Thank you to Sandy Tabachnick for writing a great piece about our Feb. 17-19 Symphony concerts, Heroic Piano & Premiere!
You can view Sandy’s story on Isthmus’s website or read the story below.
By Sandy Tabachnick, Isthmus, February 1, 2023
The Madison Symphony Orchestra’s upcoming concerts in Overture Hall range more widely across time than any other program of the season, the mood of the music swinging from Classical decorum to techno.
John DeMain, the MSO’s longtime music director, will conduct the three works on the program Feb. 17, 18 and 19— Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Minor, Dvořák’s Symphony No. 6 in D Major, and a 21st-century phenomenon titled Coincident Dances by African American composer Jessie Montgomery, part of MSO’s goal to diversify its orchestra music.
Montgomery is the Mead composer-in-residence of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. She also has a long association with the Sphinx Organization, a social justice group focused on increasing the representation of Black and Latino/a artists in classical music. “Jessie Montgomery is creating a sensation in the symphony world, and I am happy to introduce the audience to her music,” says DeMain.
Written in 2017 for the Chicago Sinfonietta, Coincident Dances begins with a calm solo in the bass. It gradually adds more orchestra instruments as layers of opposing rhythms converge. The music gets loud and turbulent, but never chaotic, and ends as calmly as it begins.
In Montgomery’s program note to the piece, she writes: “Coincident Dances was inspired by the sounds found in New York’s various cultures, capturing the frenetic energy and multicultural aural palette one hears even in a short walk through a New York City neighborhood.” She says that as the orchestra plays a myriad of styles from English consort to techno, it acts as a DJ of a multicultural dance track.
The piece is nostalgic for DeMain. “It reminds me of my student days at Juilliard,” he says. “I’d walk to the subway after class and hear all sorts of music from buildings as students practiced.”
Coincident Dances and the Beethoven piano concerto are separated by over two hundred years, but Montgomery and Beethoven share a similarity: Both experiment with different ways to preserve life’s fleeting moments in their music.
British pianist Benjamin Grosvenor makes his MSO debut in the concerto. “Benjamin is a superstar in England and Europe,” says DeMain. “But we’re just getting to know him in America. We’re very lucky to have him.”
Most music historians agree that the concerto’s composition date was around 1800. It premiered in Vienna in 1803 with Beethoven at the piano. It was a difficult time for the composer. He was worried about the ringing and buzzing in his ears that signaled the start of the loss of most of his hearing. The storm clouds of the Napoleonic Wars were gathering as the French Revolution challenged the aristocracies of Europe.
But other than the key of C minor that Beethoven reserves for dark, tempestuous works, the concerto is often upbeat, weaving agilely in and out of C minor and its sunnier counterpart E-flat major. After a reflective slow movement, the concerto is dance-like in parts and has dizzying finger work for the pianist. It’s fun to watch and ends in a blaze of triumph.
DeMain says that Beethoven was a transitional composer who was instrumental in changing musical style from the Classical era of Mozart and Haydn to the Romantic era of Chopin and Schumann. The piano concerto is very much a Classical work, but there are hints of the future Romantics in its depth of emotion.
Beethoven died in 1827, and by the time Dvořák composed his sixth symphony in 1880, the Romantic era that Beethoven ushered in was in its autumnal years. Dvořák was influenced by Romantics like Brahms and Wagner, but he also championed the folk music of his homeland, now the Czech Republic. You will hear references to that music in the concerto’s lively third-movement scherzo.
Dvořák is one of DeMain’s favorite composers. “The variety of his output is amazing,” he says. “When I heard his operas, I was blown away by their inventiveness.”
Shows are at 7:30 p.m. on Feb. 17, 8 p.m. on Feb. 18 and 2:30 p.m. on Feb. 19. More information about the program for this unusual concert, and ticket info, can be found at madisonsymphony.org.