The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music review: It takes a French pianist to make the most of Rachmaninoff

April 20, 2010
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By Jacob Stockinger

Often we link the nationality of a composer to the nationality of a performer. So we lean towards Russians – like pianists Vladimir Horowitz, Sviatoslav Richter, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Vladimir Feltsman and Olga Kern – to perform the music of their fellow Russian Sergei Rachmaninoff (below).

But that represents a certain kind of cultural chauvinism: Polish pianists for Chopin, French pianists for Debussy and Ravel, Italian singers for Italian opera, and so on.

Yet that approach or assumption is a fallacy and doesn’t always work, as one heard so well during this past weekend’s performance of all all-Russian program by the Madison Symphony Orchestra under conductor John DeMain.

The guest soloist for Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini” was Frenchman Philippe Bianconi (below), a pianist who may be second tier in name or reputation, but is first tier in talent. (He won the silver medal in the 1985 Van Cliburn Competition.)

And there was nothing second-place about the performance he turned in of the virtuosic Rhapsody. It stunned you and moved you. It was the best performance I have heard, live or recorded – and I have heard some great ones.

Moreover, the very qualities that made Bianconi’s reading stand out were the same qualities that one identifies with the French, not the Russians: a certain detachment that gives a sense of overall structure plus a combination of irony and sensuality with a good dose of playful wit (jeu d’esprit) that is inherent in the theme-and-variations format.

I recognize those qualities because, I confess, I am a lifelong Francophile.

The French relish clarity as they remain loyal to their Cartesian heritage of rational analysis and method. “La Passion de la raison et la raison de la passion” — the passion for reason and the reason for passion – go way back, even to the 17th century philosopher Pascal.

Whatever their origins, such French values all came together at the service of Rachmaninoff’s terrific inventiveness with Paganini’s famous theme, his gift for tonal color and his sense of heartfelt emotion (the famous 18th Variation that, in Bianconi’s hands, proved to have sentiment without sentimentality.)

Small, quiet and charming, Bianconi (below) is an amazingly forceful, accurate and subtle player, with a strong left hand. He brought out lots of voices and always preserved the basic harmonic and rhythmic outlines of the theme. For each of the 27 variations, he knew what the music required and what he wanted to do with it: He built both mood and meaning, and communicated them beautifully.

Bianconi is a great Rachmaninoff player. Not for nothing did he also play as an encore the opening of Rachmaninoff’s underperformed and little-known but beautiful “Corelli” Variations to loud audience approval.

I hope to hear more from Bianconi, especially in a solo recital. (He is about to undertake a tour of China playing Liszt, Ravel and Beethoven’s “Pastorale” Sonata.)

The MSO concert opened with Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Russian Easter Overture,” a good curtain-raiser that showed off all the various sections of the orchestra. The composer taught orchestration at the St. Petersburg Conservatory and has been called the best orchestrator of all time. One of the composers influenced by him was Igor Stravinsky.

The concert concluded with the Metropolitan Opera bass Dean Peterson (below) joining the Madison Symphony Chorus and Orchestra for selected scenes from Mussorgsky’s opera “Boris Godunov.” (He sang the role of the embattled tsar Boris.)

The choice worked better in concept than execution.

Aside from the famous Coronation Scene – which included church bell-type gongs on stage and in the audience in a high box – the music did simply not prove very memorable or captivating.

Peterson and the chorus both sang beautifully, especially in the difficult Russian language, which was thankfully translated and projected via sur-titles. And the orchestra played with commitment and precision. But even conductor DeMain had to signal the end the piece twice to let the audience know it was over.

Not a good sign.

This was the season closer, after all, and I kept wondering: Wouldn’t a rousing version of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” (or maybe even his “Firebird” or “Petrushka”) have rounded the Russian circle? What about Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition”? Or maybe Shostakovich’s tumultuous Fifth Symphony, or another of his symphonies.

But it was what it was, and everyone performed well – giving concertmaster Tyrone Greive, who soloed in the Mussorgsky, and his cellist wife Janet Greive, a fine sendoff into retirement after 20 years with the MSO. My criticism is of the music, not the performance or the performers.

One just would have liked to see that particular concert and this particular season end on more of a high note or crescendo than the weary and ill-fated Boris could summon.

Did you hear Philippe Bianconi in the Rachmaninoff Rhapsody? What did you think?

What did you make of the “Boris Godunov” scenes and how did you like the performance?

Let us know. Everyone is a critic.

And The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

Classical music news: This week UW opera to give local premiere of revised version of Donizetti’s bel canto opera “Maria Stuarda”

April 19, 2010
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By Jacob Stockinger

An epic power play that ignites vocal fireworks is University Opera’s latest premiere and season closer: Gaetano Donizetti’s “Maria Stuarda.”

Sung in Italian with projected English surtitles, the work will be given three performances—Friday, April 23 at 7:30 p.m., Sunday, April 25 at 3 p.m. and Tuesday, April 27 at 7:30 p.m.  All shows will take place at the Carol Rennebohm Auditorium in Music Hall on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus.

Tickets to  “Maria Stuarda” (below, in a photo by Brent Nicastro, are from left  Celeste Fraser  as Queen Elizabeth, Emily Birsan as Maria Stuarda and J. Adam Shelton as Leicester) are $20 for the general public, $18 for senior citizens and $10 for UW-Madison students, available in advance through the Wisconsin Union Theater Box Office at (608) 265-ARTS, Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m.–5:30 p.m. and Saturdays, 12:00–5:00 p.m.  Tickets are also available at the Vilas Hall Box Office from Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m.–5:30 p.m., and after 5:30 p.m. on University Theatre performance evenings.

Because shows often sell out, advance purchase is recommended.  If unsold tickets remain, they may be purchased at the door beginning one hour before the performance. The Carol Rennebohm Auditorium is located in Music Hall (below), at the foot of Bascom Hill on Park Street.

“Maria Stuarda” is based on the play by famed German writer Friedrich von Schiller, and is one on the rare “bel canto” (literally, “beautiful singing”) operas with a turbulent history.  Banned by the King of Naples shortly before its 1834 debut, numerous efforts to present the work continually fell short until the middle of the 20th century.

A current revival in opera houses around the world has been facilitated by the 1987 discovery of the autograph score and Anders Wiklund’s critical edition.

Donizetti (below), considered one of history’s most prolific opera composers, offers what history could not: a fictional meeting between the Protestant Queen Elizabeth I and the Catholic Mary Stewart of Scotland that combines power and jealousy resulting in dynamic confrontation seldom associated with works of this period.

According to a press release, director William Farlow (below), says he is “thrilled” with the opportunity to stage “Maria Stuarda,” the fourth Donizetti opera he has directed for the program since he assumed his current post in 1999.

“Bel canto opera—Bellini, Rossini and Donizetti—has been a favorite of mine since I was a teenager because of my exposure to performances by Callas, Sutherland, Caballé, Sills, Scotto and Gencer,” says Farlow.  “It is especially gratifying to be able to present this work at this time of my career.”

Farlow’s cast includes undergraduate and graduate students from the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music, supported by the UW Chamber Orchestra under the direction of James Smith.  The title role will be sung by Emily Birsan (below), while the role of Queen Elizabeth will be shared by Celeste Fraser (April 23 and April 27) and Jennifer Grace Sams (April 25).

In addition to a sizeable ensemble, other roles are performed by J. Adam Shelton (Leicester), John Arnold (Talbot), Justin Niehoff Smith (Cecil) and Megan Gryga (Anna).

Production staff includes costume designers Sydney Krieger and Hyewon Park, technical director Greg Silver, lighting designer Steven M. Peterson, set designer Angelina Paoli, vocal coach Bill Lutes and chorus master Susan Goeres.   The English surtitles are by Christine Seitz.

Farlow  — seen below rehearsing Mozart’s “Cosi fan tutti” in 2004 — offered The Well-Tempered Ear the following Q&A about the opera:

Why did you choose this opera to stage?

It showcases most of our outstanding singers.

What, briefly, is the story line?

The time is 1587, and the places are London and Fotheringhay.

Queen Elizabeth I loves the Earl of Leicester, but he loves the imprisoned Mary, Queen of Scots.  He promises her confidant George Talbot that he will do all in his power to secure Mary’s release and persuades Elizabeth to meet Mary.

On Leicester’s advice Mary humbles herself before Elizabeth and asks for forgiveness.  Elizabeth taunts Mary who in turn insults her Elizabeth sealing her own fate.

Despite Leicester’s pleas, Elizabeth signs Mary’s death warrant and names Leicester as witness at the execution.  Mary confesses to Talbot and prays for peace in England.  Forgiving Elizabeth she goes to her death.

The opera was censored and banned in the 1830s. What made it so politically or socially subversive or dangerous?

Two reasons: The reigning Queen Maria was a direct descendant of Mary Stuart and the language used in the confrontation scene – Mary refers to Elizabeth as a “vile bastard.”

How is the opera politically or socially relevant to today, if it is?

It shows us monarchs in a human and very vulnerable light.

How would you rank it and compare its similarities and differences to other Donizetti operas and other bel canto operas?

I would put it up near the top, next to his other great works – “Lucia di Lammermoor,” “L’elisir d’amore” and “Don Pasquale.”

What would you like the public to know about the cast, sets and costumes, and other aspects of the production? (Below in a photo by Brent Nicastro are Emily Birsan as Maria Stuarda), J.
Adam Shelton as Leicester and Celeste Fraser as Queen Elizabeth.)

The costumes are by longtime collaborator, Sydner Krieger and Hyewon Park as are the sets of Angelina Paoli.

As to the cast, it is comprised of young professionals: Emily Birsan, John Arnold, and J. Adam Shelton will be with the Des Moines Metro Opera this summer, Jennifer Sams will be with Opera for the Young next season, and Celeste Fraser sang with Opera North last summer.

The manuscript was lost from the 1830s until the mid-20th century. What changes or discoveries were made when the manuscript was discovered after all that time?

This critical edition comes form material found in Sweden in the late ’70s, I believe.  The opening chorus is completely different from the one used previously and there are changes in Mary’s two cabalettas and the stretta of the Act I finale.  Also, it is now in two instead of three acts.

It is such a beautiful and thrilling work.  I think the public will be delighted with it.

Here is a taste of the “Maria Stuarda” (performed in English) featuring the famed Dame Janet Baker, who chose the opera as one of three she sang for her farewell tour (more videos of Baker in the role can be found at YouTube):

If you go, let us know what you thought of the singing and the production.

You may persuade others to take in a later performance.

And The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

Classical music datebook: Free Earth Day concert on Tuesday features UW performers and works

April 18, 2010
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By Jacob Stockinger

This a reminder that a FREE and PUBLIC Earth Day concert will be held in Promenade Hall in the Overture Center this Tuesday, April 20, at 8 p.m.

Admission is free and no tickets are required, but seating is limited.

The Gaylord Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at UW-Madison is hosting the event in connection with its Earth Day conference April 20-21 at Monona Terrace, which marks the 40th anniversary of both Earth Day (which former Wisconsin governor and US Senator Gaylord Nelson founded) and the Nelson Institute.


Here is some information from a press release:

UW-Madison sociology professor Michael Bell (below), who put the concert together, has provided more details about the program:

The concert features new compositions honoring Wisconsin’s environment and Wisconsin environmentalists.

Two of the composers are faculty members at the UW-Madison School of Music.  The concert begins with the world premiere of “Horizons” by Douglas Hill (below), professor of horn.  “Horizons” is a lyrical piece for tenor and chamber ensemble, based on the writings of Wisconsin author Sigurd Olson.

Next comes “Seasons” by John Stevens (below top), professor of tuba and a composer.  Spoken with the uplifting sound of the Wisconsin Brass Quintet (below bottom), “Seasons” is an ode to our state’s ever-changing climate.

The second half of the concert begins with the world premiere of “The Awakening Land” by Chris Bocast (below), a doctoral student at UW-Madison.  Bocast’s piece draws its inspiration from the writings of Wisconsin author Ben Logan and mixes field recordings of environmental sounds with guitar and piano. Next is the premiere of “Gatherings” by Michael Bell, professor of community and environmental sociology.

Blending bluegrass and classical styles, “Gatherings” is a “class-grass” celebration of the environmental writings of a medley of Wisconsinites, including Laura Ingalls Wilder, Gaylord Nelson, and Keewaydinoquay Peschel.

The concert concludes with “Marshland,” another piece by Douglas Hill, drawn from Aldo Leopold’s “A Sand County Almanac,” with narration by Curt Meine, Leopold’s biographer and a UW-Madison alumnus.

“Ecotones” will showcase some of Madison’s best-known performers. In addition to the Wisconsin Brass Quintet, the musicians include Parry Karp on cello, Martha Fischer on piano, Bruce Gladstone singing tenor, Linda Bartley on clarinet, John Aley on trumpet, Mark Hetzler on trombone, Chris Wagoner on violin, the jazz singer Mary Gaines, and Shauncey Ali, the 2008 Wisconsin Grand Champion fiddler.

I hope the concert gets recorded and the broadcast by Wisconsin Public Radio or even made into a CD.

I also think a free concert of music with an environmental theme and a local focus is a great way to mark Earth Day.

What do you think?

If you go to the concert, how was it?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

Classical music news: Boston Symphony to do a two-season retrospective of John Harbison’s symphonies

April 17, 2010
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Boston Symphony Orchestra is in the news these days largely because its music director and conductor James Levine, who also leads the Metropolitan Opera, will be out for quite a while again due to health concerns — this time, back surgery for a herniated disc.

But what struck in the announcement of its 2010-11 season is the two-season John Harbison retrospective the BSO is planning to do. (Harbison teaches at MIT in Cambridge, which is near to Boston.)

Here is a link to the announcement:

I wonder whether Levine’s problems might jeopardize that., Levine, after all, is a big fan of Harbison and commissioned several works, including the opera “The Great Gatsby” from Harbison.

And John Harbison is also a local figure since he and his wife violinist Rose Mary Harbison share a farm in Token Creek, near Madison where every summer they co-direct the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival in late August.

Harbison is hands-down the calmest, clearest and most articulate explainer of classical music I have ever heard.

Here is a YouTube video of an interview with John Harbison for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, which premiered his Requiem.

Maybe the Madison Symphony Orchestra could schedule a Harbison symphony or two. It would be a winner on two counts: it’s contemporary music with local interest who has own both the Pulitzer prize and a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant.

There are a lot of Harbison videos, most with music, on YouTube.

Here is another Harbison video, with famed American soprano Dawn Upshaw singing in “The Great Gatsby”:

Do you know John Harbison’s works?

Do you have  favorite?

Do you think the Madison Symphony Orchestra or some other local groups perform more of Harbison’s works?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

Classical music review: YUNDI, the pianist formerly known as Yundi Li, has new CD of Chopin’s nocturnes and will record the complete Chopin for EMI

April 16, 2010

By Jacob Stockinger

He used to be Yundi Li.

He now calls himself YUNDI.

That’s right: All caps and no Li.

Isn’t that silly?

Well, I guess that what’s called re-launching and re-branding at a new home label (EMI, after Deutsche Grammophon cancelled his contract, allegedly under pressure from his competitive and flamboyant countryman Lang-Lang, who can’t hold a candle to Li’s musicianship.

But make no mistake: It is the same pianist who was a Chinese phenom who was the youngest pianist ever to win the Chopin Competition when he was 18 in 2000.

Why did he change his name?

No explanation is provided in the liner notes, which just focus on the discussing the nocturnes. But surely publicity has a lot to do with it. Remember when British violinist Nigel Kennedy became, simply, Kennedy to re-energize his career.

New name equals new exposure. That seems to be the operative equation.

Will it work? Probably. For one, he is androgynously adorable and boyishly cute – his cover photo might remind some of the young Paul McCartney on the cover of “Hard Day’s Night.”

More at the point his playing remains in top form.

I wish the recorded sound were better at capturing YUNDI’s rich tone and incredible technique. Instead, the sound seems overly resonant, and is not helped what often seems overpedalling. (I like more clarity, lightness and transparency in my Chopin.)

And I wish the program was a Chopin recital – with some mazurkas and other works including a ballade or two, some waltzes and some etudes thrown in to offset the sweetness and sameness of the nocturnes.

Some of the nocturnes — especially the less often played early ones  — could have benefited form more experience paying them. Little details need to be developed. Many of these readings seem less convincing that his scherzi and impromptus or even his Sonata in B minor.

Generally, YUNDI walks a middle road and is mainstream, without much original to say about Chopin. He is not as indulgent of Chopin’s Romantic night music as some pianists, but he doesn’t seek out the leaner muscularity and edginess of Maurizio Pollini, who won a Grammy a couple of years ago for his Nocturnes.

Still, this specially priced 2-CD album is a good deal.

Most important of all, it’s reassuring to know that Li is back in the studio. He has had some bad concert reviews for uneven live performances, and there have been questions about his maturity and career-direction ever since he moved to Hong Kong and was dropped by DG.

But he has a wide following that promises only to grow bigger through these popular works that are especially appreciated by amateur pianists and the general public. (It’s worth noting that he repeats a recording of the popular Nocturne in E-flat major, Op. 9, No. 2, which has had more than 3.5 million hits on YouTube, below.)

And, according to EMI’s website, YUNDI will undertake to record the complete Chopin.

Here is a link to his EMI website with his new recording of the same work. (Yundi’s own website is coming soon):

As for the Nocturnes: Overall, I still prefer Arthur Rubinstein’s recordings, especially the second but also the third, for more traditional playing of Chopin’s Nocturnes, and Pollini’s version for a more modern or structural and less sentimental approach.

And there is still room for a middle approach, faster than the first and slower than the second, with an emphasis on the singing line and drama that Chopin uses in these works that rely so often on songs and processionals.

But you won’t go wrong with this recording, though it isn’t a must-have.  It is hardly definitive (can any recording really be “definitive”?) but it has many lovely moments and it marks a welcome return of a major young talent.

What do you think YUNDI (or Li)?

And of his Chopin and his new recording of the Nocturnes?

Do you have a favorite Nocturne or a favorite recording of Chopin’s Nocturnes?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

Classical music review: Madison Opera passes the Wagnerian test of staging Wagner with flying (Dutchman) colors

April 15, 2010

By Jacob Stockinger

To successfully stage a Wagner opera is the kind of test or trial that the heroes in Wagner’s own late operas – I’m thinking of the “Ring” and “Parzifal” — have to undergo to prove their worthiness before they can proceed or struggle to have some transcendent experience.

I don’t know what transcendent experience awaits the Madison Opera, which will turn 50 next season — maybe all sell-outs? But I do know that this past weekend, the company very successfully staged its first-ever Wagner opera – “The Flying Dutchman” — in a way that seemed worthy of Wagner himself and his operas.

So to the Madison Opera I say: Congratulations on your landmark achievement. The company has lifted the spelled that let it go Wagner-less so far in its half-century history. That’s like so Wagner, nicht wahr?

The bigger-than-life scale that Wagner favored seemed to pose no problems – at least not to the listener and observer, though one suspects there were challenges galore behind the scenes and on the stage.

The orchestra and especially chorus (below in a photo by James Gill, who took all the photos on this post) were enormous, and they performed well under the baton of music director  John DeMain and the preparation of chorus master Andrew Abrams.

The cast proved strong. I particularly liked soprano Turid Karlsen (below top) as Senta, the Dutchman’s love interest and savior, and even bass-baritone Bradley Garvin, who was suffering from a cold on Sunday afternoon, turned in a strong performance as the ill-fated Dutchman (below bottom) seeking true and eternal love to save him from his fateof endless wandering.

The entire cast, which included UW soprano Julia Faulkner (below in the center, dressed in black), also seemed strong and especially even, which is a big plus when it come to unifying a production.

I liked the abstract or expressionist sets, done in primary blue yellow and read, and the costumes, both of which proved striking to the eye.

And Michael Scarola’s staging and direction were as good as such a motionless opera can be. In fact, during intermission I heard one patron saying she was enjoying this staging far more than the one she had seen at the Met in New York City. That is high praise that seems to come from a knowledgeable source.

I was also taken with the Overture and especially with the illuminated screen that resembled an abstract but colorful and evocative seascape by the English 19th-century painter J.M.W. Turner.

I’ll confess, though, that aside from the overture, Act I for me was pretty deadly and dull. There isn’t a lot of action. It has that kind of static air – which passes in Wagner for serious philosophy and high art – where you want something, anything, to happen.

But Acts II and III proved more involving, more dramatic and human. They moved and were moving.

But even so, clearly this is an early work – it premiered in 1843, six years before Chopin died — and Wagner was still working out his metaphysics as well as his own distinctive musical style complete with leitmotifs or musical signatures to the characters.

That praise given, was this production enough to convert me to being a Wagnerian (or is it Wagnerite)?

I’m afraid not. In the famous duel between Wagner and Brahms, I side with the traditionalist Brahms – though one can and of course does appreciate both.

But I like more sensuality and more melody in my opera, especially since I go primarily for the music and not for the theater or spectacle, let alone the pretentious philosophy.

I guess I also I like my love – see the Dutchman and Senta marrying below — to be less German and more Italian; more carnal and poignantly sinful, less metaphysical and redemptive. So you can still count me a devotee of Puccini and of Mozart.

I think Dorothy Parker, that most American wit, had it pretty right when she said that Wagner’s operas have wonderful moments and terrible hours.

Or of Mark Twain, who quipped “Wagner is better music than it sounds.”

Still, I hope to hear more Wagner from the Madison Opera.

I know that the Ring – in its individual four operas, let alone its entirety — is beyond the company’s capacity, and that the earlier Wagner operas like “Rienzi” are rarely staged for good reason.

So I keep wondering about doing a concert version of highlights with maybe some costumes and projected images or minimalist sets but with  great singers. Both George Szell and Erich Leinsdorf, I believe, made instrumental anthologies of the Ring and James Levine is scheduled to conduct an all-Wagner evening at the Boston Symphony next season.

I think savoring tidbits or tapas of mature Wagner would be a delicious meal indeed – especially with the voices that Madison’ Opera’s Allan Naplan and the Madison Symphony’s John DeMain manage to find and bring to town.

But that is another tale for another season.

In the mean time, I know that what they learned from doing this first Wagner opera will push the limits and abilities of what they do next season with Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro,” Verdi’s “La Traviata” and Kurt Weill’s “The Three-Penny Opera.” This production, which was not a sell-out but did sell very well (better than Gounod’s “Faust” last season, according to the company) will certainly boost confidence of both performers and audiences.

And, one suspects, subscription ticket sales as well.

It is good to see ambition succeed.

That, too, seems very Wagner.

Posted in Classical music

Classical music datebook: Best Bets for April 14-20 include the Madison Symphony’s all-Russian season closer, UW’s Beethoven piano sonata winners and a special free and localized Earth Day concert at the Overture Center

April 14, 2010

By Jacob Stockinger

This is a very busy week in Madison as various groups start the end of the season rush. There is an event to go to literally every day of the week with some days hosting several and sometimes conflicting events.

The Madison Symphony Orchestra this weekend will close out its current season with a MUST-HEAR all-Russian program that combines a lot of forces under conductor John DeMain and includes French pianist Philippe Bianconi (below) in Rachmaninoff’s popular “Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini”); Metropolitan Opera bass-baritone Dean Peterson and the Madison Symphony Chorus in excerpts from Mussorgsky’s “Boris Godunov.” Also to be performed is Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Russian Easter Overture.”

Performances are in Overture Hall on Friday at 7:30; Saturday at 8 p.m.; and Sunday at 2:30 p.m.

Tickets are $15-$75. Call the Overture Center box office at (608) 258-4141.


A related event will be on Wednesday at 4:30 p.m. in Morphy Hall. It is a free public master class by Dean Peterson (below), a bass-baritone with the Metropolitan Opera, who appeared this month as Daland in Madison Opera’s production of “The Flying Dutchman” and will appear this weekend as Boris Godunov with the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

The event is free and unticketed.


On Thursday at 7:30 p.m. in Morphy Hall, UW professor Marc Vallon (below) will perform on baroque and modern bassoons as part of the Faculty Concert Series.

The varied program includes sonatas by Daniel Speer (1636-1707) and Joseph Bodin de Boismortier (1689-1755), madrigals by Cipriano de Rore (ca. 1515-1565), “Premier Solo de Concours” by Eugene Bourdeau (1850-1926) and works by Sofia Gubaidulina (b. 1931), Ida Gotkowsky (b. 1933) and Jose Luis Campana (b. 1949). The program concludes with “Bohemian Rhapsody” for four bassoons by Farrokh Bulsara, also known as Freddie Mercury (1946-1991).

Collaborating with Marc Vallon are Martha Vallon, baroque cello; John Chappell Stowe, harpsichord; Vincent Fuh and Ina Selvelieva, piano; and David Wells, Brian Ellingboe and Theresa Koenig, bassoon.

The concert is free and open to the public.


On Friday at the free Noon Musicale (12:15 to 1 p.m. at the First Unitarian Society, 900 University Bay Drive, the Music of Debussy, Satie and Zabel Hasselmans will be performed by harpist Linda Warren.

Also on Friday at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall, the UW Madrigal Singers will perform under Bruce Gladstone (below, in a photo by Katrin Talbot).

The program features Italian and English madrigals from the 16th and early 17th centuries. Composers include Verdelot, Arcadelt, Rore, Marenzio, Monteverdi, Gesualdo, Tomkins, Weelkes, Wilbye, Gibbons and others. The texts of these exquisitely expressive works range from the ecstasies and torments of love to the joy and power of music.

The concert is free to the public.


On Saturday at 11 a.m., a FREE PUBLIC Hymn Sing, lasting about 45 minutes,  will be held in Overture Hall. Spring and Easter will be marked by Madison Symphony Orchestra organist Samuel Hutchison playing the concert organ.

On Saturday at 2 p.m. in Mills Hall, the UW Tube/Euphonium Ensemble will perform under director UW composer and instrumentalist John Stevens (below, in front at right).

The program includes “Intrada” by Melchior Franck, arranged by Michael Forbes (MM 1997); “Adagio in G minor” by Tomaso Albinoni, arranged by John Stevens; “Five Pieces” by Paul Hindemith, adapted by Mark Hetzler; and selections from “Pictures at an Exhibition” by Modest Mussorgsky, arranged by Lisa Golas. The Tuba/Euphonium Ensemble comprises 16 undergraduate and graduate majors in the studio of John Stevens. Guest artists are Todd Hammes and Ethan Martin, percussion.

The concert is free and open to the public.


On “Sunday Afternoon Live from the Chazen,” the Sonora Reed Trio will perform form 12:30 to 2 p.m. in Brittingham Gallery III at the Chazen Museum of Art. The group will be joined by guest pianist Owen Lovell.

This program will feature Erwin Schulhoff’s Divertissement, Joaquín Gutiérrez’s Trio de alientos, Alexei Haieff’s Serenade for oboe, clarinet, bassoon & piano, Jenni Brandon’s The Sequoia Trio and Lukas Hurnik’s Fusion Music.

The Sonora Reed Trio is a University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire faculty ensemble formed in 2004 to showcase the expressive instrumentation of the reed trio, and perform compositions by leading 20th and 21st century composers. Members include Christa Garvey on oboe, Richard Fletcher on clarinet and Kristine Fletcher on bassoon.

Pianist Lovell has appeared as a soloist, accompanist, chamber musician and new music advocate in 12 U.S. states, Canada, Mexico and the Netherlands. He was appointed in fall 2008 as an Assistant Professor of Music at UW-Eau Claire.

Also on Sunday at 1 p.m in Morphy Hall, there will be a recital by participants in the UW Community Music Lessons. No program has been given.

For information about this laudable program, visit Community Music Lessons.

The concert is free and open to the public.

On Sunday, at 4 p.m. in Mills Hall, the UW Trombone Choir will perform under Mark Hetzler (in a photo by Katrin Talbot). The concert is free and open to the public. No program has been given.

On Sunday, at 3:30 p.m. in Morphy Hall, the winners of the 2010 Beethoven Piano Sonata Competition, with the Beethoven sonatas they will perform, are Justin Krawitz, Sonata in A-flat major, Op. 110; Jihun Cho, Sonata in E major, Op. 109; Douglas Jurs, Sonata in F-sharp major, Op. 78; and Melody Ng, Sonata in D major, Op. 10, No. 3. Krawitz studies piano with Jessica Johnson; Cho, Jurs and Ng study piano with Christopher Taylor.

All four are graduate students—Krawitz, Cho and Jurs are candidates for a DMA degree, while Ng is a candidate for the MM degree.  Carson Rose Schneider received honorable mention.

This year’s competition was judged by Prof. Michael Keller of UW-Stevens Point.

The annual competition is sponsored by Chancellor Emeritus Irving Shain (below), on of the city’s best friends of classical music who also sponsors a piano and wind competition and helped sponsor the recent Chopin Mazurka Festival.

Admission is free and open to the public. A reception follows.


On Monday, April 19, at 7:30 p.m. in Morphy Hall, the Bahcall-Atwell-Kalman Trio will perform on the Guest Artist Series.

Members are Klara Fenyo Bahcall, violin; Bruce Atwell, horn; and Eli Kalman, piano. All members of the trio are faculty members at UW-Oshkosh.

The program features trios by Gyorgy Ligeti, John Harbison and Lennoz Berkeley.

The concert is free and open to the public


On Tuesday, April 20, at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall, pianist Jeffrey Siegel (below) concludes this season’s three-concert Keyboard Conversation tribute to Chopin on the occasion of the composer’s 200th birthday.

The topic is “Chopin and the Future” and features music (nocturnes and etudes) that point to the future and composers who were influenced by Chopin, including Szymanowski, Debussy, Tchaikovsky and Scriabin.

For ticket info visit: or call the Wisconsin Union Theater box office at (608) 262-2201.

Tickets are $35. Admission is free to UW students.

Also on Tuesday, April 20, at 8 p.m. in the Overture Center’s Promenade Hall, there will be a memorable MUST-HEAR event: “ECOTONES- A Musical Ecology of Wisconsin.”

The concert is part of the Gaylord Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies’ 40th anniversary celebration of Earth Day, which was started by former Wisconsin governor and US Senator Gaylord Nelson (below).

The program includes local composers and performers, including: Douglas Hill’s “Horizons” for tenor (Bruce Gladstone), clarinet (Linda Bartley), horn (Douglas Hill), cello (Parry Karp), and piano (Martha Fischer); John Stevens’ “Seasons” featuring the Wisconsin Brass Quintet; Chris Bocast’s “The Awakening Land” for guitar and ebow (Chris Bocast) and piano (Emily Blessing); Michael Bell’s “Gatherings” for “class-grass” ensemble; and Douglas Hill’s “Marshland” performed by an ensemble of advanced students from the School of Music conducted by Douglas Hill, with narration by Curt Meine.

Admission is free and no tickets are required, BUT SEATING IS LIMITED.

Posted in Classical music

Classical music interview: Pianist Philippe Bianconi says why he thinks Rachmaninoff is a great composer – and why others don’t. Part 2 of 2.

April 13, 2010
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

French pianist Philippe Bianconi (below), who won the silver medal at the Seventh Van Cliburn International Competition, will perform with the Madison Symphony Orchestra under John DeMain this coming weekend in an all-Russian program that will close out the current symphony season.

Bianconi will solo in Rachmaninoff’s popular “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.” Other works include “Russian Easter Overture” by Rimsky-Korsakov and excerpts from Mussorgsky’s “Boris Godunov” with Metropolitan Opera bass Dean Peterson (below) and the Madison Symphony Chorus.

Performances are in Overture Hall; in Friday at 7:30 pm.; Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are $15 to $75. For information, call the Overture Center box office at 608 258-4141 or visit :

As he prepared to tour the US and then undertake a recital tour of China – where he will play Beethoven, Liszt and Ravel — Bianconi spoke about his upcoming concerts in Madison from his home in Paris. Here is the second of two parts:

What are your favorite solo works and concertos by Rachmaninoff?

I play very few solo works and I should play more. I’ve studied some of the preludes and Etudes Tableaux. I think the “Corelli” Variations, which are late, are outstanding. It is so touching. There’s a kind of detachment to the music. It seems purer. I feel Rachmaninoff (below) gets simpler as he gets older; it is purified. It’s great piece.

I play all the concertos but the fourth. I love the Third. And I love the First Concerto. It was revised. So it has the material of the young Rachmaninoff but the skills are more mature Rachmaninoff.

My least favorite concerto is the second, maybe because it has been played so much. The third is great, but it is a monster and took me long time to learn it, though mastering it is a great achievement.

I personally think the Rhapsody is probably the best of his concertos. It’s a late work. It has great sense of structure and again it is pure Rachmaninoff but because of the structure of the theme, he doesn’t go overboard. But it’s all there – it is witty and intelligent. It never goes overboard with emotion s he does in the second and third concertos.

It’s still very tonal but a little bit more modern. You can tell he has heard some Stravinsky and maybe some modern American music – he had been living in the States for several years. There is not too much pathos – just a little bit. It is almost like a quintessence or distillation of himself without becoming a caricature.

It’s very fun to play. There are a few really tricky parts. But it isn’t as hard as the Third. It’s also a great orchestra piece, which I love. The colors he gets out of the orchestra and the piano are absolutely great. It’s much more developed than in the earlier concertos. It’s a great piece for the orchestra.

What is it about the Paganini theme (below) from his Violin Caprice No. 24 that has attracted so many others composers (Liszt, Brahms, Lutoslawski, Robert Muczynski as well as Rachmaninoff) to do variations on it?

Even Paganini himself wrote variations on the theme, so he set the pattern to show off its plastic qualities and rhythms. The harmony is very simple, which allows each composer to develop his own personal language for this very simple canvas.

I think the plastic quality of the theme allows such a variety of moods and colors and styles. All composers since Paganini were challenged to try it for themselves because they wanted to emulate the previous ones who had used the theme.

You have performed several times in Madison with the symphony. What are your impressions of the orchestra, the hall and the audiences as well as the city?

This will be my third time I’ve played in Madison with the symphony. In 2001, I played the Ravel G major concerto and the Faure Ballade, and in 2003 I played the Prokofiev Third Piano Concerto, both in the old Civic Center.

I don’t know the new hall, but I am so much looking forward to it. I’ve heard wonderful things about it. I had a great time with the symphony. When I first came to Madison, I didn’t know what to expect. I had no idea. But I was so impressed with the quality of the orchestra and even more so when I came back to do the Prokofiev with a guest conductor who was very good.

I’m very happy to come back with the Rhapsody. I’m really looking forward to working with them on that piece and to work again with John DeMain.

I have recollection of a very warm and enthusiastic audience. I love Madison. I think it is a great city with a university and a lot of young people. It’s very alive. I was surprised by it. I didn’t know what to expect when I first played there.

I also think it’s a great program. I love the all-Russian idea but I also love opera and especially Mussorgsky. I will in the audience listening to the opera excerpts.

I’m really looking forward to it. The Rhapsody is the piece that goes well with the Mussorgky because of its dark humor and the Daes Israe (Day of Wrath) theme. There is something a little devilish and cutting about it. It goes with the darkness of the piece. It’s a great program. The artists should love it.

As a bonus, here is Bianconi, playing with technique worthy of Rachmaninoff, the difficult Toccata from Ravel’s “Le Tombeau de Couperin”:

Posted in Classical music

Classical music interview: Pianist Philippe Bianconi explains why he thinks Rachmaninoff is a great composer – and why others don’t. Part 1 of 2.

April 12, 2010

By Jacob Stockinger

French pianist Philippe Bianconi (below), who won the silver medal at the Seventh Van Cliburn International Competition, will perform with the Madison Symphony Orchestra under John DeMain this coming weekend in an all-Russian program that will close out the current symphony season.

Bianconi will solo in Rachmaninoff’s popular “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.” Other works include “Russian Easter Overture” by Rimsky-Korsakov and excerpts from Mussorgsky’s “Boris Godunov” with Metropolitan Opera bass Dean Peterson (below) and the Madison Symphony Chorus.

Performances are in Overture Hall; in Friday at 7:30 pm.; Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are $15 to $75. For information, call the Overture Center box office at 608 258-4141.

As he prepared to tour the US and then do a recital tour of China – where he will play Beethoven, Liszt and Ravel — Bianconi spoke about his upcoming concerts in Madison from his home in Paris:

The Austrian pianist Till Fellner, who plays a lot of Bach and Beethoven, recently said that life is too short for bad wine and Rachmaninoff. What is it about Rachmaninoff that makes some pianists love him and others loathe him?

I think Fellner is wonderful pianist, but I’m not surprised he would say such a thing. He was a student of Alfred Brendel and he really is an intellectual pianist in the good sense of the word and a sensitive musician. But I just don’t see him playing Rachmaninoff. It’s not in his temperament.

It’s hard to say why some pianists do not like Rachmaninoff (below). There are probably several reasons.

One reason is that he was not with his time. Schoenberg and Stravinsky start off traditional, but early on they go off into new worlds and explore new things, while Rachmaninoff always remained a Romantic in his temperament and musical language. Richard Strauss and Sibelius are other composers who were not so modern.

For some reason it is something people blame on Rachmaninoff – that his music does not belong to his time.

For some people, Rachmaninoff is almost like a caricature of Romantic music. He has a shameless display of emotional and the schmaltz, He writes easy melodies that sound like folk songs abut aren’t. People will say his music is Hollywood movie. And Hollywood used some of his music. But he didn’t write Hollywood music, he wrote his own music.

I understand why some people think his music is too easy and not serious enough. On the other hand, we cannot doubt it is very sincere. It comes from the heart and goes to heart. It works. Some people love to play Rachmaninoff and I am one of them. But I wouldn’t specialize in him. I love to play Beethoven and the German Romantics. Rachmaninoff is just a small part of my repertoire.

But it is so rewarding to play, once you have mastered the technical difficulties of playing it. It is such incredible pianistic writing. It sums up writing for the piano from Chopin and Liszt and everybody. Once you’ve mastered the technical difficulties, there is exhilaration when you play Rachmaninoff. That’s why I personally love to play it. But I can understand people who want to have an encounter with more serious, more intellectual music.

In the Rhapsody, especially he gets close to Prokofiev in the rhythmic vitality. It is more angular. But when Prokofiev gets more lyrical, he can sound like Rachmaninoff. The middle section of the Prokofiev Third Concerto is pure Rachmaninoff.

How do you see Rachmaninoff’s place as a composer and why do you think the public loves him so much? Will he last and is he a great composer?

Why do people love him so much? It’s because his melodies are so gorgeous. He had a genius for melody. You don’t need any preparation to enjoy Rachmaninoff (below). It just speaks to you. Some composers you need to study more to appreciate their music.

With Rachmaninoff, it’s immediate. You either dislike it, like Ravel and people who think it is tasteless and has too much schmaltz don’t like his overboard passion and emotion. But if it speaks to the public, that’s why. The pianists who love Rachmaninoff love him because of that.

I think he will last. He is a great composer because he wrote great music. But if he had not existed, it wouldn’t make any difference to the history of music.

There are some composers who made the history of music and changed the language and made it evolve, while others didn’t. Rachmaninoff didn’t. If we didn’t have his music, the history of music would be the same.

But to me he wrote some wonderful music.

Tomorrow: Bianconi on his favorite Rachmaninoff works, the Paganini theme and Madison. Here’s a link:

Read Part 2 of Bianconi’s interview

Posted in Classical music

Classical music workshop: Expert says playing advanced or unsuitable repertoire too soon can hurt you

April 11, 2010

By Jacob Stockinger

On Friday afternoon, I attended a free workshop at the University of Wisconsin School of Music. It was given by Dr. Kathleen Riley (below, in my photo, shown explaining electrode placement on the forearm) of New York University, whose career is spent in measuring the muscular stress  used in playing music and generating relaxation.

It is encouraging to see that injury prevention seems such a mainstream part of the curriculum these days. It wasn’t always so, and there are many injured musicians out there to prove it. (However, it should have been publicized more. And it’s too bad only about two dozen people showed up and that all the electronic equipment was not fully functioning.)

Riley touched on many things during her talk and demonstration.

She emphasized the importance of keeping muscles relaxed and being economical – that is, keeping the most results with the least effort or expenditure.

She talked about the importance of good hand position. Hands and fingers that are too flat or curve upwards rather than downwards are inefficient and even damaging, whereas using a better, more rounded bridge with the support of knuckles helps promote efficiency.

Sitting too close to the piano, so that you cannot comfortably move your elbows is another source of stress, fatigue and even injury. It amounts to playing in a straitjacket.

Riley said she takes a personal approach. What works for individuals in her primary goal, She has worked with many students but also with processional concert artists including Garrick Ohlsson and Frederic Chiu as well as the head of the piano department at Juilliard.

One of her most interesting and practical pieces of advice concerned choosing repertoire.

She said too many students rush into big and difficult pieces before they are physically able to play them. That can cause damage – and of course can also discourage students.

She said too few sonatinas, except the famous Clementi one, are studied, but should be. She urged playing more of Bach’s two-part inventions. And she especially said that students should focus on more late intermediate and early advanced pieces.

“It only makes sense to play some of the easier Chopin preludes before you go on to do some of the nocturnes or mazurkas.”

Bigger pieces require bigger muscles, she said, comparing playing music to an athletic act.

That speaks to me now as I try to choose pieces to study and play.

I tend to overreach and want to play the big beautiful things I love listening to. So I am scaling back. Rather than starting on a Chopin ballade, I will do so more of the Schubert’s “Moments Musicaux” and easier Impromptus, which are wonderful pieces and more do-able than his sonatas, and one of Bach’s French Suites, which are easier than the partitas or English suites or even than much of the Well-Tempered Clavier.

Not that any music is easy to play well.

But repertoire, Riley said, has to be suited not to just to your likes or dislikes – but also to your physique.

A UW student (below), for example, performed the opening of Beethoven’s Sonata in A flat Major, Op. 26, the “Funeral March,” with exemplary tone and phrasing.

But the big chords caused stress on her hands – stress that could be seen on a video screen tracing in real time — the results of electrodes on her hands and forearms. Then, through biofeedback, one could see how the student played with less effort but got just as good a tone and volume. Keeping the thumb down on a large chord is especially damaging as it causes an unnatural stretching of the hands and fingers.

She also used a UW percussion student (below) to demonstrate how back muscles get involves and how posture affects performance, how big muscles must help small muscles.

She said works out, exercise and nutrition also play a part, and  offered a later workshop on specific techniques that I unfortunately couldn’t attend.

But I liked her straight talk about making music.

Here is a link to her informative and useful website:

I hope she – or someone else like her – has a book with some of the same practical advice.

In the meanwhile, what do you think of what she said?

What late intermediate and early advanced pieces do you play or recommend to me and to others?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music
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