Pianist Hough shines in concert with Madison Symphony Orchestra

Michael Muckian, Contributing writer

Some stars shine more brightly than the surrounding firmament, as pianist Stephen Hough displayed radiantly last night in performance with the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

The guest artist for this weekend’s concert series at Madison’s Overture Hall, Hough demonstrated his virtuosic talent once again, performing Camille Saint-Saëns’ Concerto No. 5 in F Major for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 103 (The Egyptian). The 30-minute late Romantic work anchored what is perhaps MSO’s best-considered program of the season.

A melancholy tone threaded through the evening, which began with MSO’s first-ever performance of Samuel Barber’s Second Essay for Orchestra, Op. 17.

The 11-minute introductory piece, composed in 1942, set the mood early with a melodic theme spun out by solo flute. It’s musical lines evolved and emotion roiled in a work that, while not specifically programmed with a narrative in mind, nevertheless reflected the war years in which it was composed.

MSO under Maestro John DeMain masterfully managed Barber’s melodies, opening the concert on a bright and emotional note. The composition by Barber, the American composer best known for his haunting Adagio for Strings, set a high bar that the rest of the evening for the most part followed.

The Saint-Saëns composition rounded out the evening’s first half, starting with the English pianist striding comfortably to the Hamburg Steinway set center stage. The French composer was already 60 when he composed the work during a stay in the Egyptian city of Luxor. His composition reflected subtle elements of Oriental exoticism that was all the rage in Europe in 1893.

The piece’s melodic strength was outshone only by Hough’s fluidity and skill. Performing from memory, Hough moved from the relaxed, sometimes haunting allergro animato opening through a robust andante to the fiery, and even flashy movement that closed the work.

Hough’s fingers literally danced over the keyboard, forcefully providing melodies and flourishes throughout the work, earning a much deserved standing ovation at mid-concert.

At the third curtain all, Hough returned to the piano to reward the audience with an elegant performance of Claude Debussy’s shimmering Clair de Lune. The pianist’s powerful technique evolved into the restrained, almost aching delicacy called for in the Impressionist composer’s simple work, which turned out to be the highlight of the evening.

The MSO returned in the second half to perform Peter Ilych Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 74 (Pathétique). The work is challenging mostly in its representation of the life of the composer, a closeted gay man who is believed to have committed suicide just nine days after conducting the symphony’s premiere performance in St. Petersburg.

Moreover, the title of the symphony, which Tchaikovsky believed was “passionate” or “emotional,” was mistranslated into the French as Pathétique, literally “pathetic.” The ironic error may have had some meaning to Tchaikovsky, who, according to legend, was convinced by Russian nobles to take his own life after having a romantic affair with one of their nephews.

As a musical reflection of Tchaikovsky’s life, the first movement opens with a melancholy bassoon melody that gives way to violas. The second movement is almost waltz-like in its melodies, composed in an unusual five/four meter.

The symphony’s third movement, played allegro molto vivace, evolves into a strident march, with a thundering percussive finish that drew hearty applause from many audience members. Surely, they thought, this was a standard close to a major work.

But it wasn’t. DeMain and his musicians waited patiently for the applause to subside before launching into a fourth movement, an unexpected adagio lamentoso that returned to the opening theme and melancholy bassoon solo that eventually drifted away to nothingness, a musical exhaustion that perhaps reflected the drama of the composer’s final days.

MSO performed superbly throughout. The program repeats tonight and Sunday afternoon.