Wineke: Cellist works; Grand Canyon not so much

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Madison Symphony Orchestra

Cellist Thomas Mesa was introduced to Madison in 2019 when Overture Concert Organ curator Greg Zelek asked him to share an organ concert.

It was a great night as the Julliard buddies combined incredible music with playful banter that made their respected instruments seem less intimidating.

Mesa was back in town over the weekend to perform with the Madison Symphony Orchestra, minus the organ and minus the banter but with his formidable talent with the cello very much at the fore.

He played Antonin Dvorak’s “Concerto for Cello and Orchestra,” a 40-minute work that kept him in sync with conductor John DeMain and the orchestra through three tough movements and brought the audience to its feet for extended cheers.

He will, undoubtedly, return often.

The other highlight of the weekend concerts was a performance of Ferde Grofe’s “Grand Canyon Suite.”

The music was accompanied by a visual depiction of the canyon on a massive screen behind the orchestra and, to my mind, that didn’t work as well.

The projection was interesting, showing various facets of the canyon at differing times of the year but it didn’t appear to have much depth; one really didn’t get the feeling of being there. It wasn’t bad; it was just flat.

But the real reason I question it is because the artwork reduced the orchestra to playing accompaniment. The hall was darkened so we couldn’t really see the musicians and, honestly, if the orchestra had been replaced by a high-quality recording, I’m not sure we would have missed much.

Still, it’s better to try something new every once in a while than to play things boring and safe, so I’m glad DeMain did it. I’m just not sure it worked.

One thing did work, however, and that was a beautiful solo by concertmaster Naha Greenholtz, who proves at every concert that we’re lucky to have her.

The concerts include two other, brief, pieces.

One is “Rugby,” composed in 1928 by Arthur Honneger in France. It is supposed to invoke . . .guess what? It is loud and brassy and six minutes long, which is about enough.

The other is by African American composer George Walker, “Lyric for Strings.” This was published in 1947 and is, also, six-minutes long. But this piece is one of the most beautiful I’ve ever heard in concert and seemed to end far too soon.