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 Ear hears:
The Pro Arte String Quartet (below, in a photo by Rick Langer) may well be prevented from taking its long-planned centennial tour to its homeland Belgium next month because of a seemingly small but very significant government regulation designed to curtail the trade in illegal ivory.
Now, who can argue with the intent to protect elephants from being poached for their ivory tusks? But clearly there are unintended consequences that make the humane regulation look absurd and silly, if not mean-spirited, in its requirements for out-of-date documentation.
Take the Pro Arte Quartet, artists-in-residence at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s School of Music since 1940. It turns out that the acclaimed string quartet may not make its long-planned centennial tour to Belgium next month -– depending on what the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which, with the help of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), inspects and confiscates or destroys musical instruments it deems in possible violation of the law at U.S. customs.
As for how it applies to the Pro Arte Quartet: It seems that ivory inlay on one old instrument –- a beautiful and full voiced viola -– and the ivory used in the tips of bows for one or more of the old instruments may violate the new ban and regulation.
It that seems an exaggeration consider the following stories about the difficulties that other musicians and other countries have faced in confronting the situation:
Here is a link to an overview story on NPR:
The problem is not so much getting out of the U.S., since other countries are taking a more lenient or understanding view. The problem comes at U.S. Customs when you leave or even, and especially, return.
Here is the story about one Canadian musician is being held hostage from seeking a professional job by the ban. Be sure to view the video:
Here is the take by famed critic Norman Lebrecht on his classical music blog “Slipped Disc:
As for the Pro Arte: People are reportedly working behind the scenes to secure a solution, which ranges from getting an exemption to using either a substitute instrument or a substitute player, to cancelling the tour. Stay tuned.
But while you stay tuned you have two chances tonight to hear the Pro Arte:
Thursday night at 9 p.m. on Wisconsin Public Television’s main channel is the extremely we’ll done one-hour documentary about the Pro Arte and its Centennial celebration will air. It features great photos and historic footage, but it also features the quartet playing a studio concert of music by Darius Milhaud, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ernest Bloch, Samuel Barber (the famous “Adagio for Strings” that was originally a string quartet movement and that received its world premiere in Rome from the Pro Arte) and contemporary composer John Harbison. (Other airings are also scheduled. Here is a link:
But you can record that on a DVD or some other device. And here are other times on The Wisconsin Channel (21.2). The airdates are: April 18 at 8 p.m.; April 19 at 2 a.m.; and April 19 at 5 p.m. In addition, WPT will be offering this documentary program via web-streamibng at the same time as the broadcast, so people can see it globally. The link to the program page, on which the streaming link is also housed, is http://wptschedule.org/episodes/45015629/The-Pro-Arte-Quartet-A-Century-of-Music/
Here is the real treat: At 7:30 p.m. on this Thursday night in Mills Hall, the Pro Arte Quartet -– playing its own instruments — will perform a FREE MUST-HEAR concert of the same program that was requested by the Belgian hosts for whom they will play. Consider it a warm-up or run-through.
The program features one the Ear’s top all-time favorite string quartets: the so-called “Dissonant” Quartet, K. 465 (1785) by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, which was so advanced in its harmonies that early publishers actually changed some of the opening notes that Mozart wrote to make the work conform to the practices of the day. (The opening that gives it its nickname can be heard in a YouTube video at the bottom.)
The program also includes the Quartet No. 1 (1909) by the pioneering modernist Bela Bartok (below top), and the Quartet in E Minor, Op. 44, No. 2, (1837) by the early Romantic composer Felix Mendelssohn.
In its blend of the Classical, the Romantic and the Modern repertoire, the program seems quintessentially Pro Arte. And it should be a pure joy to hear.
Members of the current Pro Arte Quartet (below in a photo by Rick Langer and with links to biographies) are:Parry Karp, cello; Suzanne Beia, second violin; Sally Chisholm, viola; and David Perry, first violin.
If didn’t already know it, here is a capsule history of the quartet:
The Pro Arte Quartet was founded in 1911-12 by students at the Brussels Conservatory. Violinist Alphonse Onnou was the leader, and the other founding members included Laurent Halleux (violin), Germain Prévost (viola), and Fernand Auguste Lemaire (cello). The quartet made its debut in Brussels in 1913 and soon became known as an exponent of modern music.
The Pro Arte played their American debut in 1926, performing at the inauguration of the Hall of Music in the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. They returned for 30 tours to the United States, as well as a tour of Canada, often under the auspices of the noted patron of chamber music, Mrs. Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge.
Their first visit to Madison was in 1938, where, two years later, the musicians were stranded by Hitler’s invasion of Belgium and the outbreak of World War II. Following their concert on campus, the University of Wisconsin chancellor offered a permanent home to the quartet.
It was the first such residency ever in a major American university, and became the model on which many other similar arrangements were developed at other institutions.
The Pro Arte became the faculty string quartet at UW-Madison in the late 1950s, an appointment that continues to the present day -– making the ensemble more than 100 years old, the oldest on-going string quartet ever in history.
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.
ALERT: Tonight is the gala Art of Note annual fundraiser for the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO). It will be held at CUNA Mutual at 5910 Mineral Point Road, on Madison’s far west side, from 6 to 10 p.m. and features great food and many items for auctions as well as performances by student music groups. For more information, visit:
By Jacob Stockinger
Even as many Badger eyes will be turned tonight to the “Elite Eight” round of the NCAA’s annual March Madness “The Big Dance” national college basketball championship in Anaheim. California, tonight at 7:49 p.m. CDT on TBS (Turner Broadcasting System) with the hopes that the University of Wisconsin-Madison Badgers will win over top-seeded University of Arizona Wildcats and go on to advance to the “Final Four” and further — we would do well to remember the students who excel in other fields besides athletics but who receive far less media coverage and much less popular acclaim than they deserve.
Take student classical musicians, for instance.
Chances are you already know the news if you were there in person Wednesday night at “The Final Forte” in Overture Hall at the Overture Center, or if you heard the performances that were broadcast live on Wisconsin Public Television and Wisconsin Public Radio.
But now it is official, complete with the press release from the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below) that names the results of the state annual teenage concerto competition called the Bolz Young Artist Competition.
The four instrumentalists performed with the Madison Symphony Orchestra, under guest conductor James Smith of the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music, who filled in for MSO music director John DeMain.
The four finalists who competed in two preliminary rounds and who are pictured below in a photo by James Gill, were (from the left):
Violinist David Cao, 15, who attends James Madison Memorial High School in Madison. He played the first movement of the Violin Concerto in D Minor by Finnish composer Jean Sibelius. He took First Prize and $2,000. (you can hear a YouTube video of the first movement of this demanding concerto at the bottom.)
Violinist Bethany Moss, 17, is a senior home-schooled in Appleton, Wisconsin. She performed the third movement of the Violin Concerto in B Minor by French composer Camille Saint-Saens. She received an Honorable Mention.
Pianist Bobby Levinger, 17 is a senior at Central High School in La Crosse. He played the first movement of the Piano Concerto in A Minor by Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg. He received an Honorable Mention.
Marimba player Ephraim Sutherland, 15, is a sophomore at Viroqua High School. He performed the Concerto for Marimba and Orchestra by French composer Emmanuel Sejourne. He received Second Prize and $2,000.
Cao and Sutherland also performed as soloists with the Madison Symphony Orchestra at the MSO’s Spring Young People’s Concert on Thursday, March 27, which area school children attended. (Below is a photo by Greg Anderson of a previous Young People’s Concert.)
Do you agree with the results?
If you have an observation to make about the competition and performances, or wishes to leave the contestants, please use the COMMENTS section of this blog.
Major funding for this concert is provided by Diane Ballweg, Larry and Julie Midtbo, Fred and Mary Mohs, The Berbeewalsh Foundation, and The Boldt Company, with additional funds from the A. Paul Jones Charitable Trust, Stephen D. Morton, Mildred and Marv Conney, James Dahlberg and Elsebet Lund, Kato L. Perlman, Sentry Insurance Foundation, W. Jerome Frautschi, and Friends of Wisconsin Public Television.
ALERTS: Our good friend and frequent contributor Mikko Utevsky writes: Dear Friends, I am giving a viola recital this Thursday, March 27, at 7:30 p.m. in the Grand Hall of the Capitol Lakes Retirement Community (333 West Main Street, near the Capitol Square). The program includes works by Franz Joseph Haydn, Ernest Bloch (the Suite Hebraïque), and viola sonatas of Johannes Brahms (Op. 120, No. 2) and Darius Milhaud (No. 1). I will be joined by pianists Jeff Gibbens and Adam Kluck. I hope the short notice will not prevent some of you from joining me there. Best, Mikko
For more details, here is a link to a previous post:
By Jacob Stockinger
Here is a special posting, a review written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker. Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who hosts an early music show every other Sunday morning on WORT-FM 89.9 FM. He serves on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.
By John W. Barker
Here’s a Handelian heads-up, and with a Madison accent!
The Milwaukee-based Ensemble Musical Offering is to make its first appearance in Madison on this Sunday afternoon, March 30, at 2 p.m., at the First Unitarian Society of Madison’s new and crisply designed Atrium auditorium (below, in a photo by Zane Williams) at 900 University Bay Drive.
Tickets are $15, payable at the door, and available in advance from www.ensemblemusicaloffering.org or by calling (414) 258-6133.
The group, whose supplemental title is the Midwest Bande for Early Music, was founded in 2000 by harpsichordist and director Joan Parsley. As she herself defines the ensemble: “Its mission is to foster appreciation for early music, circa 1580-1750, through professional performance on period instruments, educational activities, and community outreach.”
Winner of several grants, the ensemble not only performs regularly in its home city, but supports the Greater Milwaukee Baroque Festival, which is a competition for students of string and keyboard instruments, plus a one-week Summer Baroque Institute.
The instrumental membership of the ensemble (below) consists of about 10 players — divided between strings and winds — including harpsichord. All play baroque instruments, and use the one player per part approach.
For their Madison appearance, the EMO will present a program aptly titled “Hallmarks of Handel.” It will contain a balanced survey of the great composer’s instrumental and vocal music.
The most familiar music will be the G-major Suite, the third and last division of George Frideric Handel’s beloved and popular “Water Music” (at bottom in a YouTube video played on modern instruments by Sir Neville Marriner and the Acadmey of St. Martin in the Fields) — the set that features only woodwinds, without brass, against the strings.
There will also be no less than two of the Op. 3, Concerti Grossi, Nos. 4 and 6, which give strong roles to winds (as well as harpsichord in the latter). It will be interesting to hear these works, usually treated as “orchestral,” in this more intimate chamber-music character.
One more instrumental work is a composite of music that Handel used in his opera “Ottone.” Because of the prominence of the bassoon in the scoring, it will be presented in this program as a Sinfonia for Bassoon, Strings and Continuo.
The other side of the program is vocal, and touches upon what was, for Handel, his major areas of composition, his Italian operas and English oratorios. There will be two arias drawn from Handel’s first London triumph, “Rinaldo,” composed in 1711.
The oratorio realm will be represented indirectly. The program will allow a rare opportunity to hear examples of some two-dozen chamber duets and trios, with continuo, that Handel composed over the years to Italian texts, following patterns set by role model Agostino Steffani.
Handel seemed to use these brief, three-movement mini-cantatas as tryouts of some vocal ideas, and he then incorporated many of those ideas into larger works. The two to be offered, composed in July 1741, contain musical germs that Handel allowed to blossom as three choral movements in “Messiah,” composed later that year. Listeners will surely be surprised and delighted to recognize those inimitably Handelian ideas in their first form.
Though headquartered in Milwaukee, the EMO draws upon musicians from beyond their city, as, indeed, so many early music groups do — witness the Madison Bach Musicians. For EMO, there is a particular reliance on personnel from around our state, and from Madison in particular.
Thus, two admired Madison early music players are involved: Baroque violinist Edith Hines (below top) as leader of the strings, and Teresa Koenig (below bottom), a specialist in Baroque wind instruments.
In addition, this program offers two sopranos for the vocal pieces, each with a Madison connection. Sarah Richardson is currently a doctoral candidate at the UW School of Music, studying with University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music professor and baritone Paul Rowe. And Chelsea Morris Shephard, who has sung with the Madison Bach Musicians, will be remembered as a finalist in in last summer’s Handel Aria Competition for the Madison Early Musical Festival.
Such a rich menu of Handel is bound to appeal to lovers of this fabulous composer’s wonderful music, and attract those who should be such lovers.
By Jacob Stockinger
HAPPY BELATED BACH BIRTHDAY
For The Ear, Sunday morning is always Bach Time.
True, the music of Johann Sebastian Bach (below) is good to listen to anytime of the day or night. And indeed on Friday, which as Bach’s actual birthday in 1685, the commercial station Sirius XM radio played all-Bach while Wisconsin Public Radio played generous helping of Bach.
But something about the Baroque style and about Bach’s music in particular, beyond its religious or theological aspects, seems especially suited to morning and especially to Sunday morning. (Am I alone in that feeling?)
That is when I especially love to listen to a cantata, a violin or keyboard concerto, some of the solo suites for violin, cello and piano. It just feels right for Sunday morning.
So, go ahead: Celebrate Bach’s birthday today, even if it is a bit belated. What piece of Bach do you most love to listen to? Tell The Ear in the COMMENT section.
And while you are at it, try taking the Bach Puzzler quiz that appeared on NPR. It asks 10 questions about Bach’s music and life, and teaches you things you might not know. The Ear scored 9 out of 10. He’s betting many of you can do better.
Here is a link:
THE FINAL FORTE
The FREE concert, under the baton of University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music guest conductor James Smith (below), who is filling in for John DeMain, features performances by the four finalists (two other rounds have already been completed) for the Bolz Young Artist Competition -– in other words, a teenage concerto competition.
It will start at 7 p.m. and will be broadcast LIVE over Wisconsin Public Television and Wisconsin Public Radio.
To add to the excitement, right after the performances are over, and while the orchestra plays on its own, the judges will caucus and vote, and the winners and prize placements will then be determined and announced.
PLEASE NOTE: Those attending the performance in person must be in their seats by 6:45 p.m. And they must make reservations by calling the MSO at (608) 257-3734.
The four young artists competing are (below, from left to right, in photo by James Gill):
Violinist David Cao, 15, who attends James Madison Memorial High School in Madison and who will play the first movement of the Violin Concerto in D Minor by Finnish composer Jean Sibelius.
Violinist Bethany Moss, 17, is a senior home-schooled in Appleton, Wisconsin. He will perform the third movement of the Violin Concerto in B Minor by French composer Camille Saint-Saens.
Pianist Bobby Levinger, 17 is a senior at Central High School in LaCrosse. He will play the first movement of the Piano Concerto in A Minor by Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg.
Marimba player Ephraim Sutherland, 15, is a sophomore at Viroqua High School. He will perform the Concerto for Marimba and Orchestra by French composer Emmanuel Sejourne. (You can hear the first movement in a YouTube video at the bottom)
In case you have to miss the Final Forte this Wednesday night, you can always record it. But there will also be encore broadcasts of the competition.
For more about these impressive sounding performers, including more complete biographies of them, and for broadcast dates and times, visit these two sites:
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:
ALERT: This Friday’s Free Noon Musicale, held from 12:15 to 1 p.m. in the Landmark Auditorium at the historic the First Unitarian Society of Madison‘s Meeting House, 900 University Bay Drive, will feature flutist Dawn Lawler and pianist Kirstin Ihde in music of Camille Saint-Saens, Dmitri Shostakovich, Sergei Prokofiev and Johann Sebastian Bach.
By Jacob Stockinger
Ever since he arrived in Madison from Houston 20 years ago, maestro John DeMain has never ceased to innovate and try new things to boost the fortunes of the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Madison Opera, where he is the music director and the artistic director, respectively.
His many efforts have included new audition procedures for players; opening up rehearsals to the public; helping to procure and build the Overture Center; expanding educational programs and community outreach programs; and tirelessly promoting his efforts through Wisconsin Public Radio and WORT-FM, Wisconsin Public Television and commercial TV network affiliates.
He also tried a special New Year’s concert that didn’t work out, and going to triple performances, which did work out.
So it seemed only natural that The Ear should asked DeMain about his latest effort in both music education and concert performance: Doing the “Beyond the Score” version of Antonin Dvorak’s popular “New World” Symphony this Sunday afternoon at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall. (Tickets are $15-$60 and are selling fast towards a sell-out; they can be bought through the Overture Center box office or by calling at (608) 258-4141.)
Here is a link with more details about the production and concert:
And here is an email Q&A with John DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad) about the background and future of the Beyond the Score series, which was pioneered by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
How and when did the idea for this kind of concert or special event come to you?
Actually some of our patrons witnessed “Beyond the Score” in Chicago several years ago and brought it to our attention. We immediately investigated the program and found it fascinating and wonderful. We felt it was something that Madison should have.
The “Beyond the Score” concert on Sunday afternoon is almost sold out. What do you attribute its popularity to? When did it start, and how has it been received by the public and the musicians at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra?
I think the public loves the “New World” Symphony by Dvorak (below) and is anxious to get deeper into this great symphony and it’s connection to America. “Beyond the Score” is in its ninth season in Chicago and has been wildly successful with their audience. This year they’re adding three more symphonies to their canon of works for this program.
Why did you decide to program this event, and can you give us some background to it? Do you think it will help build new audiences? Deepen the appreciation of current audiences? How so?
I hope this will attract new listeners and deepen the experience of our current audience. This is not a musicological or theoretical analysis of the symphony, although many examples are cited to illustration certain aspects of the music. Rather it is a multi-media presentation that is highly entertaining as well as informative look into the creative process.
What makes this symphony American, Czech and Beethovenian all in one? This is what “Beyond the Score” examines as it conjures up the wonderful historical context in which this work was written. (Below is a photo of the manuscript score of the “New World” Symphony.)
If this format is popular and well received here, might the MSO (below) do another one next season, or maybe even more performances? What other works are available in that format and have you considered?
We hope that if the performance is well received here and that other underwriters step forward, we can possibly see more of these in the future. Currently, there are 22 works in the “Beyond the Score” canon.
Are there parts about the Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony program that particularly attract you, or parts that you want to draw the public’s attention to?
I know that after the intermission, when we perform the symphony in its entirety, the audience will listen to it in a whole new way. (Below is a YouTube video, with more than 1.5 million hits of the soulful slow movement, which borrows from Negro spirituals, of the “New World Symphony as performed by conductor Herbert von Karajan and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. It is The Ear’s favorite movement of this wonderful symphony.)
Editor’s note: Here are the official program notes by University of Wisconsin-Whitewater professor and Madison Symphony Orchestra trombonist J. Michael Allsen for the “New World” Symphony:
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
No doubt about it, “Downton Abbey” has become a global television drama phenomenon. Fans of the new season, which started two weeks ago, are eagerly looking forward to the third installment of the new season that will air this Sunday night on PBS (and Wisconsin Public Television at 8 p.m. CST).
Just how seriously “Downton Abbey” writers and producers also take the show could be seen in last week’s episode. There is where a side plot and secondary character -– a special gala performance by the Australian opera diva Dame Nellie Melba – was taken seriously. Where should she stay? was one issue. Another was whether a performing artist like Melba, who had been privately hired for a small command performance in the salon (below) should eat with the servants and help or with the aristocratic landowners?
And how many of you realized that Nellie Melba was played by the New Zealand opera diva Dame Kiri Te Kanawa (below)? The Ear sure didn’t, but now he knows why the singing of Puccini arias and Dvorak songs sounded so good.
In fact, the historical episode was taken so seriously that NPR’s terrific blog “Deceptive Cadence” this week posted a primer on just how important, acclaimed and controversial the real Nellie Melba (below, in a photo taken around 1900, and singing at the bottom in a YouTube was) really was.
Here is a link to Episode 2 of Season 4 that aired last week on “Masterpiece Theatre” and can be streamed via the Internet or viewed in an encore broadcast this Sunday night at 7 p.m. CST:
Here is a link to the NPR story about Nellie Melba and the episode:
REMINDER: Madison keyboardist Trevor Stephenson writes: “On this Sunday afternoon, Jan. 12, at 3 p.m., I’ll play a fortepiano house concert at my home at 5729 Forsythia Place on the west side of music ranging from Haydn to Bartok. (I know that Bartok is not usual fare on the fortepiano—but the other day I was reading through his Romanian Folk Dances at the fortepiano and was simply stunned by how energetic they sounded—since the style of these comes largely from cimbalom playing (Romanian hammer dulcimer, and the fortepiano is really a hammer dulcimer in a tuxedo). So this really makes perfect sense. The concert will also feature Mozart’s charming variations on “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” Beethoven’s “Pathetique” Sonata, Op. 13, two Mazurkas by Chopin, and Haydn’s waggish Sonata No. 23 in F major. Sweet and savory treats, drinks, and will be wine served. Admission is $35. Reservations are required: email email@example.com or (608) 238-6092.
By Jacob Stockinger
It happens once every four years.
The contestants for the unusual Gilmore competition,which is based in Kalamazoo, Michigan, for classical pianists don’t even know that they are in the running. Unlike other major competitions like the Tchaikovsky, the Van Cliburn, the Arthur Rubinstein and the Chopin, in the Gilmore the anonymous judges follow an individual’s career over a period of time and then choose the “winner.”
This year’s winner in the polish pianist Rafal Blechacz (below), who has already won the Chopin competition at 20 – the first Polish pianist to do so in 20 years, he also took all the gold medals in individual categories and was so good that no second prize was awarded. He has recorded half a dozen acclaimed CDs of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Debussy, Karol Szymanowski and Claude Debussy and of course Chopin for Deutsche Grammophon.
The year’s recipient has been all over the airwaves and the web, so here is everything you may want to know about Rafal Blechacz plus his inaugural concert as the winner that was streamed live Wednesday night by famed radio station WQXR-FM in New York City, which then archived it for those of who missed the live event.
Here is the official announcement:
Here is an candid and cordial interview done by Tom Huizenga and NPR’s Deceptive Cadence blog that was broadcast on “All Things Considered”:
Here is the announcement in a story in The New York Times:
Archived video of his sold-out concert Wednesday at the Greene Space that can be found at WQXR. No one listed the program even though it was live-streamed – but instead announced the works AFTER they were played.
That is too teasing for my taste, whether it is done on WQXR or on Wisconsin Public Radio. Can we please have the pieces to be played up front before the performance and then again after the performance?
The program included a Chopin waltz (the soulful valse triste in A Minor, Op. 34, No 2) and the two Op. 40 Polonaises the “Military” Polonaise and one in C minor; the Largo slow movement Beethoven’s Sonata in D, Op. 10, No. 3, and the scherzo from the same composer’s Sonata in A Major, Op. 2, No. 2; the spirited first movement from Mozart’s Sonata in D Major, K. 311; and Debussy’s “Clair de Lune.”
All works except the Debussy and the Chopin waltz are available on recordings. (But you can hear a YouTube video of Blechacz playing the three waltzes of Op. 64, including the famous “Minute” Waltz, at the bottom.)
In the broadcast, Dan Gustin, head of the Gilmore Foundation, speaks about the unusual award, as does the last 2010 winner Kirill Gerstein, who uses Skype. Here is the link:
Some of the Gilmore winners seem to disappoint and peter out. I keep expecting to hear big things from the very talented Argentinian Ingrid Fliter, for example, but no such luck. Rafal Blechacz, on the other hand, seems more likely to follow the path of Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes, who is perhaps the Gilmore winner who has maintained the highest profile and had the biggest career.