At the Overture Center Saturday, conductor John DeMain led the Madison Symphony Orchestra and pianist Philippe Bianconi through a captivating performance featuring the works of Benjamin Britten, Claude Debussy and Johannes Brahms.
The MSO opened the evening with Benjamin Britten’s “Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell,” more commonly known as “The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra,” since its original purpose was to serve as the score for a documentary that introduced children to the various instruments of the orchestra. The piece is usually heard with accompanying narration, but the MSO forewent this aspect of the performance, instead allowing the piece to display each group of the orchestra individually. The members of MSO rose to the occasion and each performed their respective parts skillfully. In the finale, the two overlapping themes brought the orchestra to a triumphant finish and elicited warm applause from the audience.
The second piece MSO performed was “La mer” (The Sea), composed by Claude Debussy. The piece uses unusual scale patterns such as the pentatonic scale and the whole-tone scale, elements characteristic of most of Debussy’s work. The three-movement, 25-minute piece has few high points other than the beginning and the finale, reflective of the sea itself. Overall, the performance of the piece was moderately successful. While the symphony orchestra captured the constant motion of the sea and its continuous murmuring subtleties, the audience received the piece with lukewarm applause.
After a brief intermission, pianist Philippe Bianconi joined the group to perform Johannes Brahms’ “Piano Concerto No. 2.” Many members of the audience could be overheard eagerly expressing their anticipation, as Bianconi is much beloved by the MSO’s audience. In “Piano Concerto No. 2,” the orchestra merged together as one voice accompanied by Bianconi’s solos. Principal cellist Karl Lavine performed the solo cello parts of the andante movement beautifully, smoothly passing on the phrases to Bianconi and the orchestra. In the fourth movement, Bianconi performed fluidly as MSO continued its single-voice tone. Although the piece featured a soloist, it is also the piece that MSO performed most convincingly. The soloists, the orchestra and DeMain were completely in sync throughout the entire 50-minute piece. The orchestra and Bianconi promptly received a standing ovation, and to the delight of the audience, Bianconi played a short encore, an excerpt from Schumann’s “Symphonic Etudes.” During the encore, the audience was rapt with attention and completely silent—not a single person fidgeted. Bianconi had completely captured the Overture, and Bianconi’s high regard was reaffirmed.
Marika Hoyt, a symphony violist, led a prelude discussion an hour before the concert began and discussed various aspects of the music. She pointed out certain passages and themes, which allowed for greater appreciation of the music. The half-hour discussion was free of charge, and Marika’s informative yet laid back presentation was effective in educating the listener about orchestral music.
The Madison Symphony Orchestra’s next concerts will be held Nov. 15-17, featuring violinist Augustin Hadelich. Student rush tickets are always available the day of the show for $12 to $15 each.