Sixty miles east of downtown Atlanta, beyond the reaches of the sprawling metro suburbs, lies Madison, a charming, historic Georgia town that still exudes Southern hospitality and civic-minded volunteerism, and occasionally gets noticed by travel magazines. Founded in 1809, the town notably escaped being burned in the Civil War during General Sherman’s infamous “March to the Sea” due to his friendship with one Joshua Hill, a pro-Union resident of Madison who served as a U.S. congressman before the war and as a U.S. Senator when the state was readmitted to the Union.
Among Madison’s downtown architectural treasures is the Madison-Morgan Cultural Center, a Romanesque Revival-styled structure built in 1895 as a graded public school, unusual in an era when most schoolhouses were one room. The red-brick building features a slate roof with gables and a bell tower that rises high above its front entrance. In the back is an intimate 397-seat theater that still boasts original yellow heart-pine woodwork, chairs with wrought-iron legs and a chandelier.
The center is the primary venue for the Madison Chamber Music Festival, and Saturday’s concert kicked off the festival’s 10th season. Christopher Rex, who is the festival’s artistic director as well as the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s principal cellist, assembled an impressive roster of musicians that included ASO Music Director Robert Spano as the pianist with soprano Jessica Rivera, violinists David Coucheron and Yoon Jung Yang, and violist James Dunham.
Titled “Americans and Paris,” the program paired French and American selections in the first half: the slow, bluesy Prelude No. 2 from George Gershwin’s “Three Preludes” with the second, moderato “blues” movement of Maurice Ravel’s Violin Sonata No. 2 and Claude Debussy’s “Ariettes oubliées” with a handful of songs from American opera and musicals.
Spano opened solo, playing Gershwin’s brief Prelude with a relaxed manner, opting for an emphasis on flexible melody in the right hand rather than the steady blues bass figure in the left. Gershwin himself called it “a sort of blues lullaby.” Marked Andante con moto e poco rubato, we got less of the con moto and more of the poco rubato from Spano.
Coucheron then joined Spano for the Ravel excerpt, a stylized Parisian take on 1920s American jazz and blues. The violin opens with pizzicato chords that imitate a banjo, followed by a melody with pitch-bending inflections, while the piano part abstracts the stride of W.C. Handy, among others, in the movement’s largely bitonal context. Of the three times I’ve heard this movement performed this season, this one was the most immediately convincing.
The rest of the first half was devoted to soprano Rivera, accompanied by Spano, with Debussy’s “Ariettes oubliées” up first. The intimacy of the theater, the round thrust of its small, low stage almost at the feet of the front row, was an advantage, allowing Rivera to sing with a subtlety and nuance that large halls simply don’t allow.
This was followed by a clutch of American tunes, beginning with the waltzing “Will You Remember” from Sigmund Romberg’s operetta “Maytime,” which inspired Rivera as a teenager to become an opera singer. “And This Is My Beloved” from the musical “Kismet,” credited to Robert Wright and George Forest though the music was lifted directly from Alexander Borodin’s String Quartet No. 2, followed. Three songs from Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story,” sung as separate numbers, might have been much more effective as a single threaded medley. Gershwin’s nearly obligatory “Summertime” concluded the first half of the concert. After the somewhat dull piano parts of the Bernstein music, Spano emotionally lit up with the Gershwin, and it was evident that this is a song close to his musical heart.
The second half consisted of the ultra-expressive Piano Quintet in F minor of César Franck, which often pits the strings as a body against the piano, especially in the first movement. Although in the slow movement there were places where more volume from Yang’s second violin part would have been welcomed, the performance was robust overall, with urgency of romantic drive in its nearly ceaseless harmonic modulations.
The festival will present eight more events at various venues in Madison through July 13.