Madison/WI, USA, Overture Hall




Everything's Up to Date in Madison, in Tune With Its New Overture Hall


Published: November 23, 2004

MADISON, Wis., Nov. 21


Perhaps it helped to have been there way back when. Yet even if you hadn't heard the plucky but sorely challenged Madison Civic Symphony labor in a high school auditorium in the 1960's, you could only have been impressed by its successor, the Madison Symphony Orchestra, playing in its gleaming new home, Overture Hall, on Friday and Saturday evenings.


The building - part of an emerging Overture Center for the Arts, a block from the state capitol - was designed by Cesar Pelli and opened in September. But a major new element was officially inaugurated over the weekend with the dedication of a remarkable built-in pipe organ, made by Orgelbau Klais, of Bonn, Germany.


Thomas Trotter, an English organ virtuoso, joined the orchestra in deft performances of Joseph Jongen's "Symphonie Concertante." He will conclude the celebration with a solo recital on Tuesday evening.


Both the hall and the instrument proved mightily attractive to the eye as well as the ear. Despite the hall's other delights, in fact, the artful, undulant array of organ pipes captivated the attention, in shifting harmony or counterpoint with the music.


The shapely curves, Philipp Klais, the builder said, were meant to evoke Madison's setting, suggesting waves on the three surrounding lakes, and rolling hills beyond. Indeed, it seemed an ideal backdrop for Mendelssohn's similarly evocative "Scottish" Symphony, which, though organless, was the program's centerpiece.


But the instrument's principal novelty is that it is movable. Since Overture Hall is intended as a multipurpose auditorium, suitable for musicals, opera and ballet as well as concerts, the 30-ton organ, mounted on 16 wheels and two sets of railroad tracks, can recede into an oversize cabinet to expand the stage and provide a more neutral backdrop.


In fact, organs are seldom prominent in multiuse halls. In this respect and others, said John DeMain, the orchestra's music director, Overture Hall "erred toward a concert hall." Heard from two locations on Friday and Saturday, the acoustics, designed by Kirkegaard Associates, sounded notably bright yet mellow, clean yet reverberant.


The hall, seating 2,150, is the flagship of the Overture Center, a $205 million gift to the city from W. Jerome Frautschi. The $1.1 million organ was a gift from his wife, Pleasant Rowland, creator of the American Girl doll. Mr. Frautschi's wealth derived from investments in American Girl as well as from his own printing company.


The organ sounded splendid in Mr. Trotter's performance of the Jongen work, though this is not quite so blatant a showpiece as, say, Saint-Saëns's "Organ" Symphony (which the orchestra played in an earlier, prededication concert). The tonal qualities are rich and varied, and the sonic heft seems well suited to the space.


But it is crucial for a concert organ, as opposed to a church instrument, Mr. Trotter noted in conversation, to be able to blend with a symphony orchestra as well as stand up to it. And the blend here was uncanny, sometimes tricking the ear into confusing reed pipes with woodwind instruments.


But as good as all this news was, the crowning touch for an old Madison hand who arrived hopeful but not optimistic was the condition and quality of the Madison Symphony. At a time of orchestral retrenchment nationwide, this part-time group seems to be flourishing, with an annual surplus of $50,000 to $100,000 on its $2.8 million budget, and an endowment climbing toward $15 million. It added a third concert for 7 of its 9 subscription programs this season, and subscriptions and attendance are strong and rising steeply (partly, no doubt, because of the new hall).


Mr. DeMain, a veteran conductor best known for his work in opera, took over the orchestra in , and he is obviously a gifted orchestra builder. Apart from minor problems in the woodwinds on Friday and in the brasses on Saturday, this group could have passed for a full-time orchestra despite a substantial representation of University of Wisconsin faculty members and students.


The most compelling element was the strings, incisive in Vaughan Williams's overture to "The Wasps" but warm and plush as appropriate. In that respect it was tempting to compare this regional orchestra even with a major international ensemble, the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, which made no virtue of harshness in a Brahms concert at Avery Fisher Hall last month.


For two nights, at least, it was easy to believe Mr. DeMain's boast from the stage that "Madison does things right."


Deutsche Infos zur Orgel / German information on the organ:

Madison ...