The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Beethoven Year in Madison will include complete cycles of string quartets and piano trios as well as many other early, middle and late pieces. Here is a partial preview | September 21, 2019

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By Jacob Stockinger

As you may have already heard, 2020 is a Beethoven Year. It will mark the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth. (He lived from mid-December of 1770 to March 26, 1827.  Dec. 17 is sometimes given as his birthday but it is really the date of his baptism. No one knows for sure the actual date of his birth.)

Beethoven, who this year overtook Mozart as the most popular composer in a British radio poll, clearly speaks to people — as you can see at the bottom in the YouTube video of a flash mob performance of the “Ode to Joy.” It has had more than 16 million views.

Locally, not all Beethoven events have been announced yet. But some that promise to be memorable are already taking shape. Many programs include early, middle and late works. And you can be sure that, although nothing formal has been announced yet, there will be special programs on Wisconsin Public Television and especially Wisconsin Public Radio.

Here is a partial round-up:

The UW’s famed Pro Arte String Quartet (below, in a photo by Rick Langer), for example, will perform a FREE and complete cycle of Beethoven’s 16 string quartets in six concerts. It will start later this fall.

This is not the first time that the Pro Arte has done a Beethoven cycle. But it is especially fitting since that is the same Beethoven cycle that the Pro Arte was performing in Madison at the Wisconsin Union Theater in May of 1940 when World War II broke out and the quartet was stranded on tour in the U.S. after its homeland of Belgium was invaded and occupied by the Nazis.

That is when the ensemble was invited to become musical artists-in-residence at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and accepted – thereby establishing the first such association in the world that became a model for many other string quartets.

The Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society with the San Francisco Trio (below) plans on performing a cycle of piano trios next summer. No specific dates or programs have been announced yet.

The 20th anniversary of the Ancora String Quartet (below, in a photo by Barry Lewis) will coincide with the Beethoven Year. That is when the Ancorans will complete the cycle of 16 string quartets that they have been gradually programming over the years. Three quartets remain to be performed: Op. 59, No. 2 “Rasumovsky”, Op. 130 and Op. 131.

Adds violist Marika Fischer Hoyt: “We’ll perform Op. 130 in February (with the original final movement, NOT the “Grosse Fuge”), and we plan to do the remaining two quartets in the summer and fall of 2020.”

Here are some other Beethoven dates to keep in mind:

On Nov. 2 in Shannon Hall at the Wisconsin Union Theater, and as part of the WUT’s centennial celebration of its Concert Series, pianist Emanuel Ax (below, in a photo by Lisa-Marie Mazzucco), who since 1974 has played many solo recitals, chamber music recitals and piano concertos in Madison, will play Beethoven’s first three solo piano sonatas, Op. 2.

On Dec. 6 at the Wisconsin Union Theater, the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Piano Trio will perform the famous “Archduke” Trio, Op. 97. Also on the program are works by Felix Mendelssohn and Robert Schumann.

On Feb. 1, UW-Madison pianist Christopher Taylor, who has performed all 32 piano sonatas in Madison, will continue his cycle of Beethoven symphonies as transcribed for solo piano by Franz Liszt. He will perform Symphony No. 1 and the famed Symphony No. 9, the ground-breaking “Choral” Symphony with its “Ode to Joy.” No chorus will be involved, but there will be four solo singers. Taylor said he will then complete the cycle with Symphony No. 2 at some future time.

The Mosaic Chamber Players (below, in a photo by John W. Barker) will perform two all-Beethoven programs: on Feb. 21, a FREE program offers two sonatas for violin and piano (Op. 12, No. 3 and Op. 30, No. 2, and one sonata for cello and piano (Op. 5, No. 1); on June 13, a ticketed program features three piano trios (Op. 1, No. 1; Op. 70, No. 2; and Op. 121a “Kakadu” Variations).

On May 8, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below top, in a photo by Mike Gorski), under conductor Andrew Sewell (below bottom, in a photo by Alex Cruz), will perform the popular Symphony No. 6 “Pastoral” – a pioneering piece of program music — to commemorate the Beethoven Year.

There is one very conspicuous absence.

You will notice that there is nothing by Beethoven programmed for the new season of the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below, in a photo by Peter Rodgers).

But The Ear hears rumors that music director John DeMain (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson) is planning something special for the following season that might involve both symphonies and concertos, both original Beethoven works and perhaps “reimagined” ones.

(For example, pianist Jonathan Biss, who has just completed recording the piano sonata cycle and who performed with the MSO several years ago, has commissioned and will premiere five piano concertos related to or inspired by Beethoven’s five piano concertos.) Sorry, but as of now only rumors and not details are available for the MSO. Stay tuned!

The Ear would like to hear complete cycles of the violin sonatas and cello sonatas performed, and a couple of the piano concertos as well as the early symphonies and the famed Ninth Symphony with its “Ode to Joy” finale. He fondly remembers when DeMain and the MSO performed Symphonies Nos. 1 and 9 on the same program. Talk about bookending a career!

What Beethoven would you like to hear live?

What are your most favorite or least favorite Beethoven works?

Do you know of other Beethoven programs during the Beethoven Year? If so, please leave word in the Comment section.

And, of course, there is the inevitable question: Can you have too much Beethoven?

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  1. An upcoming Beethoven event in Eau Claire:

    SEASON (2016-17)
    A Beethoven Marathon
    Sept. 24, 7:30pm, featuring soloist Dr. Nicholas Phillips on the “Emperor” piano concerto.



    Comment by fflambeau — September 22, 2019 @ 9:06 pm

    • Oops! That’s an old season. Maybe they will be doing something this year too.


      Comment by fflambeau — September 22, 2019 @ 9:09 pm

  2. Interesting facial recognition test of classical composers at this link:

    Beethoven is included. Most people get less than 7 out of 19 (my score: 16).


    Comment by fflambeau — September 22, 2019 @ 1:35 am

  3. Bill Lutes and Martha Fischer write:

    Adding to the Beethoven celebration, on Jan. 26, 2019, our 7th Annual Schubertiade at UW Madison’s new Hamel Music Center will be (for the first time!) a hyphenated program — Schubert and Beethoven — as we begin the many observances of the Beethoven 250th anniversary.

    These two immortals lived near each other in Vienna, and it is possible that they met, though no definitive documentation of such a meeting survives. What is certain is that Schubert was hugely impacted by Beethoven’s music and his stature, and in his own way took the older composer’s work as an inspiration and a challenge.

    Even in the field of song, in which Schubert first achieved unique brilliance and a modicum of fame, Beethoven was also an important pioneer of the lied and in 1816 wrote what is considered to be the first true song cycle: “An die ferne Geliebte” (“To the Distant Beloved”). Schubert followed with his own great cycles “Die schoene Müllerin” (The Beautiful Miller Girl) and “Winterreise” (Winter Journey), but also found inspiration in Beethoven’s chamber music and symphonic works.

    While our program is not finalized we will include songs by both composers, as well as a set of 4-hand variations that Schubert dedicated to Beethoven, and other works demonstrating Beethoven’s profound impact on his younger colleague.

    The program will end with the Pro Arte Quartet playing final movements of Beethoven’s String Quartet, Op. 131, which Schubert asked to hear performed as he lay dying.

    In addition to the Pro Arte, we will welcome back some old friends into this beautiful new space: sopranos Jaimie Rose Guarrine, and Jennifer D’Agostino, mezzo-soprano Allisanne Apple, tenor Daniel O’Dea and baritone Michael Roemer, all alumni of the UW’s Mead Witter School of Music.

    Again, that concert will be on Sunday afternoon, Jan. 26, at 3 p.m. at the Hamel Music Center and will feature a pre-concert lecture by Professor of Musicology Margaret Butler at 2:15 p.m..


    Comment by Bill Lutes — September 21, 2019 @ 1:32 pm

    • Good programming ideas. Thanks for this excellent information.


      Comment by fflambeau — September 22, 2019 @ 1:38 am

  4. Yes, you can have too much Beethoven but it usually occurs in the symphonic realm, especially the overworked and overrated 5th symphony (the pastoral symphony is also approaching saturation).

    Beethoven’s chamber music, however, is vast and lots of it is pretty much unknown to the public. It’s great stuff too (although I prefer Mozart overall and also Bach overall).

    You might add that the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra is doing several of Beethoven’s symphonies this year under its new Music Director/Conductor Ken-David Masur. The MadisonSO always seems to be in a realm of its own; quite simply, it needs new leadership.

    The danger here is that the classical music world seems, in the ears of the real world, to equate classical music with Beethoven. That is a mistake and there’s so much great music out there by unknown and underperformed composers and also by good composers who “have fallen into a rut” with the gatekeepers of classical music, who only play one or two of their works.


    Comment by fflambeau — September 21, 2019 @ 12:51 am

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