The Madison Symphony Orchestra was thrilled to welcome pianist Johnathan Biss to Overture Hall for our November 17, 18 and 19 concerts of Symphony Gems. Read reviews from the concert weekend, hear what the audience had to say, and view pictures below!
Madison Symphony Orchestra invigorates four centuries of classics
Noah Fellinger // The Cap Times
The Madison Symphony Orchestra debuted their latest “Symphony Gems” concert Friday evening in Overture Hall, a stunning medley of classic compositions spanning four centuries of musical history. Music Director John DeMain returned to conduct once more after a brief hiatus, joined by acclaimed guest pianist Jonathan Biss.
Despite rarely performing works from before the 19th century, the MSO began the evening with Mozart’s “Symphony No. 35 in D Major, K. 385,” also known as the “Haffner Symphony” — a piece the orchestra hasn’t touched in over 20 years. First composed in 1782, the symphony is regarded as among Mozart’s finest works.
Mozart initially wrote the “Haffner Symphony” to celebrate the ascension of family friend Siegmund Haffner to nobility. As such, the symphony is a bright, playful and courtly dance that the orchestra played with delicate precision.
Their rendition initially lacked the color one would expect from Mozart. The piece begins with a bold proclamation from the brass, intended as a regal introduction to the symphony’s beautifully symmetric themes. However, the MSO’s attempt lacked the dynamism necessary to fully encompass the composition’s lively spirit.
Nevertheless, the orchestra regained some vitality in the second movement which carried into the fourth, culminating in a rousing jubilation of a finale.
In direct contrast to the preamble’s slight pallor, the MSO’s next piece, Robert Schumann’s “Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 54,” evoked blushing cheeks and heartfelt romance, thanks in no small part to a stunning performance by Biss on the piano.
The piece serves as a tender love letter to the composer’s wife, Clara Schumann, one of the most renowned pianists of her time. The depth of the emotions underlying the piece were palpable, with some phrases seemingly calling Clara’s name in a delicate and whimsical serenade, cementing its status as a paragon of the Romantic movement.
The piano and orchestra played a flirtatious game throughout the concerto, interwoven in a way unlike most concertos. The orchestra was in top form, though Biss’s uniquely captivating performance was the highlight.
The piano’s part is particularly complex, given the rapid torrents of cords it demands. This was particularly true in the concerto’s breathtaking third movement, which Biss himself described as a “nonstop euphoria machine” according to youth orchestra conductor Randall Swiggum.
Nevertheless, the pianist gave a flawless performance, and without the aid of sheet music. Biss practically jumped back from the piano following especially intense passages, as if overwhelmed by the powerful feelings coursing through the piece.
MSO Pianst Raises November Spirits
Bill Wineke // Madison Independent Arts Review
Pianist Jonathan Biss last played with the Madison Symphony Orchestra in 2010 and, from the reception he received Friday, he ought to visit more often.
Biss played Schumann’s “Concerto for Piano and Orchestra in A minor” and received two standing ovations and, had he returned to the stage for a third time would, no doubt have received another one.
Not that he needs the adulation.
During the current concert season he is playing at the Salzburg and Gsytaad festivals in Germany, the Orchestre de Chamber de Paris, the London Philharmonic and the National Orchestra of Wales, among a number of European and American venues.
Biss is not what one might call a reserved pianist. His long fingers hover above the keyboard waiting to strike. When he completes a theme his left arm shoots toward the sky – actually, he reminds one of an athlete at the piano (that observation isn’t new with me).
Also, no human being can make his fingers move as fast as Biss makes his fingers move; if he’s an athlete, he’s world class.
The weekend program begins with Mozart’s “Haffner” symphony, one of the most recognizable piece of classical music around, and ends with William Levi Dawson’s “Negro Folk Symphony,” one of the least known works and one that had never been played by the MSO before this weekend.
Despite its title, the Dawson work does not rely on familiar spirituals, though the spirit of Black music in American history pervades the music. One interesting feature of the piece is the prominence of the triangle, which rings out regularly through the third movement.
My wife, Jackie, particularly liked the folk symphony and said she thinks it cries out for someone to use it as the basis of an opera.
Hear what the audience had to say…
“I enjoyed the variety of the selections chosen for this concert. Jonathon Biss’ performance
was masterful and enjoyed his unique style and mesmerizing command of the piano. I liked
the fact that some of these selections were being played for the first time by MSO.”
“John DeMain did a wonderful programming job! I loved every piece. Mozart beautiful.
Schumann and Bies were great piano wizardry. And, The Negro Folk Symphony was especially
interesting. We went online after the concert and read everything we could about Dawson.”
“Everything about this concert was compelling, but the MOST compelling event was the
Dawson symphony. It was one of the most surprising, enthralling, unique and special musical
experiences in my memory.”
“The MSO has grown so much – now, its concerts consistently combine a deeply satisfying
listener experience with some of the greatest music for orchestra!”
“It was the first time I’d heard all three pieces and I enjoyed each. I especially enjoyed Biss’s
and the orchestra’s performance of the Schumann Concerto. It felt like a true collaboration
between the soloist and the orchestra and was filled with sweet melodies and moving
“The Dawson symphony was fabulous. We did not know of Dawson or his music, so this one
was special and memorable. The orchestra was in top form. We also were very impressed with
Mr. Biss and the Schumann concerto. Never would have guessed that a Mozart piece would
be our 3rd favorite of the concert!”
“MSO is a world class orchestra. I am always amazed at the excellent performances. Jonathan Biss was also amazing.”
“The evening was super special to me. Attending the symphony is compelling in every aspect.”
“The Schumann concerto was our favorite part, and we were very impressed by Mr. Biss. He
was brilliant! We were also impressed by how well the orchestra played throughout the concert.
We congratulate Mr. DeMain and all the musicians and thank them for a wonderful evening.”
“Piano performance was fantastic! Really enjoyed the Dawson Symphony. Had never heard it
before but thought it was brilliant. French Horn and English horn particularly wonderful. Always
nice to be introduced to something new.”
“I was mesmerized by the concert and the symphony who were in total sync! It was thrilling
hear the music move between the piano and the orchestra! I would say it was one of the finest
concerts MSO gas presented!”