The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music review: Of Madison, great Norwegian violinists and fine symphonic music by Tchaikovsky, Robert Schumann and Samuel Barber | January 18, 2011

By Jacob Stockinger

Critics aren’t the only ones who get it wrong, especially when it comes to new music.

Consider that two of today’s most popular warhorses, both by Tchaikovsky – the Piano Concerto No 1 in B-Flat Minor and the Violin Concerto – were both deemed “unplayable” by the top performers and instrumental virtuosos of the day, and they told the composer just that.

But the composer (below) ignored them and the techniques of playing advanced.

Now, of course, both these works are standard fare that can make a career and pack a house. One welcomes hearing them almost always – but especially when some new aspect of these old standards is revealed.

Enter the young Norwegian violinist Henning Kraggerud, who soloed in the Tchaikovsky this past weekend with the Madison Symphony Orchestra under the baton of conductor John DeMain.

Kraggerud (below) brought an interesting and masterful mix of bravura and subtlety to the concerto. These was plenty of drama, highlighted by the way that Kraggerud and DeMain gazed intently into each other’s eyes, especially during the lickety-split final movement with its hair-trigger ensemble playing.

But there were also times when the boyish Kraggerud — who has a rich tone, accurate fingers and a great bowing arm — chose to emphasize a quiet musicality, something that brought out the harmonic and especially melodic gifts of Tchaikovsky, who is loved by the public but often looked down on by serious critics and classical music fans.

It was not the most dramatic or exciting reading of the Violin Concerto I’ve ever heard here in Madison. That honor goes to Nadja Salerno Sonnenberg (below) who played it here a decade ago. Yet if it was not the expected reading, it was also not an easy or undistinguished reading. But it is one I will long remember – as will the audience that gave it a prolonged standing ovation.

The performance offered plenty of proof that the affable Kraggerud is a musician to watch, as do his Naxos recordings of Grieg, Ysaye and Sibelius, which have been acclaimed. (He played the Sibelius violin concerto here impressively two seasons ago).

One hopes Kraggerud returns again soon. And there are more reasons for establishing ties between Kraggerud and Madison than his first-rate  MSO performances. (See below.)

As for the rest of the program, the MSO proved especially impressive in the curtain-raiser, Samuel Barber’s revised version of “Medea’s Meditation and Dance of Vengeance.” It was an impressively virtuosic display of playing in a dramatic work that is engaging to hear despite the fact that it largely overlooks the magnificent gifts for lyricism and elegiac poignancy that Barber (below) possessed. It was a great way to mark the centennial of Barber’s birth, a celebration that the MSO will continue in March with Barber’s enthralling Violin Concerto.

Robert Schumann’s Symphony No. 3 (“Rhenish”) closed the program. It’s a fine work, but one which strikes me as too long to open a concert and a bit underwhelming at its end to close a program. Still it is a fine work, filled with the songlike melodies and inventive harmonies that are hallmarks of Schumann (below) as well as the repetitions and syncopations or dotted notes.

The Brahms-like “cathedral movement” proved especially fetching for its stately counterpoint and dense part writing. Once again, it was a good and unpredictable choice for an homage to the Schumann bicentennial, although it times a sounded a little bit ragged or under-rehearsed to my ears.

Much of what I would about the MSO performance, which I heard on Sunday, would only repeat what other colleagues and critics have remarked on. So I direct you to them:

Here is a link to the review by Greg Hettmansberger on the blog Dane 101:

And here is a link to John W. Barker of Isthmus and its website The Daily Page:

Let me add just this: As noted in the other reviews, Kraggerud played an encore — WITH the string of the orchestra. It was the hauntingly beautiful elegy “La Melancolie” that famed 19th century Norwegian violin virtuoso Ole Bull (below) composed when his first wife died while he was on tour. Later in life,  Bull (whom Kraggerud has portrayed in a DVD) at 60, found love again – in Madison, where he married Sarah Thorp, built a mansion-like home  in 1872 and lived for a quite a while as he also established ties with the pioneering Scandinavian Studies department at the University of Wisconsin.

Here are links to the history (click on the pages you want to read):

And here is a link to David V. Mollenhoff’s 2003 definitive history of Madison:

So, if you want to make a local pilgrimage: It was at 130 E. Gilman St. where Bull resided with his second wife, who was 40 years his junior and came from a wealthy Wisconsin family.

Think he maybe liked college towns?

Posted in Classical music


  1. I, too, took particular notice of the connection that Kraggerud and DeMain had during the performance. Wonderful concert! And I must say that having seen Nadja Salerno Sonnenberg perform with the Chicago Symphony, her drama and physical movements are somewhat distracting to me, and found Kraggerud’s delivery preferable. Also, I cannot say often enough how much I admire and appreciate the Madison Symphony’s wonderful performance when they are accompanying someone. Frankly, I felt the CSO often competed and was too over-powering.


    Comment by Nina Sparks — January 18, 2011 @ 10:00 am

    • Hi Nina,
      Thanks for reading and for offering your very detailed and cogent review.
      You make some fine points about balance, especially in the concerto form in which partnerships can often be overshadowed.
      But it wasn’t with the MSO concert, I agree.


      Comment by welltemperedear — January 18, 2011 @ 10:19 am

  2. Bull’s nephew Storm, was mayor of Madison for a couple of years 1901-02 and is buried in Forest HIlls Cemetery.


    Comment by Paul Rowe — January 18, 2011 @ 8:35 am

    • Hi Paul,
      So … the mystery, history, surprise and admiration all grow!
      Thank you.


      Comment by welltemperedear — January 18, 2011 @ 1:18 pm

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