The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra plus the Festival Choir of Madison, the University of Wisconsin-Madison Madrigal Singers and pianist Stewart Goodyear left you wanting more –- which is exactly what a season-closing concert should do.

April 19, 2014
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By Jacob Stockinger

As I have noted in other postings earlier this week, I am doing some badly needed catching up. April has been just a hectic and even crazy month for classical music in the Madison area. And previews generally take precedence over reviews.

For example: A week ago last Friday, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below) closed out its current Masterworks season with the Festival Choir of Madison, the University of Wisconsin-Madison Madrigal singers and Canadian piano soloist and composer Stewart Goodyear.

WCO lobby

The concert left The Ear impressed with all parties and wanting to hear more, perhaps including a one Stewart Goodyear’s Beethoven piano sonata marathons as well as more known and neglected works from the chamber orchestra. And isn’t that exactly what a great season-ending concert should do?

For The Ear,  there were two unqualified masterpieces.

The concert opened with the ‘Ave Verum Corpus” of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, a short but sublime late work for chorus and orchestra. And it was performed sublimely by the WCO and the WCO Chorus, which is made up of the Festival Choir of Madison (below) and the University of Wisconsin-Madison Madrigal Singers. (A popular YouTube video, with over 2 million hits and featuring conductor Leonard Bernstein, is at the bottom.)

festivalchoir

That was followed by the often neglected “Choral Fantasy,” by Ludwig van Beethoven. It is an interesting and engaging piece, a sketch of the famous final “Ode to Joy” movement of the iconic Ninth Symphony and one that features the kind of piano part that makes you realize what an exciting keyboard improviser the young Beethoven (below, in 1804) must have been.

young beethoven etching in 1804

Is the “Choral” Fantasy a masterpiece? Stewart Goodyear thinks so.

I do not. I think it is a good dramatic work, with its own excitement for orchestra, chorus and especially pianist. But it is a work that simply doesn’t stand up to Beethoven’s greatest symphonies, concertos or even sonatas.

But Goodyear was all business and all Beethoven. After all, he performs all 32 piano sonatas in a single-day 10-hour marathon and has recorded them all.

I know from personal experience that Beethoven is hard to play. He always seems to be challenging or even daring the player. But such difficulties do not faze Goodyear (below), who has the power and the chops. He is an impressive player, without doubt.

stewart goodyear playing sideways

Even in his own piano concerto that followed, Goodyear was impressive in his playing. This concerto, which he revised especially for chamber orchestra, seems to play into his personal and technical strengths, which is right in keeping with the great virtuoso tradition that ran from Johann Sebastian Bach and Mozart through Beethoven and Johannes Brahms to Sergei Rachmaninoff and Sergei Prokofiev.

But is the concerto by Goodyear a great concerto? Unfortunately, I think not. It reminds me of the 50 or so big and difficult piano concertos in the Hyperion series of recordings of neglected Romantic Piano Concertos by Ignaz Moscheles and Moritz Moszkowski and the like. All of them were impressive showpieces in their day, composed by and performed by the biggest piano virtuoso names of the day.

Here is a link to the Hyperion series:

http://www.hyperion-records.co.uk/s.asp?s=S_1

And yet in the end, they only require one to two listenings to get the most out them. You soon realize that they are neglected for good reason. They served their purpose in the day, but then couldn’t stand up to history as first-rate.

I felt the same way about Goodyear. It had its moments, especially in the slow movement. In its use of Caribbean rhythm and harmonies, it reminded me of the jazz-like qualities brought to the concert hall by Maurice Ravel, George Gershwin, Darius Milhaud and Heitor Villa-Lobos, maybe even George Gershwin of the “Cuban” Overture. I am glad I heard it, but am not anxious to have repeated hearings.

The concerto was an interesting, impressive and entertaining oddity, but an oddity nonetheless. Goodyear would be wise to keep his day job -– or, should I say, his night job -—as a concert pianist who masterfully plays Beethoven and other major composers, and not to rely on composing as a living.

Stewart Goodyear2

After intermission came the big treat: Beethoven’s mammoth Symphony No. 3, the “Eroica.” Now, I love the overwhelming sound of a big, full orchestra. But there is undeniable value to hearing the transparency and clarity of the work in its chamber music version.

The “Eroica” Symphony just never gets old, and easily stands up to the Fifth, Sixth (Pastoral), Seventh and Ninth symphonies as a candidate for Your Favorite Beethoven Symphony.

The balance and tempi were perfect, especially in the moving and complex Funeral March. The horn played flawlessly as far I could tell. The strings were crisp, not gooey. And sections provided great voicing and counterpoint.

Conductor Andrew Sewell (below) seemed in total command and looked completely satisfied as he proved again what incredible progress the WCO has made during his tenure.

andrewsewell

Sewell has an abiding and well realized interest in unearthing interesting music, both new and old, as you can see from the next season, which will features three pianists in works as diverse as rarely heard two piano concertos by Franz Joseph Haydn, the Suite for Strings by Paul Lewis, the Suite for String Orchestra by Frank Bridge as well as another work by Vittorio Giannini.

Here is a link to the new season. Click on “For more information” to see programs:

http://wcoconcerts.org/performances/masterworks/

And here are links to other reviews so you can compare and draw your own conclusions, especially if you were part of the full house:

Here is a link the review by John W. Barker (below) for Isthmus:

http://www.thedailypage.com/daily/article.php?article=42498

John-Barker

Here is a link to the review by Greg Hettmansberger (below) for Madison Magazine:

http://www.madisonmagazine.com/Blogs/Classically-Speaking/April-2014/Wisconsin-Chamber-Orchestra-Goes-Big-Before-Going-Home/

greg hettmansberger mug

 

 

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