By Jacob Stockinger
Today is the birthday celebration of the murdered Nobel Peace Prize-winning civil rights leader the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (below) with celebrations around the nation, including a live broadcast from the state Capitol on Wisconsin Public Radio at noon CST. (The MLK tribute will also air tonight from 8 to 9 p.m. on Wisconsin Public Television.)
And that is exactly what the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below) will do this coming Sunday afternoon at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall in a first-time and one-time only concert that looks, according to marketing director Teri Venker, headed for a sellout.
Here is the MSO press release:
“Bohemian Antonín Dvořák’s uniquely American composition, Symphony No. 9, “From the New World,” will be the focus of Beyond the Score®, a multimedia concert experience Sun., Jan. 26, 2014, at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall in Madison, Wisconsin. This is a Madison first and a one-time only performance.
“Beyond the Score® will feature videos and photos, actors and narrator, and musical examples, as well as a full performance of the symphony by Conductor John DeMain and the musicians of the Madison Symphony Orchestra. The experience will fully immerse the audience in the “New World Symphony’s” context in history, how it relates to Dvořák’s other works, and the events in the composer’s life that influenced its creation.
“MSO music director and conductor John DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad) said: “This is an entertaining way to learn more about one of the world’s masterpieces through video, music, and actors. Hopefully, you’ll hear the symphony in a whole new way. This is an opportunity you won’t want to miss!” (At the bottom is a popular YouTube video , that has over 1.3 millions hits, and that features superstar conductor Gustavo Dudamel of the Los Angeles Philharmonic leading the exciting final movement of the :”New World” symphony in a special concert for Pope Benedict XVI.)
“Other professional talent will also play key roles.
“Anders Yocom, of Wisconsin Public Radio, will narrate.
Actor James Ridge (below), also a core member of American Players Theatre, will enact multiple roles.
“Mezzo-soprano Jacqueline Colbert (below), who is director of the women’s chorus at Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Madison and is president of the Madison Symphony Chorus, will sing excerpts of spirituals that influenced Dvorak.
“Dan Lyons (below), principal pianist of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, will be the accompanist.
“Dvorak, already an internationally renowned composer, came to America in 1892 at the invitation of wealthy East Coast philanthropist Jeannette Thurber. He headed the American Conservatory of music in New York City and his main goal was to discover “American Music” and employ it in his own compositions. He also vacationed in the Czech community Spillville, Iowa, which holds an annual Dvorak festival each summer.
“Dvorak was particularly taken with the music of both African-Americans and Native Americans, and in 1893 began work on Symphony No. 9. To this day there is a lively debate as to whether the piece more prominently reflects these “new world” cultures or rather Dvořák’s native Bohemia.
“According to notes from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, “For Americans, this is the first great symphony about America. For African-Americans, this is the first great orchestral work to use themes inspired by their songs and spirituals. For Native Americans, it is the first, and so far the only, great work inspired by Native American music.” Beyond the Score® is a complete exploration of these varied and intriguing influences.
“Tickets are $15-$60 each, and are available at www.madisonsymphony.org/beyond ; through the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street, Madison, Wisconsin or by calling the Overture Center Box Office at (608) 258-4141.
“Beyond the Score® is produced by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra with Gerard McBurney, creative director, and Martha Gilmer, executive producer. Major funding for this concert is provided by an anonymous friend of the Madison Symphony Orchestra.”
By Jacob Stockinger
There are a lot of talented young pianists on the scene today including Daniil Trifonov, Lang Lang, Jan Lisiecki, Kirill Gerstein, Yundi Lee, Benjamin Grosvenor, Jonathan Biss, Igor Levit and Inon Barnaton, to name just a few.
But few make the waves that 26-year-old pianist Yuja Wang (below) always does. She is nothing short of electrifying to see and hear, according to the reviews I have read – even the reviews that don’t especially like her interpretations. (The Ear would like to hear Wang perform some serious Classical and Baroque works, not just later Romantic or modern music.)
Yang’s latest venture is an exciting recording for Deutsche Grammophon (below) of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s gargantuan Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor and Sergei Prokofiev’s fiendishly difficult Piano Concerto No. 2 in G Minor.
Yang – featured on the cover in almost a parody of the Madame Butterfly look with fake eyelashes — performs them live with the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela under its superstar alumnus Gustavo Dudamel, who is now the music director and conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. (You can hear Dudamel’s take on Wang in the YouTube video at the bottom.)
I have listened to the recording, and these are high-octane performances that remind one, for better and worse, of Vladimir Horowitz and Martha Argerich — not bad artists to be compared to.
But Yuja Wang has added to their appeal with an interview she recently did with the Los Angles Times on the occasion of four performances in LA’s Walt Disney Concert Hall that was designed by Frank Gehry. It even builds on the one she did with NPR in which she compared Rachmaninoff to jazz great Art Tatum in this mastery of improvisation:
In a surprisingly candid and matter-of-fact manner, she covered a lot of topics.
They included he background, her training, her taste in non-classical music, her piano playing and acclaimed technique, even her controversial concert attire such as the scarlet micro-skirt (below top) she wore at the Hollywood Bowl and the thigh-high slit black gown and stiletto heels she wore for her Carnegie Hall debut (below bottom).
Here is a link to the interview, which I hope you enjoy as much as The Ear did:
NEWS ALERT: Marvin Rabin (below, at an award dinner in 2011), the man who founded and directed the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestra back in the 1960s, after a similar history in Louisville and Boston, died at 97 (NOT 95, as I erroneously first stated) on Thursday night. He was a giant in the field of music education, and had a national and international reputation. Look for a longer blog posting tomorrow, on Sunday. He was an amazingly talented, devoted and humane person who affected tens of thousands of lives for the better.
By Jacob Stockinger
Was that refreshing or what?
Maybe it even shows that there is more of an NPR audience for classical music than for some of the hip-hop and Latin stuff they cover to attract younger audiences. One can always hope.
Twenty-six years old and already a superstar, piano phenom Yuja Wang proved playful and articulate as she promoted her new recording (below) for Deutsche Grammophon. It features Sergei Rachmaninoff’s famous Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor and Sergei Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in G Minor, both with the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela under its superstar former conductor Gustavo Dudamel, who now is the music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. (The Madame Butterfly eye lashes on the CD’s cover are a bit much, no? It’s guilding the lotus, The Ear would say. Wang is attractive and sexy enough just as she is.)
Yuja Wang and Gustavo Dudamel make a great team, as you can hear in the excerpts in the YouTube video at the bottom. And watch how, since she is wearing s strapless dress, you can see how her shoulder and chest muscles get that big sound from a small woman.)
Relaxed and freewheeling, Wang herself proved a great improviser in an interview with NPR’s “Morning Edition” co-host Steve Inskeep as she deconstructed and eve performed parts of the “Rach 3” (below, in the NPR studio in a photo by Diane DeBelius).
Wang also emphasized the improvisational qualities of the music and compared Rachmaninoff (below top), one favorite of Vladimir Horowitz (below middle), to the blind jazz giant Art Tatum (below bottom), another favorite of Horowitz. I myself think it is very controlled improvisation, much like the music of Frederic Chopin.
You may recall that the work in question is the titanic, knuckle-busting and wrist-taxing Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor that ruined pianist David Helfgott’s sanity or at least triggered his nervous breakdown in the 1996 Australian film “Shine.”
Be sure to listen to Wang’s expressive voice and to read the Readers’ Comments. There are quite a few – and just about all positive.
Many of them see Yuja Wang as a new Vladimir Horowitz — an obvious comparison reinforced by both the way she plays and the repertoire she plays. (Why not see her as the new Martha Argerich — whom Horowitz himself said had learned much from him.)
But the readers also clearly encourage NRP to do more stories along these lines.
And guess what?
There was no talk about her attractive looks and the sexy micro-skirts and black gown with heels and thigh-slits (below) that have sparked such controversy when she played in them at the Hollywood Bowl and Carnegie Hall, respectively.
By Jacob Stockinger
By now, many of us in this country and around the world have heard about “el sistema,” the pioneering music education movement for young people in Venezuela that gave us the superstar young conductor Gustavo Dudamel (below) who learned his art with the Simon Bolivar Orchestra, which he still conducts and records with when he isn’t with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
Closer to home, I have often written about my admiration for the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO) in Madison and their 96-year-old founder Marvin Rabin as well as their enthusiastic and cheering audiences.
But it seems that music education for young people has taken a gigantic leap forward with the National Symphony Orchestra of the United States of America (below, seen rehearsing) that draws its play from around the nation.
It was created by and is sponsored by the Weill Music Institute of Carnegie Hall – some pedigree, no? (Unfortunately, I can’t find a list of possible Wisconsin participants. If you know of any please let me and the other readers now.) Below is a photo, from Carnegie Hall, of some of the 120 players chosen from more than 100 cities in 42 states, entering their first rehearsal with a great NYO-USA poster in red, white and blue. (For more information, look at the YouTube video at the bottom.)
It performs in major halls, including Carnegie Hall, and has launched a tour with the American superstar violinist Joshua Bell (below top, who is also now the concertmaster and conductor of the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields) and the acclaimed Russian conductor Valery Gergiev (below bottom). Plus the ambitious program suitably featured major Russian works, Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto and Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10 plus a new commissioned work from the young American composer Sean Shepherd that paid homage to Russian composers.
That such big names are willing to participate in this project tells you something important about it and its future.
If you haven’t heard about it – and I have seen precious little about it in the mainstream media except for PBS, NPR and The New York Times, it is time to catch up.
So here some links to help you earn about what seems like such a promising event that some observers say it has the potential to revitalize the classical music scene in the U.S.
Here is a link to its home website at Carnegie Hall with a lot of photos (below is one of the group rehearsing by Chris Lee of The New York Times):
Here is a link to a great background or set-up story on NPR:
And here is a rave review from Anthony Tommasini in The New York Times of the orchestra’s first performance of its first historic tour:
By Jacob Stockinger
Every summer it happens.
Just when I think I can’t be pleasantly surprised anymore, the Madison-based Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society once again manages to surprise me – and with the greatest of pleasure.
This summer’s series — three weekends of six programs in June — opened with two programs this past weekend. And this time, the BDDS made me fall in love with the clarinet.
Now, I have always liked the clarinet. But after hearing clarinetist Burt Hara in his first BDDS appearances, I am absolutely in love with the instrument.
Hara performed beautifully in Mozart’s “Kegelstatt” Trio, but the pieces that really enraptured me were Brahms’ sublimely beautiful and intimate Clarinet Quintet (below) and Olivier Messiaen’s dramatic “Quartet for the End of Time,” which to me is more remarkable for the playing than for the music. (Retired Wisconsin Public Radio host and now narrator Linda Clauder expressively read poems by Shelley, Yeats and other works chosen by pianist Sykes in between movements.)
In all cases, Hara showed a complete mastery. (See and listen to his YouTube video at the bottom.) He is the model of a quiet virtuoso who avoids flash. He blends rather than stands out. He can play softly, almost inaudibly, without losing the incredible richness and depth of tone. His pitch is wonderful, and his ability in the Messiaen quartet (below) to hold a tone from almost silence to a very loud sound with gradual but absolute steadiness was nothing short of miraculous.
Not for nothing has Hara been the principal clarinetist of the Minnesota Orchestra for 25 years, although due to that orchestra’s unfortunate lockout and labor strife, he has apparently decided to take a position as assistant principal clarinet with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and its white-hot young, superstar conductor Gustavo Dudamel.
Wherever Hara makes his home, I hope he returns to Madison in future summers to perform some of the great clarinet repertoire – Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet, Schumann’s Fantasy Pieces, Brahms’ two clarinet sonatas, Debussy’s Rhapsody and Poulenc’s sonata among others.
But Hara is not alone in attracting my attention and admiration.
Also impressive in the first two concerts was guest violist Yura Lee (below), whose lyricism and expressive face matched her impeccable intonation and tone.
Among the more regular BDDS members were co-founders and co-directors pianist Jeffrey Sykes and flutist Stephanie Jutt (below top) as well as Anthony Ross (below top), principal cellist with the Minnesota Orchestra, and violinist Carmit Zori (below bottom), from the Brooklyn Chamber Music Festival.
I don’t think a wrong note, an off-rhythm or a false interpretative move happened among all of them. In short, chamber music and ensemble playing just don’t get any better.
Then there is the repertoire.
I may be never again hear such rarely performed works as Felix Mendelssohn’s early Sonata for Viola or Maurice Emmanuel’s Trio Sonata from 1907, but I am very happy I got to hear them once and I doubt I will ever hear them performed better.
Then there was the American contemporary composer Kenji Bunch (below) and his “New Moon and Morning” (2008) for flute and string quartet. It was a lovely and accessible work that goes down easily. It struck me as very post-Ravel, a sort of meticulously Minimalist French-like work that was terrifically evocative and convincingly atmospheric. As far as I know it is a Madison or even a Midwest premiere, and the work’s colorful transparency worked perfectly as a counterpart complement to Mozart’s trio.
As always there are the creative and very ingenious sets, this year designed by artists Brenda Baker and Burt Ross. This summer’s theme is “Deuces Are Wild” to mark BDDS’ 22nd season, so art of thre “set” uses playing cards around the stage and projected onto the backdrop (below top and bottom) as well as a card trick by a local magician.
The Ear was told that ticket sales are ahead of last summer, and that even subscription tickets are moving faster. That pleases me since I named the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society as Musicians of the Year for 2012.
But there are still seats to be filled at the Overture Center’s Playhouse, the Stoughton Opera House and the Hillside Theater at Taliesin in Spring Green.
Over the next two weekends, the performers include Madison Symphony Orchestra conductor John DeMain as pianist and MSO concertmaster Naha Greenholtz as well as the always reliable singers of University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate soprano Emily Birsan and bass-baritone Timothy Jones plus Pro Arte Quartet violinist Suzanne Beia and cellist Parry Karp and the always reliable violinist Axel Strauss and cellist Jean-Michel Fonteneau of the San Francisco Trio.
But curiously, despite the group’s name, there was and is NO Bach.
Maybe pianist Jeffrey Sykes, a masterful chameleon of a pianist who can blend into any period or style and who played solo Haydn last summer, could open each concert with a brief overture of sorts — some solo Bach, perhaps a short Prelude and Fugue from “The Well-Tempered Clavier,” or a Two-Part or Three-Part Invention, or a movement from a suite or partita. Or maybe a guest violinist or cellist could play a movement from a Bach s0lo suite or, with Sykes, a movement from a Bach sonata. It would set the tone, so to speak, and become a unifying motif.
Anyway, if you love music and are not attending the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society, you are cheating yourself out of a wondrous experience.
For a complete listing of dates, place, times, tickets, performers and pieces, go to:
By Jacob Stockinger
We all remember the superstar conductors, conductors like Arturo Toscanini, Herbert von Karajan and Leonard Bernstein. Even the popular media recognize them as celebrities. More recently, one could conceivably put Georg Solti, Daniel Barenboim and Valery Gergiev in the same category.
The most recent one to capture and hold the public’s imagination in such a charismatic way was Gustavo Dudamel (below), the passionate and almost hyperactive young man who emerged from poverty in Venezuela through the “El sistema” that offered free classical music education. He now is music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra.
Probably the latest candidate for that elite club is Yannick Nezet-Seguin (below, in a photo by Torsten Kjelstrand/NPR with the Philadelphia Orchestra in a Carnegie Hall concert of Shostakovich, Ravel and Szymanowski that was webcast last night by NPR.) And I can think of no better introduction to him than a long profile by The New York Times critic and writer Daniel J. Wakin that appeared last weekend.
Where do you start to convey his personality? The fact that the 35-year-old French-Canadian native of Montreal is openly gay? The Tahitian Turtle Tattoo? The great reviews? The pumped-up chest that earned the short 5-5 conductor the nickname of Mighty Mouse from renowned soprano Joyce DiDonato? His quick rise to the podium of the Philadelphia Orchestra and to the ranks of top, world-class orchestra conductors?
I doubt he will be known as Yanni, since Yanni is already reserved for the New Age composer, who also is often dubbed “Yawni.”
But the boyish conductor just might become a one-name celebrity – something like “Yannick” in the way that Bernstein was “Lenny.” He certainly projects that kind of intensity and he sure gets results.
You can make up your own mind about the man who hopes to rebuild the special “Philadelphia Sound” of Eugene Ormandy that relied on strings the way the Chicago Symphony Sound relied on brass.
Here is a link to the profile:
And here is a link to the archived webcast of last night’s concert in Carnegie Hall. Be sure to read the “Read More” button:
If you heard him, what did you think?
The Ear wants to hear.
By Jacob Stockinger
One of the most interesting stories I heard about classical music in 2012 points yet again to a curious paradox.
Even while many First World audiences, as well as school programs, in Western Europe and North America seem to be turning their backs on classical music, that same classical music is thriving and blossoming in South America and Asia, and even in Africa (below is a double bass player in the Kinshasa Symphony).
Curiously, the greatest success often seems to come from the most unlikely source: The poor and undereducated young people and students, plus their families and friends, for whom the music takes on even more personal and cultural or social meaning.
One example is Gustavo Dudamel (below), the fiery and charismatic superstar conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Gustavo Dudamel and “el sistema” in Venezuela, which trained him and gets countless young people into making classical music.
You may remember that on Christmas Day I touched on this same theme with a very moving video of poor young in Paraguay who are featured in the upcoming documentary “Landfill Harmonic” about poor students who recycle trash into instruments of musical beauty.
Here is a link to that posting:
And here is a link to the story, which aired on NPR in which Leonard Bernstein protégée and conductor Marin Alsop, who leads both the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the Sao Paulo Orchestra in Brazil, discusses her exhilarating experience south of the border.
Those experiences include an outdoors concert for 20,000 (below) and taking the first South American orchestra ever invited to the famed British Proms concerts, where the crowds went wild. (At bottom is a YouTube video of Alsop and the Sao Paulo Orchestra playing encores at the 2012 Proms in Britain.)
Such beauty, meaning and enthusiasm are indeed contagious. Let us hope 2013 brings more of that same energy and devotion to beautiful music and a lifelong appreciation of it right here!
I found the story hopeful and inspiring, and I hope you do too:
ALERT: Phenom conductor Gustavo Dudamel (below) leads the Los Angeles Philharmonic in Stravinsky‘s “The Rite of Spring” LIVE on an NPR webcast today at 5 p.m. EDT on www.npr.org. Here he discusses the landmark work with “All Things Considered” host Robert Siegel: http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2012/09/28/161964987/gustavo-dudamel-on-the-magic-of-stravinskys-crazy-music
By Jacob Stockinger
Just a week ago, last Sunday afternoon, I heard a stunningly good concert by the Madison Symphony Orchestra.
It was the perfect season opener and featured an all-Russian program plus a tribute to two MSO figures who died recently, principal tuba player Paul Haugan (below top) and longtime conductor and music director Roland Johnson (below bottom).
I agree with just about all my critic colleagues, who wrote very positive reviews. It was an extremely impressive and satisfying concert in so many ways.
The “Adagio for Strings” by UW composer John Stevens (below) was less emotionally wrenching than Samuel Barber’s well-known work of the same name. But that only made it more suited to the occasion. It held loss in a level gaze and didn’t sentimentalize the inevitability of death and loss. Plus, the MSO strings sounded so beautiful and so precise.
Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 1 “Classical” was performed with all the wit and spark that the neo-Classical pastiche requires. All sections showed the energetic snap the piece calls for.
And who wouldn’t be overwhelmed by the drama and fierce rhythms, the masterful orchestration and sonic beauty of The “Firebird” Suite, which showcased the entire orchestra, by Stravinsky (below).
But as for the finale, the Piano Concerto No. 2 in G Major, Op. 44, by Tchaikovsky – well I guess I find myself in the role of the dissenter filing a minority report.
MSO music director and conductor John DeMain (below, in a photo by James Gill), now entering his 19th season in Madison, programmed it at the suggestion of the soloist pianist Garrick Ohlsson. It proved to be a premiere performance in the almost century-long history of the MSO.
And I think for good reason.
One critic praised it as a deserving work and a wonderful piece. And it is true that the performance received an enthusiastic standing ovation.
But I think that reception was largely NOT for the music.
I think the audience’s reaction came from hearing a first-rate performance of a second-rate piece.
It is good once a while to hear this rarely performed work. But let’s not overdo it. It is true that the concerto does have some beautiful moments. But overall, it is ponderously long, especially in the first movement.
The second movement, a piano trio with less piano than cello and violin, was performed exceptionally well by principal cellist Karl Lavine (below top, in a photo by Katrin Talbot) and concertmaster Naha Greenholtz (tomorrow bottom). But it really can’t compare for me with the beauty of the Piano Trio in A minor by the same composer. And the final movement was disjointed, albeit virtuosic.
The virtuosic Ohlsson (below) played the treacherously difficult piano part with aplomb, confidence and conviction.
But too much of the concerto just sounded to The Ear like a reworking of passages from the more famous Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor, which has made so many careers including those of Arthur Rubinstein, Vladimir Horowitz, Sviatoslav Richter, Van Cliburn, Emil Gilels, Lang-Lang and many others.
What drive and what lyricism that earlier concerto has. It is irresistible. It changes your world. It shakes you up. It stirs you deeply. And makes you hum or sing along.
If it is a warhorse – and it truly is – it is for a good reason. Its magic never fails. It is indisputably great. It is reliable. It never fails to deliver the goods.
It was good to hear the Second Piano Concerto by Tchaikovsky (below), but more as a curiosity than as a great listening experience. The audience would really have gone wild the First Concerto, especially the hands of such a fluent and powerful player as Ohlsson. I also bet it would have meant sellouts for all three performances at a time when symphonies can use all the attendance they can muster.
Perhaps the concert could have concluded with a Rachmaninoff or Prokofiev concerto, or even the Shostakovich Second. Or the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, which like the same composer’s great symphonies, stands up to the First Piano Concerto and surpasses the Second Piano Concerto.
So I’ll be anxious to hear what other audience members have to say about Tchaikovsky’s Second Piano Concerto? Was it a great work that you liked? Or the great performance that enthralled you?
The Ear wants to hear. You be the critic.
I also want to hear what your own favorite “warhorses” are: J.S. Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins or Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons”? Beethoven’s Fifth or Ninth symphonies, or maybe his “Emperor” piano concerto? Rachmaninoff’s Second or Third Piano Concertos or his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini? Mozart’s G minor and “Jupiter” Symphonies, or perhaps his Piano Concerto in D Minor? Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony? Grieg’s Piano Concerto or Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring”? Puccini’s opera “La Boheme”? Or maybe Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 (at bottom)?
Some very experienced or even jaded listeners will call them “warhorses” and dismiss them.
But so-called warhorses get their name precisely because they are tough and reliable, and because they work. It is laudable to program beyond them, but not to ignore or dismiss them
Warhorses are usually great music that should be performed live more often, great music that will help attract new and younger audiences who might not even know them at all because, unfortunately, “warhorses” aren’t supposed to be played – and, at the risk of seeming unsophisticated, often aren’t.
By Jacob Stockinger
“You know, it is going to be hard to get good seats. This concert is really popular and has very sold well,” said the Overture Center’s box office agent when I went to exchange tickets to last weekend’s all-Gershwin concert by the Madison Symphony Orchestra from Sunday afternoon to Friday night.
And she was right.
So I ended up sitting pretty close to the stage, with a somewhat limited vision of the soloists and especially of the full orchestra and chorus.
But one look backwards over my shoulder, out into beautiful Overture Hall, and I saw how packed the 2,200-seat hall was – and it was really packed. That is surely an enviable way to end a season on a high note.
Not that it was unexpected.
By now we all should know that MSO music director and conductor John DeMain (below) has a special talent for Gershwin. He is closely identified with the opera “Porgy and Bess.” His recording of it won a Grammy, and he has conducted it some 400 times all over the country, including at the City Opera in New York City from which it was broadcast on PBS’ “Great Performances.”
While I don’t have exact attendance figures, it sure seems like houses were very good, even if the Sunday performance was a little under-attended because of Mother’s Day. One MSO player even commented that it was such a pleasure to play before a big and appreciative audience. So much for the terrific commercial success of closing out the season.
So artistically, how did the MSO do?
Well as you will see below, the critics, including The Ear, are pretty much unanimous in their judgments: the all-Gershwin concert was great artistic success for the MSO and DeMain as well as for the soloists and Madison Symphony Chorus.
How could it be otherwise?
That’s why Venezuelan-born and –trained superstar maestro Gustavo Dudamel (below) and the Los Angeles Philharmonic did a Hi-Def international satellite broadcast of Gershwin. Why Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony did one. Why Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic did an all-Gershwin broadcast for New Year’s Eve on PBS’ “Live From Lincoln Center.” And it also why the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, under Andrew Sewell, opened this past season with Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” with the young Russian virtuoso pianist Ilya Yakushev as the soloist.
So here is how the MSO’s all-Gershwin fete sounded to The Ear.
The orchestra and Madison Symphony Chorus performed superbly and tightly and with all the tonal color and dance-like, bluesy rhythms that Gershwin demands, right down to the French taxi horns and Cuban percussion. They sounded balanced with convincing dynamics and a big sound.
The soloists were, for the most part, terrific and absolutely first-rate. DeMain knows how to pick singers, and they brought off the authentic Gershwin sound with infectious conviction. This music left you pleased, happy and satisfied. George Gershwin’s music seems one of the few things that Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, can agree on these days.
I guess that’s good.
The first half of the concert was devoted to the popular shorter pieces: the “Cuban” Overture, “An American in Paris” and “Rhapsody in Blue.” The entire second half was devoted to an extremely well-constructed concert version, by orchestrator and arranger Richard Russell Bennett (below), of “Porgy and Bess” that reduced the four-hour opera to 40 minutes.
The singers, soprano Laquita Mitchell (below top) and baritone Michael Redding (below bottom), both did an outstanding job with the 40-minute concert version of the 4-hour opera “Porgy and Bess.” Redding especially brought out the characters of the roles he sang. He projected right off the stage and was rewarded with loud cheers from the audience.
My biggest disappointment – and it wasn’t all that big– came in the “Rhapsody in Blue.” Dressed fittingly in a bright blue gown, pianist Martina Filjak (below) played the Rhapsody well. She sure has chops, but great interpretations require more than great chops. I found her technique too prominent. She seemed to bang it out at times when it could have used a subtler, softer and more seductive approach. This Gershwin work is more French than Russian, more Ravel than Rachmaninoff. She should listen to Oscar Levant’s old recording.
But what I am really left with is how my overall impression of Gershwin, to whom I previously had paid only passing attention, took shape.
I loved the Gershwin concert while I was in it. But as soon as I left it, I found the music did not stick with me except for some tunes and some lyrics. And it did not make me ask questions or leave me wanting more.
And that, in turn, tells me why Gershwin is so popular.
Gershwin (below), who died prematurely of a brain tumor at 38, was clearly a Tin Pan Alley composer. He composed some dozen Broadway musicals before he even took up writing music for the concert hall. And that experience shows.
There is an ease and naturalness about listening to a Gershwin tune. When the famous Burton Lane song asks “I like a Gershwin tune, how about you?” who could possibly answer “Well, I don’t.” Gershwin’s songs are irresistible. They watch over you.
But if I compare the “Rhapsody in Blue” to, say, Beethoven’s Concerto No. 4 or Schumann’s Piano Concerto or Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto no. 3, I have no problem knowing which one I would and wouldn’t want to hear repeatedly, which one lacks development and depth, and which one has them.
The “Rhapsody in Blue” is engaging and exciting while it lasts, but then it is over. On the other hand, the other more substantial works may not be as easily digestible, but their nourishment is more sustaining and they continue to yield up insights on repeated hearings.
It’s not that Gershwin is a crossover or superficial composer, even though he is used in a lot of ads. As DeMain explained in his illuminating comments before the performances, Gershwin does indeed define an identifiably American sound. But let’s be honest: Gershwin’s American sound is closer to song masters George M. Cohan, Cole Porter and Jerome Kern than to composers Charles Ives and Aaron Copland.
You can take Gershwin (below) out of Broadway. But, like the music of Leonard Bernstein – a Gershwin champion and DeMain mentor whose greatest and most beloved is theater music from “West Wide Story” and “Candide” – you can’t take Broadway out of Gershwin. And Broadway is nothing, if not popular.
Little wonder that we remember “An American in Paris” from Gene Kelly’s Hollywood choreography. And little wonder that even “Porgy and Bess,” a genuinely sincere attempt at serious concert music, got treated this last year to a controversial ADD makeover for today’s Broadway.
This love of Gershwin is here to stay.
What did others think?
Here is John W. Barker’s review for Isthmus:
Here is a Lindsay Christians’ review for 77 Square, The Capital Times and the Wisconsin State Journal:
Here is a review by Greg Hettmansberger for Madison Magazine and his blog “Classically Speaking”:
Here is a review by Bill Wineke for WISC-TV and Channel3000.com:
By Jacob Stockinger
Well, it is just a few weeks or more before a lot of some major political events, all of them quite polarizing, contentious and controversial, get decided.
And curiously enough, classical music – which is normally left out of such major social events and political discussions – seems to be playing an important role right now.
And then there is the upcoming election in Russia where Vladimir Putin (below, riding brazenly beefcake and defiantly bare-chested) – often accused making his opponents “disappear” — hopes to return as President.
Of course music creeps into politics now and then. Recently, President Obama made headlines and videos that went viral when he crooned a few bars of Al Green and then later some blues with B.B. King and Rolling Stone Mick Jagger.
But classical music and opera?
How do they figure all of a sudden in politics?
Could it be because so many of these extremist-type candidates turn to something more artistically traditional for validation and mainstream cultural acceptance?
Here are some stories to consider:
Mr. Blowhard Speaker Newt Gingrich isn’t doing very well in the polls and primaries. But his former aide, mistress and now third wife, Callista (below), is using music education as the theme she says she would champion as First Lady the same way that Michelle Obama is promoting healthy food and fighting childhood obesity:
Hugo Chavez is so anxious to have good press to retain almost dictatorial power that he is willing to co-opt the superb music education program in Venezuela – the same “el sistema” that brought us superstar conductor Gustavo Dudamel (seen below with Chavez) and the system’s famous founder Juan Antonio Abreu – and thereby to neutralize opposition from all the grateful young performers and audiences who benefit from the system he didn’t even start.
Here is a great New York Times story about him and them:
And here is a backgrounder about the success of El Sistema and the loyalty it inspire among its participants:
And then there are the mass demonstrations against former Russian president and KGB secret police agent Vladimir Putin, who seems about to pull off a shady return to power. But that doesn’t seem to prevent him from getting endorsements from some pretty big classical music stars including conductor Valery Gergiev (below top, shaking Putin hand at the recent Tchaikovsky competition) and sexy opera diva soprano Anna Netrebko (below bottom with Putin), who denies rumors that she had an affair with Putin (how operatic that would be!):
For background, try this:
I’ll bet there is more as elections draw closer and the American Presidential Election draws closer.
Do you have any more tips or ideas, suggestions or comments about music and current politics here or elsewhere?
The Ear wants to hear.