The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: This weekend the Madison Symphony Orchestra and pianist-improviser Gabriel Montero offer what could be a memorable, “Best of 2013” concert featuring music by Beethoven, Dvorak and Jennifer Higdon.

January 17, 2013

By Jacob Stockinger

This weekend, the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below), playing under its longtime music director and conductor John DeMain, is offering what could turn out to be a very memorable concert, one that might well go down as one of the “Best of 2013” classical music events in the Madison area.

mso from above

The concert has the theme of “Discovery” and features music of Beethoven, Dvorak and Jennifer Higdon with guest piano soloist Gabriela Montero.

Three performances will be given in Overture Hall: on Friday night at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday night at 8 p.m.; and Sunday afternoon at 2:30 p.m.

So many things recommend this concert that it is hard to know where to begin.

Let’s start with the fact that in the dark days of deep winter, compounded by concerns over a major flu outbreak and disheartening political news in D.C., DeMain (below) has programmed largely upbeat and sunny big works in major keys. We need this music right now.

John DeMain conducting 2

Then, there is Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 (which was published first but is actually the third, coming after an unpublished one in E-flat major and then his “No. 2” in B-flat major) composed in the bright key a C major. This gem has lively themes and rhythms, and provides a wonderful synthesis of what the young and virtuosic Beethoven (below, seen in an 1804 etching) had learned from Mozart and Haydn about writing concertos for the piano. In fact, he played it at his Vienna debut in 1800 to impress the audience and critics – and they were indeed duly impressed! It is hard to believe the MSO has played it only once before.

young beethoven etching in 1804

The soloist in the Beethoven is Gabriela Montero, born in 1970 in Venezuela.

Montero (below) was a traditional child prodigy and remains a virtuoso in her own right. She started lessons at 4, made her public debut at 5 and then played a concerto in public at 8. But she also a rarer and often astonishing skill: she can improvise in a classical way, as you can see at the bottom in a YouTube video, where she improvises on the opening theme of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3.  in a Baroque manner of the style of J.S. Bach. Maybe she will do the same with Beethoven here? And sometimes she calls out for suggestions form the audience. Now that takes confidence.

Improvisation is a skill that once was a prerequisite to a professional career for classical pianists and composers. Bach, Handel, Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, Schumann, Liszt, Brahms and so many others had to master improvisation. You can often tell that from their concerto cadenzas, their sonatas, their impromptus, their concert paraphrases and especially their theme and variations. Improvisation among performers was once the norm in classical music, but is now a largely forgotten art except in jazz, though it has made something of a comeback in recent years.

Gabriela Montero

Then comes a long-awaited treat: Dvorak’s Sixth Symphony, the break-through work in which Antonin Dvorak (below) meshed his Czech nationalism (with folk dances and harmonies) with the formalism and structure of German Romanticism. Sharing an affinity with Brahms Symphony No. 2, this is a sunny work also in D major. And hard as it is to believe, it has NEVER before been performed by the MSO, even though it was written in 1880 and was premiered in 1881. It is a testament to the ethnic bias between Austrians and Czechs, and so had to be premiered in Prague — not in Vienna where it was commissioned. More importantly, it is just more proof of my belief that the tuneful and accessible Dvorak is one of the most underestimated and underplayed composers. I especially love his piano trios and piano quartets as well as his string quartets and quintets to say nothing of other works less famous than the “New World” Symph0ny. 


Born in 1962, Jennifer Higdon (below, with her cat Beau), who teaches at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, is one of American’s most honored composers. But more importantly, she is also one of its most popular contemporary composers. Her music is featured on some 30 CDs and “blue cathedral” has been performed by over 400 orchestras.

Jennifer Higdon and cat Beau

“blue cathedral” (2000) is a tone poem that runs about 12 or 13 minutes, and is very accessible and tonal. Commissioned by Curtis for its 75th anniversary, it pays homage to her brother, a clarinetist, who died of cancer. Higdon, who plays the the flute, use those two instruments in counterpoint. The moods and atmosphere are thick and I think of the work as one of the literal blue cathedrals – also done in other colors – that the French Impressionist Claude Monet painted at Rouen (below), works that are similar in their changing light and moods of his more famous haystacks.

monet rouen cathedral in blue

Anyway, add it all up and you can see where I think this will be an extremely well programmed, well staffed and deeply enjoyable concert.

For more information, visit:

For tickets, which run $16.50-$78.50, you can call the Overture Center box office at (608) 258-4141 or use this link to the MSO website:

And for program notes, by MSO trombonist and UW-Whitewater professor J. Michael Allsen, here is a link to his excellent and very accessible program notes:

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