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MSO: DeMain Conducts, with Alyssa Park, Violin
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Program
Wagner: Overture to Tannhäuser
Vieuxtemps: Concerto No. 5 in A Minor, Op. 37
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5 in D Minor

Performers
Madison Symphony Orchestra
Alyssa Park, violin
John DeMain, conductor

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John Demain, the first of three guest conductors contending for the baton of the Madison Symphony Orchestra's retiring music director, Roland Johnson, strode boldly onto the stage of the Oscar Mayer Theater Saturday evening to conduct a challenging program that featured an enormously gifted 19-year-old violinist, Alyssa Park. The hall was nearly full, and I'm sure audience interest in both conductor and soloist was as high as mine. Demain's program was certainly no lightweight, play-it-safe affair.

Opening with the full, "Dresden" version of Wagner's Overture to "Tannhäuser", Demain at once showed himself to be attentive to balance in matters of dynamics and tempo. He also carefully delineated the profound seriousness of the musical materials. Stylistically, he echoes a fairly crisp articulation of the baton with more fluid gestures of the left hand. The initial impression was of a certain nervousness, but that can certainly be overlooked in an event as important as this. Things went very, very well throughout the greater part of the Wagner, until suddenly disaster -- the only word for it -- struck with a vengeance. There's a passage at the work's climax in which the whole orchestra is moving forward with a series of stately chords, accompanied by incredibly fast, small-note figures in the violins, who without warning completely lost any semblance of ensemble or of playing in tune. If Demain could in any way be faulted for this, it would be for choosing a work beyond his orchestra's, that is, the violins', technical abilities. Apart from this, however, the performance was quite good.

Park played the often showy, sometimes very lovely Concerto No. 5 in A Minor, Op. 37, by the Belgian composer Vieuxtemps. She is unquestionably a major talent. She was completely secure in the most difficult passages, playing with great passion and firm conviction, whether in the long-line, lyrical sections or in the fiendishly difficult virtuoso sections. As with much music of the Romantic period, there isn't a lot in the way of form to tie the various episodes of the work to one another so they form a coherent whole. This poses a difficulty for the conductor as much as the soloist, for it requires especially keen attention to very small inflections in the soloist's dynamics, tempo, and attack. Demain served Park quite well in this regard, I thought.

The major work was the Symphony No. 5 in D Minor by Shostakovich. The best known of the composer's 15 symphonies, the 5th is no less interesting for its relative familiarity. There isn't a single instant of this huge piece that isn't serious music indeed, and in part because it is unusually flexible as to tempo, it is a major handful for the conductor, not to mention the players. Demain was in firm control as he clearly exposed the formal concepts of the piece. In its most lyrical moments, it was simply inspired. The inner two movements, moderato and largo, were all one could ask for fine playing, and superbly conducted. In the more driving outer movements, I felt that a slightly less rigid, less frenetic attack from the podium would have served the music better, for I don't think the manic quality I heard and saw is really in the score.

The applause was fittingly enthusiastic, as it was a wonderful performance. Demain could be the one for the MSO. But first, let us hear the others; Joseph Giunta's turn comes November 6th, this time with a pianist playing an equally flashy Romantic concerto.

Isthmus, October, 1993
Copyright 1993 Jess Anderson




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