By Jacob Stockinger
I have seen him live in concert and in person only once.
But over decades I have seen him many times in The New York Times and especially on PBS, particularly on “Live from Lincoln Center” and, if I recall correctly, “American Masters.”
I have heard him in regular subscription concerts and also, I think, in Mainly Mozart concerts. I think I have even heard him solo at least once or twice, maybe more.
And chances are, so have you.
The Ear is not surprised that the retirement of Glenn Dicterow this past weekend made the media in a major way.
He is a smart, talented, humorous, good-natured and articulate man and musician who has a lot to say about music and about working with some celebrated figures, including conductors Leonard Bernstein (below), Zubin Mehta, Kurt Masur, Lorin Maazel and Alan Gilbert.
The stories about Dicterow also give us a renewed and expanded appreciation of the role of a concertmaster, and how a concertmaster can affect an entire orchestra and how the orchestra sounds and how its members get along with each other and with the maestro.
Dicterow played his swan-song concert this past weekend.
Here are backstories and a review of his final “New York Phil” concert:
Here is the story that appeared on the outstanding “Deceptive Cadence” blog on NPR:
And here is a similar story, with lots of facts, including his incredible salary, from The New York Times:
Here is the story that ran in the Wall Street Journal:
Here is a review of his last concert with the New York Philharmonic performing the Triple Concerto by Ludwig van Beethoven with New York Philharmonic principal cello Carter Brey and guest pianist-in-residence Yefim Bronfman, who played two Beethoven piano concertos (Nos. 2 and 5, the “Emperor”) this past season with the Madison Symphony Orchestra under John DeMain.
Finally, and in case you thought ensemble players were necessarily less virtuosic than soloists, here is a YouTube video of Glenn Dicterow playing the fiendishly difficult “Carmen” Fantasy by composer Franz Waxman (below), who is better known for the Hollywood movie scores he wrote after he fled Nazi Germany. Dicterow plays it with the New York Philharmonic conducted by Zubin Mehta. (You can also see him perform other works and talk about his role as concertmaster on YouTube.)
Sounds like Glenn Dicterow will be a fantastic teacher at the same school in Los Angeles, California where the legendary violin virtuoso Jascha Heifetz taught for so many years:
By Jacob Stockinger
The acclaimed Spanish conductor Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos died on Wednesday. He was 80, and the cause of death was cancer that caused him to announce his retirement just a week ago. (He is seen below conducting The New York Philharmonic in a photo by Richard Termine of The New York Times.)
The Ear gives credit to Wisconsin Public Radio and afternoon radio host Lori Skelton (below top), who, it seems, probably made a quick programming change and played a recording by him and the legendary Spanish pianist Alicia de Larrocha (below bottom, 1923-2009) of Manuel de Falla’s lushly quiet piano concerto-like tone poem “Nights in the Garden of Spain.”
It is refreshing to see arts events treated as newsy and important as, say, politics, sports and economics.
Plus, music by Manuel de Falla (below top) was a specialty of the conductor, as was other Spanish music, including works by Isaac Albeniz (below bottom). But he was also known for his interpretations of standard repertory, and led orchestras around the world to popular and critical acclaim. He also recorded many standard works for many different labels.
Here is a link to the background story and obituary on the outstanding Deceptive Cadence blog at NPR:
And here is a link to the obituary in The New York Times:
And here is a YouTube video in which the conductor discusses his family and personal history and in which you can hear him conduct music from Franz Schubert ‘s Symphony No. 8 “Unfinished” and Manuel de Fall’s “La vida breve.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: Please note that some reviews of productions last weekend are being delayed to make room for previews of the many upcoming concerts and musical events this week.
By Jacob Stockinger
The prize-winning and critically acclaimed young Israeli pianist Inon Barnatan will make his Madison debut this Friday night at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall for the Wisconsin Union Theater, which has been closed for two seasons while being renovated.
Barnatan’s MUST-HEAR program is ambitious and appealing; Franz Schubert’ late Sonata in G Major, the one that the young critic Robert Schumann praised so effusively; Samuel Barber’s Piano Sonata, which was premiered by Vladimir Horowitz; the “Prelude, Chorale and Fugue” by the late French Romantic composer Cesar Franck that was a favorite of Arthur Rubinstein; and Maurice Ravel’s dazzling “La Valse” for solo piano.
Tickets are $25 for the general public; $10 for University of Wisconsin-Madison students. For more information about Inon Barnatan and his recital, including reviews, program notes, audio clips and ticket information, visit:
You might recall that Inon Barnatan won raves this past winter for his last-minute appearance with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra under Edo de Waart when he stepped in to substitute for an ailing Radu Lupu and played the titanic Piano Concerto No. 1 in D Minor by Johannes Brahms.
In 2009, he won a prestigious Avery Fisher Career Grant, and he has been recognized by the Irving S. Gilmore Foundation.
The Ear has been listening to his recordings: from violin works (the last Sonata by Ludwig van Beethoven and a Fantasy by Schubert) and his impressive readings of the famous last three sonatas and final impromptus and sonatas by Schubert to his performances of “Darkness Visible” by the contemporary British composer Thomas Ades. They all demonstrate his virtuoso technique but also his abundant musicality, subtle interpretations and full tone. Most impressive is his ability to play softly and lyrically. It leaves no doubt: Inon Barnatan is a major poet of the piano.
Clearly, Inon Baranatan is someone to watch, as his career continues to be extremely promising. You can listen to his interview for the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center in a YouTube video at the bottom. And here is a link to his own website:
And here is the email Q&A that Inon Barnatan did for The Ear:
You were just named the first-ever Artist in Association at the New York Philharmonic for the 2014-15 season. What plans do you have for that position? How could it affect your career?
What is so special for me about this position with the New York Philharmonic is that it is stretched over several seasons, so I will be performing with the orchestra both in New York and on the road for three consecutive seasons — which enables me to build a real relationship with this great orchestra as well as the audience. It removes a little of the pressure of the debut– since I know I will be coming back the following season and the one after that.
Of course there is pressure to live up to the expectations and the faith that the orchestra and Alan Gilbert (both below) have shown in me, but it feels wonderful to know that the organization is behind me from the get-go. This appointment has only recently been announced but has already had significant effect on my career. New York is the center of so many things and when the New York Philharmonic does something, people take notice! I really couldn’t be more thrilled with it.
How would you describe your approach to playing and interpreting music? Are there other musicians, and especially pianists, either historical or current, whom you admire and why?
I feel that we classical performers are like actors — we have a text that we try to internalize and bring to life, but ultimately it is not ourself that is being presented, but the character, or, in our case, the music, that is being communicated. A great actor like Meryl Streep becomes whichever role she is playing, embodying it in such a way that she herself disappears and becomes the role.
That is what I think my job as a performer is. I don’t want an audience to listen to me playing a piece — I would love for them to feel like the piece is being created at that very moment, the same way I would want to believe an actor IS the person that they are playing, not merely reading the text convincingly.
There are great performers, as well as actors, that are compelling not because they disappear in a role, but because of the very force of their personality. There are phenomenal actors and musicians that don’t change much with different roles or pieces, but bring their particular magnetism and virtuosity to every role.
When the performer is great both types can be very compelling, but I tend to gravitate towards the former. (Below is Inon Barnatan performing at Carnegie Hall in a photo by The New York Times.)
Your terrific and critically acclaimed new recording for the Avie label is an all-Schubert recital. But here you will perform a different big work, the G Major Sonata. What do you want to say about that particular work and its place in Schubert’s overall body of works? Why does Schubert hold particular appeal for you, and will you do more recording of his works, perhaps even a Schubert cycle?
Thank you! Back in 2004 I participated in a Schubert workshop with the great Leon Fleisher (below) at Carnegie Hall, and in some ways that was the start of my love affair with Schubert. I was familiar with his pieces, of course, but delving into the late sonatas as we did, I became intoxicated with the beauty and depth of the music.
The music of Schubert (below), and especially the music he wrote later in his short life, became a staple of my repertoire. I even curated a project of solo, chamber and vocal music from the miraculous last year — and both the Schubert CDs I’ve recorded so far feature pieces from that year.
That said, the G Major sonata, even though it was not written in the last year but a couple of years before, stands proudly amongst the greatest. It is one of his most lyrical and poetic pieces. It is not played nearly as often as the last three, and I am excited at the prospect of some audience members discovering it for the first time.
As for a possible Schubert cycle, it has been a dream of mine for a long while — perhaps I will keep playing his works one by one until I discover that I have recorded the whole cycle!
What would you like the public to know about your Madison program, which includes Franck, Barber (below) and Ravel?
This is a very special program to me. The pieces are magical: They manage to be at once very emotional and very intellectual, without compromising one for the other. The pieces all have a sense of nostalgia about them, in different ways.
The composers of the pieces in the first half take Baroque and Classical forms, such as fugues, chorales, sonatas, etc. and imbue them with their own innovation and emotion. The second half has more of a sense of fantasy, a sense of light that by the end of the recital turns to dark. I guess the second half goes from the sublime to the grotesque.
How do you think classical music can reach new and young audiences? And what advice would you give to aspiring young musicians and especially pianists?
That’s the million-dollar question. I think there are many things we need to do. It starts with education — putting an instrument in a child’s hand teaches them a lot about communications, listening and a huge variety of other important skills. It also encourages future curiosity about music and culture.
We also need to be more inclusive in some ways, make the concert experience something that would appeal to a young person as well as an older one. Nowadays, when there are so many ways to consume culture without leaving your home, the concert experience needs to have an energy and excitement to it that is unique to the live experience.
A great museum knows that in order to attract a variety of ages and stay relevant, they need to have not only great art, but great curating.
The Museum of Modern Art in New York, for example, is always teeming with people of all ages, newcomers, repeat visitors, young and old, experts and lay people. They have a collection of some of the great, established artists as well as new exciting art and they are always providing new and interesting ways to look at things. People who go there expect to be challenged as well as be entertained. You may come to see Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” (below) but it’s the new or unexpected stuff around it that keeps you coming back. It’s that combination of edge and quality that makes it cool.
We can learn a lot from that. As performers we need to strive for the highest possible quality of performance, and at the same time try to present it in a context that is interesting, and sometimes challenging or unexpected.
By Jacob Stockinger
There I was last Sunday afternoon, sitting in Overture Hall at the Overture Center, deeply engaged in and enjoying Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s glorious and poignant Requiem, incomplete as the original score is.
Now, I have my own personal reasons why the performance and music proved especially moving to me.
But suffice it to say that during the outstanding performance that was turned in by the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below top), the Madison Symphony Chorus (below bottom, in a photo by Greg Anderson), guest soloists including UW graduate soprano Emily Birsan and guest conductor Julian Wachner, from the famed Trinity Church on Wall Street in New York City, I kept wondering:
Why isn’t Beverly Taylor conducting this program?
You may recall that Beverly Taylor has headed the choral department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music for 19 years. Before that, she was at Harvard. Plus, she regularly tours and does guest stints.
And if you are like The Ear, Beverly Taylor (below) has probably brought you more memorable moments of great choral music than any other musician in town since Robert Fountain, especially through her almost two decades at the UW-Madison during which she has directed the main community and campus group, the UW Choral Union, as well as various other UW groups, including the Concert Choir.
She has also conducted world premieres and Midwest premieres, and she has worked with some pretty big names, singers and instrumentalists (cellist Matt Haimovitz) as well as composers such as Robert Kyr (below top) and John Harbison (below bottom).
So then I started thinking:
When have I heard Beverly Taylor conduct the Madison Symphony Orchestra -– of which she is the assistant conductor, the same kind of post that launched the meteoric career of Leonard Bernstein (below) when he was the assistant conductor to Bruno Walter at the New York Philharmonic? Assistants often get to fill in when the principal conductor is ill or out-of-town. Same thing happened to assistant conductor Seiji Ozawa when Bernstein was ill disposed.
Perhaps memory fails me, but I could not think of a single time when I heard Taylor conduct the MSO in a regular season subscription concert.
Can it be true that she is good enough to keep her post, but not good enough to perform its duties when the occasion arises. And if it is true, is it right? Would that happen to a man?
Now, it is true that Taylor’s many duties include preparing the MSO Chorus. And she performed that important duty in a fine manner for the Mozart Requiem, which was acknowledged both in critics’ reviews and in the loud applause when she came on stage to take a bow. One suspects she herself has conducted Mozart’s Requiem several times in her long career.
Not that guest conductor Julian Wachner (below top) was in any way a failure or proved unsatisfactory. He conducted just fine, even if the program was somewhat odd because it opened with a single Slavonic Dance by Antonin Dvorak, which is usually an encore instead of a curtain-raiser; and because it featured Joseph Jongen’s “Symphonie Concertante” for Organ and Orchestra with guest organist, and a real real virtuoso, Nathan Laube (below).
The Jongen is a work that wasn’t performed here at all until the Overture Center opened with its custom-built, million-dollar Klais concert organ; and now we have heard it twice in 10 years. I think I can go another 10 or 20 years without hearing this second-tier work again. It has its moments, but they are not very many and they are not very long.
Anyway, just to be sure, I checked the biographies of Julian Wacher and Beverly Taylor. I compared and decided that Taylor’s holds up just fine. See for yourself:
You will notice that Taylor, who has a good training pedigree, is not only the chorus preparer for the MSO, but also the Assistant Conductor -– the one who helps the main maestro and music director John DeMain help balance the orchestra during rehearsals and who consults with him on other occasions for other reasons.
And Beverly Taylor has certainly conducted her share of major chorus and orchestra masterworks with the UW Symphony Orchestra and the UW Chamber Orchestra: Requiems by Giuseppe Verdi and Johannes Brahms as well as Mozart; Benjamin Britten’s “War” Requiem’; Antonin Dvorak’s “Stabat Mater”; and many other works including Johann Sebastian Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion” and B Minor Mass, Mozart’s great C Minor Mass, Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Missa Solemnis” (below); Felix Mendelssohn’s “Elijah,” George Frideric Handel’s “Israel in Egypt” (at bottom in a YouTube video performance by the UW Choral Union under the baton of Taylor), Franz Joseph Haydn’s “ Lord Nelson” Mass, the “Symphony of Psalms” by Igor Stravinsky and other works by Gabriel Faure, Anton Bruckner, Leonard Bernstein and Francis Poulenc.
In fact, you can hear Beverly Taylor in action TONIGHT at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall, when she conducts the UW Concert Choir and the UW Chamber Orchestra in Johann Sebastian Bach’s “St. John Passion” (tickets are $15 for adults, $8 for seniors and students); and again on Saturday night, April 26, at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall, when she will conduct the UW Choral Union in the large-scale a cappella “Vespers” by Sergei Rachmaninoff (below) for one performance only. Admission for the “Vespers” is $10 for the public, free for seniors and students.
So I am again left with the question: Why didn’t Beverly Taylor get to fill in on the podium for MSO conductor John DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad), who is also the artistic director of the Madison Opera and who was off in Virginia guest conducting Georges Bizet’s opera “Carmen.” It sure seemed like her kind of program.
I want to give the MSO the benefit of the doubt and not jump to the conclusion that Taylor didn’t get the podium to herself because of sexism, especially since the MSO has booked guest women conductors, including the Finnish firecracker Anu Tali (below top), and hired a woman concertmaster, Naha Greenholtz (below bottom), whom it has often highlighted as a soloist.
But then I also remembered that the MSO used Taylor’s colleague at the University of Wisconsin School of Music, instrumental conductor James Smith, for this year’s “Final Forte” Bolz Young Artist Competition concert and broadcast on Wisconsin Public Radio and Wisconsin Public Television.
And I also read a New York Times story about how even the great and high-profile Metropolitan Opera has had only three -– yes, count them, three -– women conductors (below top is Anne Manson leading the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra) in its entire history, even during the time when women conductors like Marin Alsop (below middle) and JoAnn Falletta (below bottom) are much in the news. Here is a link to that story:
So what about our own hometown woman conductor? Maybe it really is a question of sexism, perhaps the unconscious or subconscious kind, or the kind that is camouflaged under other concerns like incompetence and low public appeal. Or maybe it is just a question of the orchestra’s history, habit and tradition in action. Or perhaps it is something as simple and innocent as a schedule conflict or an overbooked schedule. But it looks suspiciously like the old vicious circle: She is inexperienced, so we can’t give her the experience.
I raise the question more than I claim to I have the answer. But I also want to know if I am alone in my curiosity and concern.
I want to hear what other readers and musicians in the area and elsewhere have to say, even though they may be reluctant to speak up using their real names to question or criticize such a major player as the Madison Symphony Orchestra.
But Beverly Taylor (below, in a photo by Katrin Talbot) is a major player in Madison too. And she deserves a chance to move from behind-the-scenes and once in a while have her talents place in the public spotlight for the same organization that she has served so well for so long.
Who knows, she might even have saved the MSO some money in booking fees and her local fans might even have helped filled some of the empty seats I saw last Sunday afternoon.
So The Ear says: Come on, MSO, give Beverly Taylor the chance she has earned to stand alone and conduct by herself after almost 20 years of being a team player. Please shine the spotlight on her when the chance next presents itself.
What do readers and audience members think?
Don’t be shy.
The Ear wants to hear.
By Jacob Stockinger
He may not yet be a household name like Arthur Rubinstein, Vladimir Horowitz or Van Cliburn, but pianist Yefim Bronfman (below) — a prolific recitalist, concerto soloist and chamber music partner — commands great respect from critics and his fellow musicians.
And with good reason.
“Fima,” as he known to friends and even his loyal followers, possesses a technique that other pianists envy plus a total commands of style, ranging from early period works through Romanticism and Modernism to new music.
He also is renowned for his stamina and power, but, at the same time, for subtle playing without banging. Combining power and poetry seems to be his signature.
Here is a link to his website with his full biography — he emigrated to Israel from his native Tashkent — and critical reviews plus a discography, sound samples and other information:
People in the Madison area can hear Yefim Bronfman’s talents for themselves this weekend. That is when he joins the Madison Symphony Orchestra under its longtime music director and conductor John DeMain in a MUST-HEAR all-Beethoven program.
Bronfman will play the Piano Concerto No. 2 in B Flat Major, Op. 19, AND the famous Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major, Op. 73, also known as “The Emperor.” Also on the program are the Symphony No. 1 in C Major, and “The Creatures of Prometheus” Overture that Beethoven incorporated into his epic Symphony No. 3 “Eroica.”
Performances are in Overture Hall on Friday at 7:30 p.m; Saturday at 8 p.m.; and Sunday at 2:30 p.m.
Tickets are $16.50-$82.50. Call the Overture Center box office at (608) 258-4141.
For more information, including audio samples of the various pieces and of playing by Bronfman, visit:
For program notes by MSO trombonist and UW-Whitewater professor J. Michael Allman, visit:
Yefim Bronfman recently agreed to an email Q&A with The Ear:
You are known for your stamina and power, as your cycle of the complete sonatas and concertos by Sergei Prokofiev and this Madison Symphony Orchestra concert with two Beethoven concertos prove. Are there special tricks or secrets you have to cultivate that kind of “marathon” playing and also avoid injury? Or is it just a natural gift?
It certainly helps to be in good physical shape, but recitals require the same kind of stamina and no one really questions that. Playing two concertos is actually less effort than playing a full solo recital.
What are your current plans and future projects, both for live concerts and recordings, especially of works by living composers?
I just played a lot of new music in a chamber program with members of the New York Philharmonic, including the world premiere of a solo piano piece written for me by Marc Neikrug and a trio commissioned by Carnegie Hall several years ago by Marc-Andre Dalbavie. In Asia, on tour with the New York Philharmonic, we performed the Piano Concerto No. 2 by Magnus Lindberg (below, in a photo by Saara Vuorkjoki), which is a co-commission with the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam and Gothenburg Symphony of Sweden. (Editor’s note: Bronfman’s recording of it was nominated for a Grammy Award.)
I’m always on the lookout for talented composers. My natural curiosity makes me wonder about the language of composers of today who often give me ideas that contribute to playing the music of composers who are no longer alive.
You frequently perform Beethoven concertos and have made outstanding recordings of them with David Zinman and the Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra on the Arte Nova budget label. What would you like to say to the general public about Beethoven (below), about his Piano Concertos No. 2 and No. 5, the “Emperor”?
These two pieces belong to very different worlds. The first one belongs to the Mozartean period of Beethoven, very classical in structure and texture. But a lot happened between concertos No. 2 and No. 5.
They come from a composer with a great deal of desire to experiment, so those two concertos are like works of two different composers. Yet we never stop to wonder at the genius of someone able to do that. (At bottom is a YouTube video in which Yefim Bronfman, as Artist-in-Residence at the New York Philharmonic, and conductor Alan Gilbert discuss the complete cycle of Beethoven’s piano concertos they performed together.)
I first heard you here years ago at the Wisconsin Union Theater in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1. Do you have any special memories of or thoughts about Madison?
Madison and this particular theater have some wonderful memories from my youth because I played here some of the earliest concerts of my career. Playing Beethoven 1 with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra in Madison could have been one of the first Beethoven 1’s I ever performed.
What advice would you give today to young pianists and young musicians in general about pursuing a career in music? And how can classical music reach more young people and new audiences?
Arts and culture in general enrich our lives, and we have to give that understanding to the young generation. Without it our lives diminish greatly, and we have to learn to cherish what past artists have left to us.
By Jacob Stockinger
The Ear’s friends at the Madison Symphony Orchestra have sent in the following announcement:
“Can you name all the different distinctly American choral traditions?
“Director Beverly Taylor (below, in a photo by Katrin Talbot) and the Madison Symphony Chorus will answer that question this Sunday afternoon, Feb. 2, at 2 p.m., when they’ll appear in “Apple Pie America: A Slice of Choral Americana” in Promenade Hall at the Overture Center for the Arts. (Taylor is also the head of the choral department at the university of Wisconsin-Madison, where she directs the UW Choral Union and UW Concert Choir, and is the assistant conductor of the Madison Symphony Orchestra. And sorry, I have so specific titles of works on the program but I have been told that the concert is closing in on being sold-out, with only a few tickets remaining.)
Many of the works will be accompanied by Madison Symphony Orchestra principal pianist Daniel Lyons (below).
Tickets are $15, and are available at http://madisonsymphony.org/Americana or at the Overture Center Box Office at (608) 258-4141 or 201 State Street.
Formed in 1927, the Madison Symphony Chorus (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson) gave its first public performance in 1928 and has performed regularly with the Madison Symphony Orchestra ever since.
It was featured at the popular Madison Symphony Christmas concerts in December, and it will be joined by four soloists for the MSO’s performance of Mozart’s Requiem on April 4, 5 and 6.
The Chorus is comprised of more than 125 volunteer musicians from all walks of life who enjoy combining their artistic talent, and new members are always welcome. Visit http://madisonsymphony.org/chorus for more information.
CATCHING UP WITH THE GRAMMY WINNERS
Last Sunday was the Grammy Awards.
Here is a complete list of the nominees and the winners. It makes for a good listening list or buying list.
WINNER Roomful Of Teeth
78. BEST CLASSICAL VOCAL SOLO
80. BEST CONTEMPORARY CLASSICAL COMPOSITION
By Jacob Stockinger
On Sunday, we saw the “New World” Symphony in a new light.
I think I can speak for both seasoned concertgoers and novices.
And what I say is no overstatement in describing the triumphant Sunday afternoon multi-media performance of the popular work by Antonin Dvorak (below).
It was turned in by the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below top, with the Jumbotron screen behind it) under the baton of its longtime music director and conductor John DeMain (below bottom, in a photo by Prasad), along with guests actors and the inaugural use of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s almost decade-old “Beyond the Score” format.
In a one-time only performance, the house in the Overture Hall of the Overture Center was sold-out, something that has happened in recent years only with the Christmas concerts. And it was an enthusiastic audience that offered two long standing ovations: the first, after the 60-minute background presentation; and the second, after the post-intermission 40-minute complete performance, which was an exemplary reading that was convincingly dramatic in the fast movements and movingly lyrical in the songful slow movement.
The Ear listened not only to what the actors and players said and did, but also to what other audience members had to say. And the judgment seemed unanimously positive.
Everyone agreed that the multi-media part of the program was very well constructed and very well presented. It was remarkably tight. There were no awkward silences or lapses or pauses. This was not like when the A-V Club used to come to your middle school science or history class and you stared at your shoes while they figured out how to make the technology work.
Instead this was a thoroughly professional presentation that proceeded smoothly from start to finish. It was well researched and well written. It incorporated historical still photos and historical film footage. It used primary sources such as the music’s score and Dvorak’s own letters; and it used secondary sources such as newspaper stories and the American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “Song of Hiawatha” and its influence on the impressionable and culturally curious Dvorak and his interest in American Indian music and Negro spirituals.
The orchestral excerpts that underlined the points were precisely played, and such starting-and-stopping is not an easy thing to do unless you are well rehearsed.
The Ear does have one minor concern with this Musicology for the Masses: The “Beyond the Score” format tends to turn all music into program music. Still, there is no questioning that it enhances one’s appreciation of a masterpiece by putting a frame around the painting, by providing a historical context. A specialist could probably pick out small flaws or gaps, but lengthy scholarship was not the point.
All in all, this new format seems exactly what a lot of American symphony orchestras need right now, especially at a time when so many of them are financially troubled and have to figure out a way to attract new and younger audiences.
And this presentation-performance combination sure did that. Remarkably few audience members left at intermission and it was inspiring to see so many, right up to the balcony, filled. Except for an all-Gershwin concert two seasons ago, it has been a few years since such a packed house showed up for a non-holiday MSO concert.
So, who gets credit and whom do we thank? The list is long and, happily, no one got into the kind of postured declaiming that can make it feel false, too staged and overly dramatic. Distraction was kept to a quiet minimum, the characters sitting on stools on the prone of the stage. Theatricality was minimal.
Wisconsin Public Radio host Anders Yocom (below, in a photo by Jim Gill) delivered the goods as a resonant and articulate but calmly expressive narrator.
American Players Theater actor David Daniel (below) did an outstanding job of playing the composer without overdoing the Czech accent and using only a bit of a costume suit.
Another APT actor, James Ridge (below), played Dvorak’s son who also commented on his father’s American adventures, but never overshadowed him.
And local mezzo-soprano Jacqueline Colbert (below), who graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music and who directs the Mt. Zion Gospel Choir, sang Negro spirituals beautifully in a way that proved less showy and concert hall-like than you often hear today. She sang in a subdued, simple and traditional manner that seemed more authentic, more true to the music’s roots.
Even conductor John DeMain got into the act playing the German conductor Anton Seidl, who headed the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and in 1893 conducted the world premiere of the symphony in New York City, with a German accent.
But perhaps the person we have to thank the most is the one whose checkbook made it possible: the Anonymous Donor, who suggested trying the format and who underwrote it financially.
It was a thoroughly enjoyable and thoroughly enlightening event. The Ear hopes it will get perhaps a second performance from the MSO (below in a photo by Greg Anderson) next season if the audience interest warrants it, and that it might even be incorporated into the regular subscription season. (The MSO, by the way, is using an email link to an on-line survey to sample the opinion of those who attended the concert, something i do not trembler them doing before.)
So the question now becomes: What symphony do you want to see done next in the new format?
In an interview I posted last week, John DeMain told The Ear that 22 symphonies have been performed this way in Chicago since the “Beyond the Score” format started in 2005. (At bottom is a YouTube video in which no less a musician than composer-conductor Pierre Boulez introduces, explains and defends the format. And you can find many other videos of Beyond the Score performance on YouTube.)
So I vote for Beethoven’s Third and Ninth Symphonies and the “Emperor” Piano Concerto; Tchaikovsky’s Fourth and Sixth “Pathetique” symphonies; Shostakovich’s Fifth; Brahms’ First and Fourth; Mozart’s “Jupiter”; and Schubert’s “Unfinished” and Ninth or “The Great.”
Which symphony would you like to hear in the Beyond the Score format?
Tell The Ear.
Tell the MSO.
In the meantime, you can read what some other critics said about the performance:
Here is a link to a review by John W. Barker (bel0w) for Isthmus:
And here is a link to the review by Greg Hettmansberger (bel0w) for his blog “Classically Speaking” blog for Madison Magazine:
A REMINDER: The 14th Madison Early Music Festival, with the theme “Renaissance Germany,” opens tonight with a performance by the Renaissance band Piffaro (below) at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall. It will be preceded at 6:30 p.m. by a FREE lecture by frequent guest blog contributor John W. Barker on “The Germanies of 1616 and How They Got to Be That Way” in Room L-160 of the Elvehjem Building of the nearby Chazen Museum of Art. For more information, visit: http://continuingstudies.wisc.edu/lsa/memf/index.html
By Jacob Stockinger
Back when The Ear was an undergraduate, he had a philosophy professor who claimed in an aesthetics course that no one in the class that was full of ambitious artists and especially would-be writers should worry about writing The Great American Novel.
It had already been written.
Still, overall, I think the decades have proven him right – which is why Gatsby has been made into several movie versions, including an older one with the actor Robert Redford and a recent one by director Baz Luhrman, and John Harbison’s full-length opera (below, with Dawn Upshaw as Daisy and Jerry Hadley as Jay Gatsby). And maybe a TV drama based on the novel is yet to come.
But even though that quite of question somehow seems impertinent or irrelevant, it can lead to some memorable discussions and exposure to new music.
So last week, when everyone was looking up American music to play on Independence Day or the fourth of July, the question of The Great American Symphony arose.
And it was discussed on NPR’s “Deceptive Cadence” blog by Tom Huizenga and also on “All Things Considered” by veteran host, the cultured, cultivated and witty Robert Siegel (below top) and American conductor JoAnn Falletta (below bottom), in a photo by Cheryl Gorski), who now leads three different orchestras as music director. (The three are the Buffalo Philharmonic, the Virginia Symphony Orchestra and the Ulster Orchestra in Northern Ireland.) Falletta comes up with some interesting choices of American composers and works — some you have heard of and some you haven’t. (At bottom is a YouTube video of the beautiful slow movement from Samuel Barber’s Symphony No. 1, which I had never heard either live or in a recorded performance.)
It would be interesting to hear what some other American-born and American-trained maestros and champions of old and new American music – from Leonard Bernstein and Alan Gilbert of the New York Philharmonic to Marin Alsop of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and Michael Tilson Thomas (below) of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra said or have to say when they took on the same question.
Anyway, here are links to the NPR discussions. I recommend listening to the program and not just reading the transcript.
What do you think?
Do you have an orchestral work to nominate as The Great American Symphony or its equivalent?
The Ear wants to hear.
By Jacob Stockinger
Not being a close follower of choral music, I do not know a lot of choruses or choirs around the nation or world by name.
And like most Madisonians, I know the name of the Festival Choir, the University of Wisconsin-Madison Choral Union, the Wisconsin Chamber Choir, the Madison Symphony Orchestra Chorus and the Madison Opera Chorus, among other local groups.
But the nationally known choir that I remember mostly fondly is the same one I heard decades ago with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra under conductor Leonard Bernstein and with pianist Rudolf Serkin in Beethoven’s famous Symphony No. 9 “Choral” and his “Choral Fantasy,” which is a preliminary sketch-like work for the Ninth Symphony with a piano part thrown in.
The name of that first-rate choir is The Westminster Choir (below).
And it is REALLY good, as I was reminded again recently when I listened to their CD of holiday music.
No surprise, I suppose. After all, it is composed of specialists: of student from Westminster choir College in Princeton, New Jersey. Every summer it is in residence at the internationally renowned Spoleto Festival in South Carolina.
Its 40 members form the core of the 175-voice Westminster Symphonic Chorus that still performs regularly with the New York Philharmonic, the Philadelphia Orchestra and other major European orchestras.
In any case, sponsored by the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Westminster Choir is coming to town and will perform this Saturday night in Overture Hall at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $19.50. For tickets, call the Overture Center box office at (608) 258-4141. For more information about the performers and a complete program, visit www.madisonsymphony.org/westminster.
The concert’s generous program includes vocal music from the 15th through the 21st centuries, including works by J.S. Bach, Debussy, Gustav Holst, Benjamin Britten and Morten Lauridsen among others, and will also feature several works for solo organ, some quite virtuosic, played on the impressive custom-built Klais concert organ (below) in Overture Hall.
Decide for yourself. Here is a sample, the most visited one on YouTube, with such lovely quality singing, of the Westminster Choir: