The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Pianist Shai Wosner explains why we don’t hear more Haydn and like his music more. This Friday night at 8, Wosner performs two piano concertos by Haydn with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra. | February 19, 2015

By Jacob Stockinger

This Friday night at 8 p.m. in the Capitol Theater on the Overture Center, pianist Shai Wosner returns for a third time to perform with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra under its longtime music director and conductor Andrew Sewell.

Shai Wosner Photo: Marco Borggreve

The program is largely from the Classical era. Wosner will perform two piano concertos by Haydn – No. 4 in G Major and No. 11 in D major – and the orchestra will perform the Symphony No. 2 in B-flat Major by Franz Schubert. In addition, a 1955 Prelude and Fugue by the accessible, 20th-century neo-Romantic composer Vittorio Giannini (below) will be performed.

Vittorio Giannini

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

The critically acclaimed Wosner, an Israeli native who studied at the Juilliard School with Emanuel Ax and who is now based in New York City, has previously performed Classical-era concertos by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven with the WCO.

Wosner recently agreed to a Q&A about this new program.

Shai Wosner color

The prize-winning American composer John Harbison has said that Haydn is the most underappreciated and most under-performed of the great composers. If you agree with that, why do you think that is and how do you feel about Haydn?

It is probably true. I can only guess what the reasons might be. Perhaps, over the centuries, his name has been eclipsed by that of Mozart (below), as the two are often lumped together in spite of the profound differences in their biographies and their music.

Where Mozart has irresistible melodies all over to disarm you at first hearing, with Haydn sometimes you have to get into the “groove” of the music first — perhaps a remnant from earlier music — and then once you do, you can find both great melodies as well as all kinds of twists and turns that can be just as gripping.

Mozart c 1780 detail of portrait by Johann Nepomuk della Croce

Humor, of course, is central to Haydn’s world and one can sometimes mistake that for lightheartedness. But the fact is that it is often just one layer of meaning and by all means not the only one.

If you open up to it, you quickly realize the depth and sincerity with which Haydn (below) speaks — just like spending time with a really great person who likes to tell jokes a lot, but whose immense life experience and understanding of the world soon comes through as well.

Haydn

What are your plans for performances and recordings? Do your plans include performing or recording more Haydn, maybe concertos, sonatas and chamber music works?

Yes, I hope to record concertos along with a few other pieces as well in the near future.

What would you like the public to know about the two piano concertos by Haydn — who always composed at the keyboard — that you will perform here and their individual character? How do they compare to each other?

The G Major concerto is somehow the more “earthy” one — perhaps it’s the association of the key itself, which tends to relate to all things “rustic.” (For example, Mozart’s peasants and servants tend to sing in G Major). It seems to have a rough edge to it, a certain naughtiness.

The popular D Major concerto, on the other hand, is more patrician — even with the Hungarian finale. It shimmers with golden light like the interior of some idyllic palazzo in midday. (In a YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear the D Major concerto performed by famed pianist Paul Badura-Skoda, who was an artist-in-residence at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music in the 1960s, and conductor Frans Bruggen.)

Haydn_3

How does Schubert go with Haydn? On your program, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra will also perform Schubert’s early Symphony No. 2 and you have recorded two CDs for the Onyx label that feature the music of Schubert. Clearly you feel a strong affinity with Schubert and have a point of view about him.

Schubert and Haydn are an interesting combination because early Schubert was very much influenced by Viennese Classicism, before Beethoven’s influence became much more dominant in his music.

At the same time, while Schubert (below) was using the same forms as Mozart and Haydn, they tend to come out very different under his hands, as if he couldn’t help it.

Most noticeable, I think, is the difference in energy.

In Haydn, to go back to the “groove,” there is a lot of raw rhythmic energy in fast movements and it helps to give shape to those movements as well.

In Schubert, on the other hand, even in fast movements, the overall shape tends to be much more contemplative, no matter quickly the notes go by.

Franz Schubert writing

This is your third appearance with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, with whom you have performed concerts by Mozart and Beethoven. What would you like to say about Madison audiences and the WCO?

I have been fortunate to meet very interesting people in Madison, and clearly the audiences are very dedicated and comprised of real music-lovers.

It is a wonderful thing that the city supports not only a symphony orchestra but also a chamber orchestra (below is a photo of the WCO) as well, which is, of course, a very different animal and unfortunately not a very common one any more.

WCO lobby

Is there anything else you would like to say?

I look forward to visiting Madison, of course!

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1 Comment »

  1. With all due respect to the web master here (he’s a big Haydn fan) and to the wonderful young Israeli pianist, I find Haydn to be boring. Yes, he wrote a lot but to me (at least) it all sounds pretty much the same (especially his symphonies).

    Not many years ago in Dresden, I sat through a performance of what many would consider his masterpiece, “The Creation”. It was the same: utterly boring and totally eclipsed by other composers although the cast was outstanding. The Haydn music, unfortunately, simply did not match the splendor of the then newly refurbished cathedral where his work was being performed.

    Schubert, on the other hand, is entirely in a different league and really has been neglected. But perhaps that is because so much of his work is in an intimate form (Lieder), and very Germanic. His chamber music is sublime. For, with Schubert, one senses humanity; with Haydn, I can only think of clocks and what seems to be an endless variation on one theme.

    Comment by fflambeau — February 19, 2015 @ 1:18 am


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