By Jacob Stockinger
This weekend brings more season-closers. The groups concluding their concert seasons include the First Unitarian Society of Madison’s FREE Friday Noon Musicales; the Festival Choir of Madison; the UW Chamber Orchestra; and Edgewood College.
Here is a round-up of yet another busy weekend.
On Friday afternoon, from 12:15 to 1 p.m., the last FREE Friday Noon Musicale of the season at the first Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, will feature Driftless Winds, a University of Wisconsin-Platteville Faculty Reed Trio.
Members are Laura Medisky, oboe; Corey Mackey, clarinet; and Jacqueline Wilson, bassoon.
Bring your lunch; coffee and tea are provided.
On Friday night, the Madison Chamber Choir will perform at 7:30 p.m. at Christ Presbyterian Church (http://www.madisonchamberchoir.com) . It will be directed by Adam Kluck.
On Friday night, May 2, at 7:30 p.m. in the First Congregational United Church of Christ, 1609 University Avenue, the University of Wisconsin-Stout Choirs come to Madison on a mini-tour, with a program titled “An Ode To The Bard: Shakespeare in Music.”
The concert will feature musical settings of Shakespeare’s words, popular music of his time (including tunes that are referenced in his plays), and works inspired by the legacy of William Shakespeare (below).
Performers include the Stout Symphonic Singers (an open-seat choir of about 30 singers) and the Stout Chamber Choir (an auditioned choir of 20 singers), both directed by composer-conductor Jerry Hui (below), with pianist Michaela Gifford.
Admission is free with a free-will donation welcomed.
On Saturday at 11 a.m. at Oakwood Village West, 6209 Mineral Road, on Madison’s far west side, the UW-Stout Choirs will give a second performance of their Friday night program. See directly above.
On Saturday afternoon at 4 p.m. in Mills Hall, the All-University String Orchestra will perform a FREE concert under conductor Janet Jensen (below, in a photo by Katrin Talbot). Sorry, no word on a specific program.
On Saturday, May 3, at 7 p.m. in the St. Joseph Chapel at 1000 Edgewood College Drive, the Edgewood Concert Band and Jazz Ensemble will perform under the direction of Walter Rich and Daniel Wallach. Included will be works by Paul Dukas, Jenkins, Williams, Van der Roost and Franz von Suppe.
Admission is $7 to benefit music scholarships at the college.
On Saturday night at 7:30 p.m., the FESTIVAL CHOIR OF MADISON (below) will conclude its 40th season in the First Baptist Church, 518 North Franklin Avenue, in Madison. It will perform with the Pecatonica String Quartet and winds, and under the baton of artistic director Bryson Mortensen, who is the Director of Choral Activities at the University of Wisconsin-Rock County.
The program is entitled “Gloria” and features two Glorias: the well-known one by Antonio Vivaldi and a rarely heard one by Luigi Boccherini. A pre-concert lecture, begins at 6:30 p.m. The Ear hears there will also be an encore performance of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart‘s “Ave Verum Corpus.”
Tickets are $18 general public, $14 for seniors and $8 for students if bought in advance – call (608) 274-7089; the day of the concert, tickets are $20, $15 and $10, respectively.
For more information, visit the link: http://festivalchoirmadison.org/index.htm
On Saturday night at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall, the UW Women’s Chorus and the University Chorus will perform a FREE concert under the direction of Anna Volodarskaya and Adam Kluck (below), respectively. Sorry, no word yet on a specific program.
On “Sunday Afternoon Live From the Chazen” Museum of Art on the campus of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, from 12:30 to 2 p.m., members of the music faculty at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire will perform the second-to–last concert of that series this season. As always it will be broadcast live on Wisconsin Public Radio. The concert itself is FREE in the Brittingham Gallery No. 3. Sorry, no word on a program.
On Sunday afternoon at 2 p.m., in Mills Hall, the UW Concert Band will perform a FREE concert under director Mike Leckrone (below). Sorry, no word on the program.
On Sunday, May 4, at 2:30 p.m. in the St. Joseph Chapel, 1000 Edgewood College Drive, the Chamber Singers, Men’s Choir, Women’s Choir and Campus-Community Choir.
Kathleen Otterson (below) will conduct the Women’s Choir, while Albert Pinsonneault will lead the Chamber Singers, Campus-Community Choir, and Men’s Choir.
Pinsonneault (below) will also conduct the combined choirs and the Edgewood Chamber Orchestra in a performance of Franz Joseph Haydn’s “Te Deum.”
Admission is $7 to benefit music scholarships at Edgewood.
On Sunday evening at 6:30 p.m. in Music Hall, at the foot of Bascom Hill, the Lincoln Chamber Brass of Chicago will perform a FREE concert, just a week before they compete at the prestigious Fischoff Chamber Music Competition.
All of them are members of Civic Orchestra of Chicago; at 21, the horn player already substitutes for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Four are students at Northwestern University, the fifth at DePaul. Four of the five, including Ansel Norris, who was born in Madison and in high school studied with UW-Madison trumpeter John Aley, will attend the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Tanglewood Festival this summer.
Musicians of the Civic Orchestra of Chicago. The program includes Victor Ewald’s Brass Quintet No. 3; David Sampson’s “Morning Music”; Franz Biebl’s “Ave Maria” (arranged by Barker); and Giles Farnaby’s Suite of Dances.
Members (below, from left) are Ansel Norris and William Cooper, trumpets; Kevin Haseltine, horn; Joseph Peterson, trombone; and Scott Hartman, bass trombone.
For more information, visit: http://lincolnchamberbrass.wordpress.com/home/
At 7:30 in Mills Hall, the UW Chamber Orchestra (below) will perform its last concert of the season and its last concert before being either mothballed or terminated.
The performance is FREE and will be under the baton of director James Smith.
The program includes: Jacques Ibert’s “Hommage to Mozart”; Richard Strauss’ “Dance Suite After Francois Couperin”; and Mozart’s Symphony No. 39 in E Fat Major. (In a YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear the first movement performed by the legendary conductor Karl Bohm and the Vienna Philharmonic.)
For more about the news significance of the event, here is a link to yesterday’s blog post:
By Jacob Stockinger
The Ear hears: The UW Chamber Orchestra (below) will NOT exist next school year.
But not before it performs its final concert of the current season -– FREE and open to the public — this coming Sunday night at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall. Under the baton of acclaimed longtime conductor James Smith (below), the chamber orchestra will perform what seems a fitting final program.
What could be a better farewell than a program that features two homages: One to Francois Couperin (Dance Suite) by Richard Strauss (below top) and one to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart by French composer Jacques Ibert (below bottom). And then comes the true Mozart in a true masterpiece: the Symphony No. 39 in E-Flat Major.
The UW-Madison has not released any specific information yet about the reasons involved in canceling the UW Chamber Orchestra, which, together with the UW Symphony Orchestra, makes up the orchestra program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music.
But from what The Ear hears, the decision has to do with several factors.
Because there are fewer scholarships, there are fewer students coming into the school and therefore entering the performance groups.
There are also fewer students because some major professors who attract a loyal following from afar are retiring. They include tuba player John Stevens, University Opera director William Farlow and pianist Todd Welbourne.
Other full-time faculty are leaving the UW-Madison School of Music (violinist Felicia Moye, below, to McGill University, soprano Julia Faulkner to the Lyric Opera of Chicago school) and have been replaced with one-year appointments (oboist Kostas Tiliakos, singer Elizabeth Hagedorn, violinists Eugene Purdue of Madison and Leslie Shank of the Twin Cities, below, tubist Tom Curry and University Opera director David Ronis from CUNY’s Aaron Copland School of Music in New York City). And short-term instructors simply do not attract as many loyal students, especially those whose talent is on a superior or professional level.
Here are some links to stories about the new incoming academic staff from the terrific blog Fanfare:
Plus, there have been some financial problems, which have also caused the UW-Madison School of Music to scale back the new performing space it is seeking to build, and to substitute one-year appointments for tenure-track professorships.
All in all, the UW-Madison School of Music, which has traditionally enjoyed a fine reputation and a high ranking among public music schools, faces some serious challenges.
The only large instrumental classical ensemble that will continue to exist will be the UW Symphony Orchestra, but all the musicians I have talked to say the two groups offer very different playing experiences.
And The Ear finds it ironic that the smaller-scale chamber orchestras generally seem to be thriving around the country far more than the larger, more ambitious and more expensive symphony orchestras and opera companies, many of which face serious financial challenges. (Below is the famed St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, in which violinist Leslie Shank plays.)
I have not heard reactions about axing the UW Chamber Orchestra from staff or students -– perhaps because they have not yet heard the news — but I would welcome hearing some in the COMMENTS sections of this blog. I also think that members of the public and listeners should chime in with their reactions.
To The Ear, the demise of the UW Chamber Orchestra is a sad shame. After all, the question seems to ask itself: How does a major public School of Music maintain its status without providing the experience and repertoire of the smaller orchestra?
We will see.
In the meantime, I suggest that the performance this Sunday night is a MUST-HEAR concert. (Below is the UW Chamber Orchestra rehearsing with conductor James Smith.)
We really don’t know yet whether this is an au revoir or an adieu -– a temporary good-bye or a permanent farewell, no matter what the initial intent is.
But The Ear knows this much: In almost any organization, it is a lot easier to get rid of something than to revive it or bring it into being. Inertia is a powerful institutional force. So I would like to see a public groundswell or reaction to either keep the UW Chamber Orchestra active next academic year or to bring back the UW Chamber Orchestra after a one-year sabbatical — if that sabbatical really is necessary.
The Ear has many wonderful memories of the UW Chamber Orchestra, in both solo concerts but also in collaborating with the UW Choral Union (below) and the UW Concert Choir.
By Jacob Stockinger
The program includes: the “Catfish Row Suite” from Porgy and Bess”; the “I Got Rhythm” Variations for Piano and Orchestra (at the bottom in a historic YouTube video played by the composer who also introduces the work); a series of Gershwin’s most memorable songs for the stage including “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” “Our Love is Here to Stay,” “By Strauss,” “Embraceable You,” “S’Wonderful” and “Somebody Loves Me”; Leonard Bernstein’s Overture and “Glitter and Be Gay” from his opera “Candide” and the Symphonic Dances from “West Side Story” as well as a love duet from the classic musical. Songs include Harold Arlen’s “That Old Black Magic” and Stephen Sondheim’s “Losing My Mind.”
The performances are in Overture Hall on Friday night at 7:30 p.m.; on Saturday night at 8 p.m.; and on Sunday afternoon at 2:30 p.m.
Tickets are $16.50 to $82.50. Call the Overture Center box office at (608) 258-4141 or go to the box office in person to save service fees or visit:
Student rush tickets can be purchased in person on the day of the concert at the Overture Box Office at 201 State Street. Full-time students must show a valid student ID and can receive up to two $12 or $15 tickets. More information is at: www.madisonsymphony.org/studentrush
Of course some purists might carp this program is really a Pops Concert disguised as a serious symphony orchestra fare. But the symphony has seats to fill. And whenever John DeMain programs and conducts the music of Gershwin, the results are spectacular and popular. After all, DeMain (below) won a Grammy for his recording of Gershwin’s operas “Porgy and Bess” and then was featured in a live performance of the same work on PBS’ “Live From Lincoln Center.”
In addition, Gershwin worked closely with composer-conductor Leonard Bernstein (below) on Bernstein’s own operas.
Says music director and conductor John DeMain: “I’m a big fan of George Gershwin (below) for obvious reasons. For me, he embodies what it means to be an American musician. Trained in the classics, but deeply connected to the music of his country, Gershwin fused American folk music and jazz into a concert format that continues to thrill and resonate with audiences all over the world to this present day. “Porgy and Bess” is such a monumental achievement in this regard as well. It focuses on our African-American culture, and uses the music of spirituals and jazz to form its leitmotifs. It is again universal, and distinctly American.
DeMain adds: “Actually, what composer wasn’t influenced by Gershwin? At our May concert there isn’t remotely enough time to do a survey of all who came under Gershwin’s direct or indirect influence, but Harold Arlen, Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim (below bottom, inane NPR photo) were definitely among those who carried on the music theater tradition that Gershwin was such a master at.”
Several other reasons add to the appeal.
Garrick Olsen (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson) is a young and very promising local pianist who won the Bolz Young Artist Competition, when, broadcast live on Wisconsin Public Television and Wisconsin Public Radio, he performed Maurice Ravel’s difficult Piano Concerto for the Left Hand with the MSO in the Final Forte competition. He will also compete in the upcoming Piano Arts Competition in Milwaukee.
Soprano Emily Birsan, who graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music before going into the training program at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. She has been appearing in a lot of local production from University Opera and Candid Concert Opera and the Madison Opera to the Middleton Community Orchestra
Mezzo-soprano Karen Olivo (below top) is a Tony Award-winning singer and actor who recently relocated to Madison.
And baritone Ron Raines (below bottom) has a lot buzz associated with him.
Here is a link to the general MSO website with more information about the soloists and the program as well as audio samples of the repertoire:
And here is a link to comprehensive program notes by MSO trombonist and University of Whitewater professor J. Michael Allsen:
Major funding for this concert is provided by an anonymous friend and BMO Private Bank. Additional Funds are provided by Carla and Fernando Alvarado, Capitol Lakes, Mildred and Marv Conney, Terry Haller, J.P. Cullen and Sons, Inc., Ann Lindsey and Charles Snowdon, Tom and Nancy Mohs, and the Wisconsin Arts Board.
By Jacob Stockinger
Loyal readers of this blog know very well the name of Mikko Utevsky. The young violist and conductor is a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music, where he studies with Pro Arte Quartet violist Sally Chisholm and plays in the University of Wisconsin-Madison Chamber Orchestra.
Utevsky, who has won awards and impressive reviews for his work in music education since his days at Madison’s East High School, is the founder and conductor of the Madison Area Youth Chamber Orchestra, which will perform its fourth season next summer. For more information, visit: http://www.madisonareayouthchamberorchestra.org He has also been named the new Music Director of a local community orchestra, The Studio Orchestra. The ensemble has a website here: www.disso.org.
You can check out his many honors and projects by typing his name into the search engine on this blog site.
Utevsky offered The Ear a guest review of this weekend’s production of Jake Heggie’s “Dead Man Walking” by the Madison Opera at the Overture Center. The last performance is today at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall. Tickets are $18-$108.
I immediately took him up on the offer. After all, he is a fine and perceptive writer who, you may recall, blogged for this post when he was on tour two summers ago with the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO) tour to Vienna, Prague and Budapest.
Here is the review by Mikko Utevsky (below):
By Mikko Utevsky
“The Truth will set you free.”
Here, then, is The Truth:
There are no words for art like this. None suffices. The English language is inadequate when tasked with depicting an experience of the kind to which “Dead Man Walking” belongs.
I was speechless for a long time after the final curtain, even when I finally stopped crying openly — those who know me can appreciate how rarely I am at a loss for words. The nearly full house reacted similarly, with a prolonged stunned silence before the clapping started and then built into a standing ovation. Then the whole house rose to its feet in unison when Michael Mayes took the stage for a bow.
However, I promised a review, and so a review there shall be, insofar as words can express what must be said.
The opera — musical drama would be a more appropriate term – by composer Jake Heggie (below top) and librettist Terrence Nally (below bottom) is a masterwork on the scale of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s “Don Giovanni,” Giacomo Puccini’s “La Boheme” or Richard Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde,” and in every respect deserves to stand by their side in the repertory.
If anything, the opera is more deeply human than anything in the canon I have yet seen or heard. The libretto is skillfully crafted, capturing every character in life-like depth. Its score is masterful, propulsive, colorful, and powerfully moving, with influences from Mozart, Wagner and George Gershwin apparent. Remarkably, for a composer’s first opera, it balances to the stage apparently without effort.
Here are links to previous posts with interviews featuring composer Jake Heggie and librettist Terrence McNally:
Not a note is lost from either orchestra or cast, for which joint credit should also be given to Artistic Director and conductor John DeMain (below in a photo by Prasad) and the musicians of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, who fill the pit.
The singing is world-class. Baritone Michael Mayes lives and breathes the role of death-row convicted murderer Joseph DeRocher, portraying his inner demons with true clarity and conviction. Mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack, singing the role of Sister Helen Prejean for the first time (not that anyone would know) balances faith, doubt, and forgiveness with poignancy and eloquence.
Susanne Mentzer is heartbreaking as DeRocher’s loving mother, and Alan Dunbar is equally so, standing out from the excellent quartet of the victims’ parents (with Jamie Van Eyck, J. Adam Shelton, and Saira Frank). Baritone Erik Larson, appearing as the motorcycle cop who stops Sister Helen for speeding, is also memorable, providing one of the only moments of levity in an otherwise powerfully dark show, and Karen Slack (below top) as Sister Rose exhibits powerful vocal skills and a capacity for comfort and mercy. (The photo, below bottom, shows, from left, Daniela Mack, Susanne Mentzer, Michael Mayes, Saira Frank, Alan Dunbar, Adam Shelton and Jamie Van Eyck.)
The brilliant stage direction by Kristine McIntyre (below) brings the whole production to life against the starkly effective scenery from the Eugene Opera in Oregon. The costumes, lighting and sound design are simple and successful.
It would take too long to list every singer in the cast deserving of recognition, or every technical and visual aspect worthy of acknowledgement. But there is not a single weak link, and the whole company shows a total commitment to their art, from the last member of the chorus up through the principals, the orchestra, the director, Maestro DeMain, and General Director Kathryn Smith (below, in a photo by James Gill), to whom eternal gratitude is due for having the courage and vision to bring this work to the Madison stage.
This is opera. This is art. This is human expression at its most direct, at its most powerful, at its most deeply touching.
Go see “Dead Man Walking.”
You will come away changed.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The Madison Opera production of “Dead Man Walking” production has received other rave reviews. For purposes of comparison, here are links to others:
Here is the review by John W. Barker (below) for Isthmus:
Here is the review be Greg Hettmansberger (below) for Madison Magazine:
By Jacob Stockinger
In another week or two, the live concert season will start winding down until mid-June when the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society (below top) will start its three weeks of concerts. Then in mid-July will come the Madison Early Music Festival (below bottom).
Here are links to those two events:
But one of the compensating pleasures of the upcoming spring “intermission” is that you can catch up of some recent or new recordings that you might have overlooked or not had time to listen to during the regular concert season.
At least, you will do that if you are like The Ear.
So, in that spirit, here is a list of the 2014 winners of the BBC Music Magazine for classical recordings, which this year also include the Classical Music App of the Year.
I have sampled some of the recordings, and so far I have to agree: Some bias toward British musicians, music and labels notwithstanding, these are fine, outstanding recordings. You will find some familiar names among the honorees: Daniel Barenboim, Alisa Weilerstein (who has performed at the Wisconsin Union Theater and in the Overture Center with the Madison Symphony Orchestra), Sir Edward Elgar, Riccardo Chailly, Leipzig Gewandhaus, Johannes Brahms (you can hear some of his symphonies in a YouTube video at the bottom), Ludwig van Beethoven, Benjamin Britten, Johann Sebastian Bach, Elliott Carter, Richard Wagner, Jonas Kaufmann, Giacomo Puccini and Felix Mendelssohn.
But there is always room for more suggestions. So I encourage all readers to send in any relatively new recordings that they consider discovered good enough to be shared. Just leave the information in the COMMENT section.
Meanwhile, here is a link to the BBC winners:
By Jacob Stockinger
This weekend brings us three big events: two performances by the Madison Opera of Jake Heggie’s opera “Dead Man Walking” (Friday night at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon at 2:30 p.m.); a one-time performance of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s rarely heard a cappella “Vespers” by the University of Wisconsin-Madison Choral Union on Saturday night at 8 p.m.; and pianist Ryan McCullough in Ludwig Beethoven’s last three piano sonatas at Farley’s House of Pianos on Saturday night at 8 p.m.
But there are smaller concerts for you to consider too, some of which do not conflict with the others.
Tonight, Friday night, at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall, the UW Wind Ensemble (below, in a photo by Katherine Esposito), under director and conductor Scott Teeple, will perform a FREE concert.
The program include “Profanation” by Leonard Bernstein, arranged by Bencriscutto; ”Concerto for Wind Percussion and Wind Ensemble” by Karel Husa; ”Colonial Song” by Percy Grainger “Raise the Roof” by Michael Daugherty; and ”Symphony in Three Movements” by retiring UW tubist and composer John Stevens (below).
NEW MUSIC FOR BAROQUE FLUTES
On Saturday from noon to 1 p.m., the FREE concert series Grace Presents will present “New and Historic Music for Baroque Flute” with flutist Millie Chang (below) and others.
The concert is designed to be a refreshing break, a parenthesis in time and task, from the Dane County Farmers’ Market, which has started up again. Audiences are invited to bring lunch or food.
The venue is the lovely and acoustically resonant Grace Episcopal Church (below are exterior and interior views), at 116 West Washington Avenue, down on the Capitol Square.
Some of Madison’s most talented classical instrumentalists will perform the short but unique recital for baroque flute featuring compositions spanning three centuries.
Performers include Millie (Mi-Li) Chang and Danielle Breisach (below top), Baroque flute; UW-Madison professor Stephanie Jutt, modern flute; UW-Madison professor John Chappell Stowe, harpsichord; and Eric Miller (below bottom), viola da gamba.
Here is the specific program: David MacBride: “Shadow” for two baroque flutes (1993); Robert Strizich: “Tombeau” for baroque flute and harpsichord (1982); François Couperin, “Concert Royal” No. 2 in D major (1722), which can be heard in a YouTube video at the bottom; University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music composer Stephen Dembski (below top), “Gits and Piths” for modern and baroque flutes (2014); UW-Madison bassoonist, conductor and composer Marc Vallon (below bottom), “Ami” (2014); and Johann Sebastian Bach: Sonata in B minor for baroque flute and harpsichord, BWV 1030 (1736-37).
For more information, visit www.gracepresents.org
The fourth concert of the Kat Trio Chamber Music Series features the Veldor Woodwind Quintet. The concert will take place in Memorial United Church of Christ, 5705 Lacy Road, Fitchburg on Saturday night, April 26, 2014 at 7 p.m.
There will be 30-minute Q&A session before the performance.
Suggested donation: $10 adults and $5 students.
Member of the Veldor Woodwind Quintet (below) are: Barbara Paziouros Roberts (flute), Andy Olson (oboe), Joe Kania (clarinet), Brad Sinner (horn), and Brian Ellingboe (bassoon). They combine educational backgrounds in music performance from the Eastman School of Music, DePaul University, Lawrence University, Luther College, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music with many years of performing experience both locally and abroad.
Now in their fifth year, the Veldor continues to entertain audiences with its dynamic performances of standard and non-traditional repertoire alike.
For additional information, visit www.thekattrio.net/chamberseries
EARLY MONEY SONGS
Then on Sunday, April 27, at 2 p.m., at the Mount Olive Lutheran Church, 110 North Whitney Way, the early music group Eliza’s Toyes (below) is performing a program titled “Toss The Pot: Songs About Money, or the Lack Thereof.”
Writes founder singer and conductor Jerry Hui (below): “Through songs from the Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque period, we sing about the age-old problem of money, people’s desire for it, as well as things that are even more precious. There’ll be a “sermon of money” from “Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana”; selection from Palestrina’s “Canticum Canticorum”; a song by Orlandi di Lassus about hungry musicians stealing food; chansons by Josquin des Prez, Sermisy and Le Jeune; and many more.”
Tickets are $15.
NOTE: Today’s in the 450th birthday of playwright William Shakespeare — a fitting date for the blog post below to appear. Do you have a favorite work or composer who stands up to comparison with Shakespeare or whose music or opera best incorporates work by The Bard? Leave a COMMENT.
By Jacob Stockinger
At 8 p.m. on this Saturday night, April 26, pianist Ryan McCullough (below top) will play the last three Beethoven piano sonatas, Opp. 109, 110 and 111, on the new Salon Series of concerts at Farley’s House of Pianos (below bottom is Farley’s Steinway‘s 1877 Centennial Concert Grand), located 6522 Seybold Road, on Madison’s far west side, not far from West Towne.
McCullough has appeared with orchestras including the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and he performed to acclaim at the Token Creek Festival in Madison in 2010. For more information, visit his website www.rmmpiano.com.
For this concert he will play Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas No. 30 in E major, No. 31 in A-flat major and No. 32 in C minor. You can call (608) 271-2626 to reserve your tickets. Tickets are $30 in advance; $35 at the door. A free reception follows the performance and is included.
McCullough graciously answered an email Q&A for The Ear.
Can you briefly introduce yourself and your major accomplishments, and talk about your background including when you started piano lessons and what was your Aha! Moment when you knew you wanted to become a concert pianist?
By my nature, it is hard for me to claim any major “accomplishments” since I attribute any such thing to luck and circumstance (provided I’ve done the work!). But I will say I am very happy and feel very lucky that I’m a concert pianist, and especially that I’m satisfied with the breadth and variety of musical projects I get to work on. I can’t really even take sole credit for that, though, since I’ve had a lot of support from family and teachers all along the way.
My mom started me on piano when I was 5, but at the time I wasn’t really into it–I wanted to be a pilot. Something happened when I was 11, however, and suddenly music became an insatiable fascination for me.
I began composing, I began playing the clarinet, which gives me a lot of respect for the musicians on the “other side of the podium.” I started going to little competitions and I just knew that this was what I was going to do. I never decided, I just found myself.
There is a lot of cultural baggage that comes with Beethoven’s music, and this is of course nothing new. Composers, performers and music-lovers have racked their brains over his music and especially his late music for close to 200 years, and so I often wonder if it is really possible to unpack what is really Beethoven from what is just the Beethoven mythology.
But trying to think as objectively as possible about these works, I have been thinking recently about how much I love the pacing of his music. It’s very dramatic, in the thespian sense of the word, and revelations and changes to the motion of the music seem to happen at exactly the right moment. It is well-known that Beethoven (below top) loved Shakespeare, and the connections between dramatic rhetoric and music were very deep in the 18th-century, so I imagine this was a very serious consideration for him.
One of the challenges of playing Beethoven’s late works is grappling with profundity. Ask anyone who knows a little about Beethoven’s music to describe his late music and you’ll get responses like spiritual, profound, transcendental, mystical, otherworldly, and so on. This is just a part of our cultural understanding of Beethoven, which is of course backed up by Beethoven’s own words, such as the indication atop the third movement of op. 109, “mit innigster Empfindung,” or “with deepest feeling.”
Of course, while I do believe Beethoven was a very spiritual man with a deep interest in the philosophical and cultural trends of his time, 200 years of critical hyperbole since his death have made it such that playing this music feels to us as if his notes contain the secrets of the universe, and so as a performer it is easy to fall into the trap of trying to be profound through these works when just letting them be what they are is already profound enough.
Why do you think that the last three sonatas, and the late sonatas in general, have replaced the more “heroic” middle period sonatas like the “Tempest,” the “Appassionata” and the “Waldstein” that used to figure so prominently in piano recitals?
There is probably no accounting for why certain pieces begin to feature more regularly in concerts, especially in the piano circuit, which is so heavily influenced by (or contrary to) competitions. I also think it depends where you’re looking. I have heard many performances of the “Hammerklavier” Sonata recently, especially at top-tier competitions where it seems to be the “no s/he didn’t!” piece of choice these days.
I heard the last three sonatas played by my teacher, John Perry, back in 2004, before I began studying with him, and got it stuck in my head at that point that I would do that one day as well, so I think that’s at least one reason how certain repertoire disseminates.
That being said, I also heard a performance of the complete 32 Beethoven sonatas in one day by one person, and that is not something I would ever want to do.
Do you see any kind of connection or relationship among the last three sonatas? What would you like to point out to readers about each sonata, and about your performance in Madison?
This ties into the notion of profundity I mentioned a moment ago, whether it’s latent in the work or imposed by the observer (which of course includes the performer). Obviously Beethoven made the decision to put them in that particular order (Opp. 109, 110, 111), and opus order is something we know he was conscious of, especially with his late string quartets.
Whether that actually means anything specifically is anyone’s guess, and probably has as much to do with the composer’s business relationships with his publishers as it does with the actual music.
For the purposes of performance as a set, I do perceive a progression through the three.
Op. 109 (a manuscript page is below) feels very domestic, grounded in the realities of everyday living. Emotions ebb and flow, from comfortable simplicity to passionate arguments, but the piece never really wanders very far from home and there’s a certain quiet satisfaction that overrides the whole work, even in its most ecstatic moments.
Op. 110 (a manuscript page is below) is a much more complicated piece, and for me is the hardest of the three. It seems to begin somewhat where Op. 109 leaves off — comfortable, satisfied, glittering, but there is a certain disquietude in the first movement, evidenced by the fact that Beethoven keeps leaning towards the dark key of F minor but manages just to avoid it or only touches on it briefly. The second movement is a wild romp in, not surprisingly, F minor, so whatever it was Beethoven was trying to avoid in the first movement seems to eventuate in full.
The third movement, which emerges out of the second, is one of the most depressing, emotionally draining pieces of music Beethoven ever penned, so whatever happened in the second movement was evidently quite a test. After a couple of attempts to pull the music out of this stupor, the piece ends up in a wildly ecstatic version of where the sonata began, but with the same harmonic hints at disquietude as the first movement, suggesting a kind of cyclical story-telling that Beethoven was very interested in at that time. It’s this combination of tightly-woven composition and boundless, fantasia-like wandering that makes the piece hard to pull off. The pacing, as I mentioned before, is very important.
Op. 111 (below is the title page form the first edition) is undoubtedly my favorite, certainly conceptually. Its two movements could not be more different from each other. The first movement is very much the stormy Beethoven we all read about, unkempt, his chamber pot full, frantically and obsessively scribbling the same short musical gestures over and over until he’s found just the right version (which was usually the first version, 20 versions ago), the deaf man beating out this wild music at the piano while listening through his earhorn.
The second movement, then, is as if you woke up from that bad dream and found yourself watching some sort of eternal celestial ritual that had no beginning, no terminus, and only seemed to exist for as long as you were there watching it. The way the movement is constructed reminds me somewhat of the great old science film “Powers of 10” (http://vimeo.com/6150677) where the universe is shown proportionally in both its infinite vastness and smallness—the falling motive Beethoven starts with is continually divided in half, somewhat like a single bacteria, and becomes such a cloud of activity that it seems to engulf us until inadvertently we find ourselves back where we started. (You can hear the second movement played in a live performance by the great Rudolf Serkin in a YouTube video at the bottom.)
Many see Beethoven’s sense of musical abstraction as a precursor to 20th-century modernity; but the 18th-century was a pretty crazy time conceptually, and artists and philosophers were already considering ideas that modernists in the 20th-century would claim as their own invention. Beethoven just happened to be a very effective bullhorn for these ideas. (Below is a manuscript page of Op. 111.)
Is there something else you would like to add or say?
I am dedicating this performance and another that I am giving at Cornell University to a great friend and music-lover Leon Berliner (below), who owned a Classical music recording shop in my hometown of Eureka, California.
Leon was born into a Jewish family in Belgium, and Beethoven was one of the first sounds he heard after the liberation of his country from the Nazis. He held an annual Beethoven’s birthday party at his store on December 16, and he died this last year from lung cancer on December 15. That’s as amazing a coincidence as you’re ever likely to get, and I very much hope he’s enjoying his “eternal celestial ritual.”
Reader Survey: Today is Earth Day, founded by former Wisconsin governor and senator Gaylord Nelson. What piece of classical music best expresses the event for you? Tell us what you think by leaving a COMMENT.
By Jacob Stockinger
Today’s guest post is written by Michael Muckian (below), a long-time and award-winning Madison-based Wisconsin music journalist who covers everything from grand opera to the Grateful Dead. He writes about theater, art, food, wine and travel, as well as financial services and other business topics. He is currently a freelance writer and independent corporate communications consultant.
By Michael Muckian
The Madison Opera will present Jake Heggie’s “Dead Man Walking” at 8 p.m. this Friday, April 25, and at 2:30 p.m. this Sunday, April 27, in Overture Hall at the Overture Center for the Arts in Madison.
The opera will be sung in English with projected text in surtitles. Tickets are $18 to $121. Call (608) 258-4141 or visit www.madisonopera.org for more information.
The opera does have a Parental Advisory because it contains nudity, graphic violence, and explicit language, and is not recommended for anyone under age 18.
PLEASE NOTE: The real Sister Helen Prejean and composer Jake Heggie will be in Madison and offer a FREE public discussion this Thursday night at 7 p.m. at the First Congregational United Church of Christ, 1609 University Avenue. No reservations are needed. They will also attend opening night.
Composer Jake Heggie was a composer of art songs written for vocal luminaries such as Renee Fleming, Frederica von Stade, Audra McDonald, Patti Lupone and others when he was approached by author Terrence McNally to compose the music for “Dead Man Walking,” based on the book by Sister Helen Prejean about her work with death-row inmates. In the interview he gave me, he said the experience changed his life, both as a composer and as a human being.
As I understand it, “Dead Man Walking” was your first opera. What attracted you to the work?
It felt timely and timeless; very American, but universal; it’s about something that matters deeply; it had instant name recognition; it had the essential elements of a grand opera, plus the conflicts and emotions so large that it not only makes sense for people to sing, but it is the kind of emotion and drama that could fill an opera house. I also felt deeply inspired and moved by the story right away.
How did you approach the music for this opera?
The libretto by Terrence McNally (below) demanded a range of American styles, including jazz, folk, pop, rock and gospel (You can listen to the YouTube video at the bottom for a sample.) The setting is the South, and that has its own musical landscape, too. Those are all styles and sounds familiar to me, and it felt natural to explore and weave them together. I think audiences will feel challenged at times, but also will feel included in this musical journey.
What were the themes you felt necessary to include in the opera? What are the key issues surrounding capital punishment, and how did you express them musically?
All of the themes I explore spring from complex human emotions inspired by love, loss, grief, joy, outrage, a quest for vengeance, a search for forgiveness and redemption. It’s all about what people want and yearn for, what they are afraid of, what they have lost. There are so many heightened emotions in this story, and it was important to honor each character and love them for who they are.
Did any themes in the opera touch you personally? In other words, did you have any personal experiences you drew on when writing the opera?
I was hugely challenged by the conflicts in this piece, and the enormity of the grief on all sides. I drew on my own personal experiences, of course, but part of my job as a theater composer is to empathize with each character and write truthfully for them, not to over-sentimentalize or trivialize their journey. For much of this opera, once I tapped into the musical world of the piece, it was a matter of listening to the characters and letting them sing to me, almost like taking dictation.
This is an opera about social justice or, if you will, social injustice. Did writing “Dead Man Walking” change or enhance your opinion of capital punishment?
Opera literature is replete with stories of social injustice: George Frideric Handel‘s “Semele,” Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro” and “Don Giovanni,” Giuseppe Verdi’s “La Traviata,” “Rigoletto” and “Otello”, Giacomo Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly,” Benjamin Britten‘s “Peter Grimes” and Stephen Sondheim‘s “Sweeney Todd” for starters.
Most of the comic operas deal with some form of social injustice, too. That’s one of the reasons I recognized that Terrence McNally had an inspired idea in suggesting “Dead Man Walking” as an opera. It fits into the big trajectory of grand operas.
And, yes, the experience of researching and writing the opera challenged and changed me. I regret to say that I was one of the people who had never really meditated on the death penalty. I’d always thought of it in the abstract. But in dealing with it head on I came to understand that this is a deeply political and racial issue. It takes place in a very flawed and inequitable system of human beings making life-and-death decisions.
The death penalty is also the only punishment where we as a society repeat the very behavior we abhor. Think about it: we don’t rape the rapists, we don’t beat up the assailants, but we murder murderers. And we do this to show that murder is wrong.
How did you interact with Terrence McNally? Was it libretto first, the music after or did the two of you work more collaboratively?
The story is always first. Before there are words or music, there’s the story, and everything has to be in service to the story. Sister Helen Prejean (below), on whose work the opera is based, made one request of us from the beginning — that the opera remain a story of redemption.
So we talked at length about how we wanted to tell the story – what parts of it moved and inspired us most. Where we were going to begin and where we were ending. Then he started crafting a libretto and I started writing music. There was much back and forth throughout.
Music changes everything, of course, and gives us insight into characters that words alone do not. When writing the music, I would discover that there were many things that we could describe with music alone – no words were needed. It went back and forth until we were finished.
Where does “Dead Man Walking” fit within the canon of your other works? Does it mark your evolution from an art songs composer to an opera composer?
It was my first opera and I was 39 years old when it was premiered. I had written a great deal of music before Dead Man Walking, but composing the opera affected my style and sense of writing deeply. That’s when I finally figured out that I’m a theater composer, a storyteller. Everything since “Dead Man Walking” has been different from everything before — it’s a real demarcation point. I couldn’t have composed “Moby-Dick” (below) if I hadn’t composed “Dead Man Walking” 10 years earlier, that’s for certain, even though the styles of those pieces are vastly different.
What do you hope audiences will take away from this opera?
I hope audiences will take away emotional perspective, that they will be open to giving themselves over to the drama and reflect on it as it unfolds. I hope they will feel changed in some way. That’s certainly why I go to the opera, to be moved and to feel somehow changed — like a new mark has been made on my heart.