Madison Symphony Orchestra, Bianconi rock the ‘Rach 3’

Michael Muckian,Contributing writer


When Philippe Bianconi took the Overture Hall stage with the Madison Symphony Orchestra Friday, he may not have been quite what some audience members expected.

Of medium build and height – about 5’10” — and dressed in an open-necked shirt and unassuming gray suit, the French pianist and Van Cliburn competition silver medalist strode deliberately toward the orchestra’s Steinway concert grand piano with a slight smile on his face. He acknowledged the welcoming applause, but was clearly ready to get down to business.

Bianconi, in his sixth appearance as an MSO guest artist, had signed on to perform Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Concert No. 3 for Piano and Orchestra in D minor, Op. 30. Clearly, he is a man who enjoys a challenge.

The exhilarating but dreaded Rach 3, considered by many one of the most difficult classical compositions to perform, is a technically demanding work with massive chords, significant complexity and note sequences that sometimes defy prediction. At 6 ‘ 6”, Rachmaninoff was a tall man with very large hands, giving him a reach that exceeds the grasp of many concert pianists.

But the challenge did little to deter Bianconi. With hands flying over the keyboard, he played the Rach 3 with vigor, passion and a high level of technical mastery.

At the 41-minute composition’s conclusion, Bianconi again turned to acknowledge the applause, this time delivered with wild enthusiasm from a standing Overture Hall audience. After four curtain calls and a short, unidentified solo encore, he left the stage with the same slight smile, but this time one deservedly earned.

The Rach 3 was the third of three selections in an evening that also proved MSO’s technical mastery. The unusual grouping also illustrated MSO artistic director and maestro John DeMain’s ability to blend sharply defined compositions from strikingly different styles that nevertheless shared similar emotional thread.

The evening opened with the Overture to Manfred, Op. 115 by Robert Schumann. The German composer penned the work, based on Byron’s poem about a freedom fighter tortured by guilt and melancholy, in 1848 when much of Europe was in political upheaval.

Schumann’s hero emerges in his overture, performed with a deftness and delicacy by DeMain and company, that tells the hero’s dramatic tale up to and through his death. The Romantic period composition, a Schumann concert favorite, set a distinct emotional tone for the evening.

That tone was immediately turned on its ear by Witold Lutosławski’s Concerto for Orchestra. The 1954 Postmodernist composition took MSO and its audience far outside their musical comfort zones.

Lutosławski composed much of his music when his native Poland was under post-World War II Soviet rule, a time when anything avant-garde was held suspect by authorities. His public compositional persona generated more standard fare and folk styles, while he worked on what at the time were considered more experimental compositions in private. The Concerto for Orchestra is one of those works.

The three-movement concerto, which contains some of the last of Lutosławski’s folk melodies, paints both an austere and passionate picture of the composer’s life in the 1950s.

From its solemn opening notes to an eight-measure theme repeated some 18 times often in frantic tones to its unexpected crashing ending, the 29-minute work called for much from the orchestra and its maestro. DeMain and the MSO delivered expressively at all levels.

And if the work was as much fun to play as it was to experience, the performance — and the entire evening — was a success at all levels.

The program repeats Sunday afternoon at 2:30 p.m. Call the Overture Center box office at 608-258-4141 for tickets.