A Journey Through Madison's Classical Music Scene
May 3, 2014
01:05 AM
Classically Speaking

Madison Symphony Closes Season With Two Legacies

Madison Symphony Closes Season With Two Legacies

PHOTO COURTESY OF CHRIS PASKUS 2

Pianist Garrick Olsen

John DeMain chose to close his twentieth season as music director of the Madison Symphony this weekend with a relaxed program built upon the music of Gershwin, and some other folks he influenced. But this program, “A Gershwin Legacy,” had a second meaning as well: DeMain’s own career had its seminal breakthrough when he conducted the first complete staged version of the opera Porgy and Bess at Houston Grand Opera in 1976.  Not only did the subsequent recording earn DeMain a Grammy Award, but garnered huge praise from Leonard Bernstein when the production went to New York. That led to “Lenny” asking DeMain to conduct the 25th anniversary production of Bernstein’s West Side Story, and later the world premiere of the opera A Quiet Place.

So when the second half of Friday night’s concert at Overture Hall ended with Bernstein’s “Symphonic Dances” from West Side Story, one couldn’t help but notice the historical link at work, as well as the musical one.

The vibe of the evening might be described as “Christmas in July,” as the proceedings had something of the festive feel of DeMain’s celebrated Christmas events, albeit in what the calendar tells us is spring. With a couple of songs from Harold Arlen and Stephen Sondheim thrown in with the generous heaps of Gershwin and Bernstein, the MSO players (and any audience members) who had experienced last weekend’s searingly intense performances of Dead Man Walking all seemed to relish the chance to dance and swing their way through this earlier American fare.

There were plenty of guests on hand to help, starting with the young pianistic phenom, Garrick Olsen in  the Variations on “I Got Rhythm.” Although he was the winner of the MSO’s "Final Forte" competition a couple of years ago, and on his way to study at the Oberlin Conservatory, Olsen cannot be said to be a raw talent. He attacked the often pungent piano writing with the brash energy of youth, but in a solo encore arrangement of the Gershwin song “Embraceable You,” revealed a promising gift for lyricism and subtlety of touch.

Three singers played a major role throughout the evening, each bringing something unique in talent and experience. Soprano Emily Birsan was here just four weeks ago as soloist in the Mozart Requiem, and is showing every indication of being a bona fide darling diva in the making. With crystal clear diction and just the right dash of sass Birsan delighted in the clever “By Strauss,” and later unleashed her full upper range in a truly dazzling “Glitter and Be Gay” from Bernstein’s Candide. It was wonderful, by the way, to hear that song immediately after DeMain led a crisp traversal of the Overture to Candide open the second half, with “Glitter” theme a prominent part of the Overture.

Karen Olivo has a long television resume to her credit already, but also a Tony award for the 2009 revival of West Side Story, in which she played the role of Anita. We got a glimpse of what made that so special on Broadway, as she teamed with Birsan for a powerful rendering of “A Boy Like That/I Have a Love,” and she followed it up with Sondheim’s uneasy “Losing My Mind.”

The third vocalist, Ron Raines, shares some early days in Houston with DeMain. His decade on the show “Guiding Light” undoubtedly has brought him more fame than those early performances at Houston Grand Opera, but he displayed excellent execution and instincts for the rhythmic inflections of phrase in “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” and Harold Arlen’s “That Old Black Magic.” Raines also suavely sang his way through a Gershwin medley with Olivo, highlighted by “S’Wonderful.”

The halves of the program were anchored by substantial suites, the first half closing with “Catfish Row,” Gershwin’s own treatment of sections of Porgy and Bess. As the concert had opened with the lively but second-rate overture to Strike Up the Band, it was powerful to realize that “Catfish” had come just eight years later; the quantum leap in maturity was breathtaking—and makes the composer’s tragically early death just two years later all the more heartbreaking.

The evening closed with the “Symphonic Dances” from West Side Story, and it was here that the MSO fully displayed the sumptuous strings, sinuous woodwinds, incisive brass and precise percussion that have been the hallmark of most of this landmark season. As the final bars drew to a haunting and inexorable close, one thought back to the story of the close of DeMain’s first season in Madison, nineteen years ago. He ended the year with Mahler’s Symphony No.1, just the latest in a series of statements about what his vision was for this orchestra. A number of players came to him afterwards and said in effect, it’s been a great year, but I think this is going to be a little bit more than I signed on for.

I think it’s a pretty safe bet that the 2014 ensemble isall in to come back in September. But two performances remain this season, on Saturday at 8 and Sunday at 2:30. It’ll make you feel like spring is here at last.

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About This Blog

Years before I contributed my first classical review to the Los Angeles Times in 1988, I started a class in music appreciation for adults that had one aim: to put a few cracks in the “ivory tower elitism” I found pervasive in the classical music world since my boyhood days. Whether as a critic, program annotator or band director, that goal has never changed. After all, Mozart and Beethoven and the gang wrote their music for people like you—not critics or professors!

After growing up in the suburbs of New York City, and spending twenty years in and around Los Angeles, the last twelve years here leave me more amazed than ever at the musical riches of Madison. I’m a cheerleader at heart, because I always think more people would become classical fans if they’d give it a chance—but I’m also quick to tell you when you’re not getting your money’s worth. Classically Speaking brings you as much news and as many reviews as possible, and I hope you’ll join me for a fabulous musical journey.

–  Greg Hettmansberger
Follow Greg on Twitter @ghettmansberger

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