The Madison Symphony Orchestra was finally able to make their much-anticipated return to Overture Hall last weekend for String Spirit. The enthusiastic crowd first welcomed the Rhapsodie Quartet to the stage who opened the concert with Edward Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro. Greg Zelek, MSO’s principal organist, followed with Francis Poulenc’s Concerto in G minor for Organ, Strings, and Timpani. The concert closed with Tchaikovsky’s Serenade in C Major for String Orchestra, Op. 48. Read the reviews below to find out what made the Madison Symphony Orchestra’s return to live music so special.

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Bill Wineke / Channel 3000: “Happy, Masked Crowd Return to the MSO”

One of the nicest things about the Madison Symphony Orchestra is that it is pretty easy to feel among friends when one attends a concert.

That was, perhaps, especially true Friday night when the MSO returned to Overture Hall after being dark for more than a year due to Covid.

Not that Covid was gone.

In order to get into the Overture Center patrons had to be masked and show a guard proof of vaccination and photo identification. The orchestra itself has been tested for the virus twice a week and it, along with conductor John DeMain, was masked throughout the performance.

Also, the program was a change in plans. Originally, the theme of the concert was “Joyful Reunion, Beethoven’s Nineth,” the “choral symphony.” It features a large chorus and a large chorus singing through masks. . .well, you know.

Instead, DeMain put together a “String Spirit” concert featuring the symphony’s strings, percussion, and organ, but no horns and no woodwinds.

As it turns out, it was a wonderful concert.

It featured organist Greg Zelek, violinist Suzann Beia, violinist Laura Burns, cellist Karl LaVine and Christopher Dozorist on the viola. The 90-minute program included Elgar’s “Rhapsodie Quartet,” Poulenc’s “Concerto in G Minor for Organ, Strings and Timpani,” and Tchaikovsky’s “Serenade in C Major for String Orchestra.”

But, mostly, the night was just a chance to get together again and remember some traditions.

One of them is the round applause offered by general manager Ann Bowen as she brings DeMain’s score to the podium. That started a few years ago, possibly because people confused her with the concertmaster, but it seemed like a good thing to do and she is worthy.

But that doesn’t happen at most symphonies.

Also, this concert is kind of pre-season. The regular symphony season begins October 15, 16, and 17 and will feature pianist Olga Kern (a Madison favorite) and will also begin with the “Star Spangled Banner.” Personally, I was hoping it would have been played by the strings Friday, but tradition is tradition.

Also also, it is customary for DeMain to shake hands with the concertmaster, Naha Greenholtz and with featured artists. But DeMain does fist bumps and Zelek does elbow bumps. We make adjustments, I guess.

The audience at this first concert was fairly sparse, about 400 patrons in a theater that will seat more than 2,000. And one thing that wasn’t traditional were the masks. Normally, a good percentage of the audience looks familiar even if you don’t know each person by name. But, with masks, it was hard to identify even acquaintances by looking at the top of each person’s head.

But, let’s not be picky. The MSO is back and it’s really good to be back home in the family.
Read the review on Channel 3000’s website

Matt Ambrosio / Capital Times: “Concert review: Madison Symphony returns to Overture Hall with stellar ‘String Spirit'”

The Madison Symphony Orchestra’s “String Spirit,” its first concert in Overture Hall in 18 months, may have been absent of winds and brass, but it was no soft opening.

The original concert planned for this weekend had become unworkable due to pandemic restrictions, but as maestro John DeMain explained to the audience on Friday night, “We needed to play!” — and play they did. The string players rose to the occasion and delivered a powerful concert that whets the appetite for a fantastic season on the horizon.

Walking into Overture Hall Friday night felt simultaneously familiar and new. It recalled a pre-pandemic era while at the same time pointed to a hopeful future for live music. Once in the hall, the audience boiled over with eagerness, so much so that the stage manager who placed DeMain’s score on his stand received a resounding applause. Scanning the crowd, I found that I was one of many who, out of pure excitement and joy, couldn’t wipe the smizes (eye smiles) off of my face.

It seemed appropriate that the pieces of the MSO’s return concert all dealt in some manner with reminiscence; the melody of Elgar’s “Allegro” was one the composer remembered overhearing during his travels in Wales; the figures of Poulenc’s “Concerto” drew inspiration from Baroque organ fantasies; and the form of Tchaikovsky’s “Serenade” is of classical design.

The MSO filled the hall at the very start with the fortissimo opening chord of Elgar’s “Introduction and Allegro” as if to say, “We’re back, and we’re ready to play.” The work features a soli string quartet center stage, performed Friday by the Rhapsodie Quartet, which is comprised of MSO members. Though each player in the quartet performed beautifully, violist Chris Dozoryst gave an especially uplifting performance in his brief solo near the beginning of the work.

With only strings players on stage, all musical sounds and their sources were easy to match up, so during the spirited fugue in the middle of the “Allegro,” it was as visually entertaining as it was aurally to trace the fugue’s theme from violins to violas to cellos. As the theme was chased around, the MSO built up to the “Allegro’s” resounding end.

It is always a treat to hear Overture Hall’s organ, especially when played by Greg Zelek, a Madison favorite, who featured in Poulenc’s “Concerto for Organ, Strings, and Timpani.” Beyond his speed and dexterity at the keys and foot pedals, Zelek is finely adept at curating the tone and dynamics of Overture’s organ to blend perfectly with the MSO.

Performing this concerto, the MSO displayed a wide palette of sounds, some of which are too rarely heard in concert. When the organ sounded in unison with the strings, the melody took on a bright and beautiful hue; and when coupled with the timpani, the low register of the organ gained depth and profundity.

To celebrate the stellar performance, Zelek and DeMain shared a hands-free elbow bump before Zelek delighted the crowd with an encore.

The MSO closed the evening with a fan favorite, Tchaikovsky’s “Serenade for Strings,” an appropriate choice to show off the full breadth of the MSO strings’ abilities. From the work’s mellifluous melodies to its lush harmonies, the MSO strings made the Serenade feel like a warm musical hug from an old friend.

The opening melody is penetrating and songful, inviting introspection. Tchaikovsky said the piece “came from an inward impulse,” and the opening melody seems proof of concept. As if it were possible to forget, the melody returns at the end of the final movement, assuring that listeners will leave with a proper earworm.

Read the review on the Cap Times website

John Stofflet / NBC15: “Madison Symphony Orchestra returns to in-person performances”

For the first time in a year and a half, musicians from the Madison Symphony Orchestra will return to perform in front of a live audience at Overture Hall Friday and Saturday night.

Maestro John DeMain and MSO Principal Organist Greg Zelek discussed what it means to get back into a rhythm as an orchestra this week.

MSO’s “String Spirit” takes place this weekend.

You can learn more about COVID-19 protocols and ticket information by visiting the symphony’s website.

The plan is for all of the orchestra’s sections and musicians to return next month.

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Channel 3000: “Madison Symphony Orchestra makes changes as new season begins”

The Madison Symphony Orchestra is preparing to kick off the fall season, with some changes to the program.

The orchestra has already postponed its “Joyful Reunion: Beethoven’s Ninth” performance, originally scheduled for September 24th, due to Dane County’s new COVID-19 mask mandate.

The orchestra will perform its “String Spirit” show at Overture Hall. on September 24th and 25th, and attendees must be fully vaccinated or show proof of a negative COVID-19 test.

MSO Music Director John Demain joins News 3 Now to discuss the return of live classical music to Madison.

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