in negotiating some very tricky rhythms and breakneck tempos, have a tendency to fly off in different directions, with chaotic results. Comet's firmness here was a strong asset, for the playing was at all times in control and coherent. Thanks to Ravel's genius, the pieces present an impressive range of instrumental colorations, especially of wind instruments, for many years the MSO's greatest strength. But the string players too excelled in this reading, as did the percussion section, and it may fairly be said that the orchestra never sounded better. That's all a conductor might ask for, I suspect.

The program was a bit on the short side (about 90 minutes), and I would have preferred one or the other of the two pieces, but not both, opting instead for something from both modern and Classical repertories for greater variety and to show what the conductor can accomplish. But within the limitations of what was offered, it was a first-rate performance, and a welcome reacquaintance with an artist who knows her scores cold and presents them with clarity and authority.

Isthmus, February, 1992
Copyright 1992 Jess Anderson




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