The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Madison Symphony Orchestra opens its new season with superb playing, hypnotizing space photos by NASA and close to three full houses

September 28, 2016
4 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Several years ago, artistic director and conductor John DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad) decided to use the season-opening concerts of the Madison Symphony Orchestra to spotlight the symphony and its first-chair players as soloists.

John DeMain full face by Prasad

No big-name imported guest soloists were to be booked.

In addition, this year Maestro DeMain chose to open the season with a multimedia show that combined Jumbotron-like space images from NASA (below is Jupiter) with Gustav Holst’s “The Planets.” 

nasa-jupiter2

Such multimedia events increasingly seem to work as a way to build audiences and boost attendance by new people and young people. After all, a music director has to sell tickets and fill seats as well as wave a baton.

And it seems that, on both counts, DeMain’s strategy proved  spectacularly successful.

All sections of the orchestra (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson) — strings, brass, winds, percussion — played with energy, precision and subtlety. The MSO proved a very tight ensemble. Each year, you can hear how the MSO improves and grows increasingly impressive after 23 years of DeMain’s direction.

John DeMain and MSO from the stage Greg Anderson

The public seemed to agree. It came very close to filling the 2,200-seat Overture Hall for all three performances with more than 6,100 audience members, according to Peter Rodgers, the new marketing director for the MSO. Especially noteworthy, he said, was the number of children, students and young people who attended.

In fact, so many students showed up for student rush tickets on Friday night that the performance was delayed by around 10 minutes – because of long lines at the box office, NOT because of the new security measures at the Overture Center, which Rodgers said worked smoothly and quickly.

But not everything was ideal, at least not for The Ear.

On the first half, the playing largely outweighed the music.

True,  the Romanian Rhapsody No. 1 by a very young George Enescu (below) received a sizzling and infectious performance. With its catchy folk tunes, dance rhythms and Gypsy harmonies, the fun work proved an irresistible opener – much like a starting with an encore, which is rather like eating a rich and tasty dessert before tackling the more nutritious but less snazzy main course.

The music itself is captivating and frequently played – although this was its surprising premiere performance by the MSO. Little wonder the Enescu got a rousing standing ovation. Still, it is hardly great music.

george enescu

Then came the Chaconne for violin and orchestra by the American composer John Corigliano (below), who based the work on his Oscar-winning film score for “The Red Violin.”

John Corigliano

Concertmaster Naha Greenholtz (below) impressed The Ear and most others with her mastery of what appeared to be a very difficult score. The ovation was for her, not for the music.

Naha Greenholtz playing CR Greg Anderson

That music also has some fine moments. But overall it seems a dull and tedious work, an exercise in virtuosity with some of the same flaws you find in certain overblown piano etudes by Franz Liszt. Once again the playing trumped the music.

Then came The Big Event: Gustav Holst’s “The Planets” coupled with clear, high-definition photos of the planets taken by NASA that were projected on a huge screen above the orchestra. Saturn’s rings, Jupiter’s and Venus’ clouds and Mars’ landscape (below) have never looked so impressive.

nasa-mars2

The orchestra again struck one with its exotic and “spacey” sound effects and with what must have been the difficulty of timing simultaneously the music and the images.

Yet ultimately Holst’s work became a sound track — music accompanying images rather than images accompanying the music. The Ear heard several listeners compare the admittedly impressive result to the movies “Fantasia” and “2001: A Space Odyssey.” That says something.

At some moments the sound and images really matched and reinforced each other, especially in the dramatic opening section, “Mars, the Bringer of War.” Holst’s score also succeeds nicely with “Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity” and to a lesser degree with “Venus, the Bringer of Peace.”

But overall “The Planets” reminds The Ear of colorful and dramatic  programmatic showpieces such as Ottorino Respighi‘s “The Pines of Rome” and “The Fountains of Rome.” (Earth, curiously, is not included in “The Planets.” Makes you wonder: What would Earth bring?) Enjoyable music, to be sure, but not profound fare.

The Ear’s extensive library of CDs has none of the three works on the program. And it will probably remain that way.

While Holst’s work does have great moments, it grows long, repetitive and finally uninteresting as it ends not with a bang but with an underwhelming whimper – which was beautifully enhanced by the atmospheric singing of the MSO Women’s Chorus. There are just too many planets!

Listen to the YouTube video at the bottom, played by James Levine conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and you will see: Mars rules!

nasa-mars

Add it all up and despite three standing ovations, in the end The Ear found the concert less than fully satisfying. The music, however likable and appealing, was not, for the most part,  great music. Moreover, it was mostly trumped first by the performances and then by the visuals.

So on a personal note, here is The Ear’s request to the MSO, which scored an undeniably brilliant success with this program: Keep the same all-orchestra and first-chair format for season-openers and use multimedia shows whenever appropriate. But please also include at least one really first-rate piece of music with more substance.

Is that asking for too much?

Is The Ear alone and unfair in his assessment? 

Other critics had their own takes and some strongly disagree with The Ear.

Here is a link to three other reviews:

By John W. Barker (below) for Isthmus:

http://isthmus.com/music/beautiful-music-distracting-backdrop/

John-Barker

By Jessica Courtier for The Capital Times:

http://host.madison.com/ct/entertainment/music/concert-review-mso-takes-audience-on-a-stunning-trip-to/article_6dd45c4d-c11b-5c77-ae54-35a3e731b1cb.html

And by Greg Hettmansberger (below), who writes for WISC-TV Channel 3 and his Classically Speaking blog for Madison Magazine, and on his own blog, What Greg Says:

https://whatgregsays.wordpress.com/tag/john-corigliano/

greg hettmansberger mug

What did you think of the music, the performances and the visual show?

How well did they mix?

What did you like most and least?

The Ear wants to hear.

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Classical music: What has the UK’s Scotland contributed to classical music -– besides bagpipes? Plus, this afternoon is the last performance of the season-opening program by the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

September 21, 2014
3 Comments

ALERT: The final performance of the Madison Symphony Orchestra’s season-opening program of Richard Strauss “Also Sprach Zarathustra” (with the organ theme from “2001: A Space Odyssey”), Frank Martin’s Concerto for Seven Wind Instruments and Camille Saint-Saens (Symphony No. 3 “Organ”) will be given today at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall of the Overture Center. Here is a link to a previous post about the concert as well as links to several very positive reviews:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2014/09/15/classical-music-qa-maestro-john-demain-discusses-this-weekends-opening-concerts-of-the-madison-symphony-orchestras-89th-season-music-by-richard-strauss-frank-martin-and-camil/

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

http://www.isthmus.com/daily/article.php?article=43634

John Barker

Here is a link to the review by Gregg Hettmansberger (below) for Madison Magazine’s blog “Classically Speaking”:

http://www.madisonmagazine.com/Blogs/Classically-Speaking/September-2014/New-Season-New-Decades/

greg hettmansberger mug

And here is a link to Lindsay Christians’ review for The Capital Times and 77 Square:

http://host.madison.com/ct/entertainment/arts_and_theatre/review-madison-symphony-packs-the-stage-to-celebrate-years-in/article_7599b67a-407b-11e4-ad07-33fa1206b9d0.html

John DeMain and MSO from the stage Greg Anderson

By Jacob Stockinger

All right, then.

The Big Vote is over.

By a wider-than-predicted margin of 55 to 45 percent, Scotland has chosen to remain a member of the United Kingdom.

The outcome surprised The Ear since so many of the arguments offered by Great Britain seemed similar to the ones that were probably made about why the United States should remain a colony of England.

But now the question is answered for at least another generation.

So, in the traditional of newsy arts coverage, the Deceptive Cadence blog of National Public Radio (NPR) asked: What has Scottish culture contributed to classical music?

You’d be surprised. I was.

One obvious, and, for many, noisily unpleasant, answer is the bagpipes. We’re not talking about Scotland-inspired music such as Felix Mendelssohn‘s justly famous “Hebrides” Overture (at bottom in a popular YouTube video featuring Claudio Abbado conducting the London Symphony Orchestra, though it sure does seem to capture the dark North Sea atmosphere of Scotland.)

scotland bagpipes

But there are other answers too, and some of them may surprise you.

Be sure to listen to some of the sound samples provided on the NPR website posting. Here is a link:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2014/09/19/349564530/if-its-not-scottish-classical-contributions-of-the-scots

Also be sure to check out the readers’ comments. They are a hoot, or whatever the equivalent saying is in Scotland.

And the reader comments contain one of the all-time best puns, based on The Rolling Stones song “Hey You, Get Off of My Cloud.” Of course, someone says it isn’t funny! Which makes it only funnier to The Ear.

 


Classical music: The Madison Symphony Orchestra announces its new 2014-15 season. It includes programs from Bach to Hollywood exiles from Hitler and the Nazis, acclaimed soloists and ticket prices with only modest increases.

March 19, 2014
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

The Madison Symphony Orchestra (below) has just announced its next season for 2014-15.

MSO-HALL

It strikes The Ear as both deeply interesting and tightly cohesive, a good blend of sure-fire hits and unknown or rarely heard repertoire. It also features some fine local talent and some unusual repertoire, though, unlike the past several seasons, no new or contemporary music is included. After all, this is a business with seats to fill, not some theoretical exercise in programming.

“You can’t have everything, especially when you are playing only eight concerts,” lamented MSO maestro John DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad) when he discussed the new season with me.

But, DeMain added, the MSO is exploring doing another Chicago Symphony Orchestra “Beyond the Score” format concert — like this season’s presentation of Antonin Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony, which sold out — probably in January and probably with more than one performance, if they can find a sponsor to front the $50,000 cost. Then he will decide on what work out of more than 20 possibilities would be right.

John DeMain full face by Prasad

Concerts take place in Overture Hall in the Overture Center on Friday nights at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday nights at 8 p.m.; and Sunday afternoons at 2:30 p.m.

The deadline for subscriptions renewals and keeping your current seat is May 8.

Here is the official press release that unveils the new season. The Ear also talked at length one-on-one with MSO music director and conductor John DeMain. Since the announcement is long enough for one post, DeMain’s insightful comments will appear a bit later in another post.

mso from above

MADISON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA ANNOUNCES 2014-15 SEASON

Maestro John DeMain and the Madison Symphony Orchestra (MSO) will deliver a diverse and exciting season of composers and guest artists for 2014-2015.

Beginning with a September program that focuses on the highly-talented musicians in the orchestra, DeMain will lead the audience through an exhilarating variety of themes and cultures throughout the season.  Russia, Scandinavia, and Golden-Age Hollywood are just a few of the sound worlds the MSO will explore, while monumental works central to the orchestra, such as Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, will anchor the year.

A world-class roster of guest artists has been invited to Madison for the season’s performances, including violinist Sarah Chang, pianist Olga Kern, violinist Daniel Hope, pianist Ingrid Fliter and University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music pianist Christopher Taylor.

SEPTEMBER 19, 20 and 21, 2014

“Orchestral Splendor,” John DeMain, Conductor

RICHARD STRAUSS, “Also sprach Zarathustra”

FRANK MARTIN, Concerto for Seven Winds

CAMILLE SAINT-SAËNS, Symphony No. 3 (“Organ” Symphony)

German composer Richard Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra was once among his least performed works, but it is now firmly established as standard orchestral repertoire.  The trumpet theme and thunderous timpani entrance (heard in Stanley Kubrick’s epic film “2001: A Space Odyssey”) are unmistakable.

Swiss composer Frank Martin’s Concerto for Seven Winds was written in 1949.  It features seven solo instruments, exploring differences in sonority and expression.  The virtuosic and conversational writing in these piece results in a playful, sportive character.

French composer Camille Saint-Saëns’ Symphony No. 3, known also as the “Organ” Symphony, draws on elements of both the conventional symphony and the tone poem. Formally unusual in its own time, yet popular from its conception, the work features virtuosic piano and organ passages and a masterful display of the vast colors possible in the symphony orchestra.

John DeMain and MSO from the stage Greg Anderson

OCTOBER 17, 18 and 19, 2014

“The Russian Spirit” with John DeMain, conductor, and Olga Kern (below), piano

PETER ILYICH TCHAIKOVSKY, Suite from “Swan Lake”

SERGEI RACHMANINOFF, Concerto No. 1 for Piano

DMITRI SHOSTAKOVICH, Symphony No. 6

The Suite from “Swan Lake” tells the magical tale of a young prince enchanted by a swan maiden under the moonlight.  Peter Tchaikovsky’s charming work utilizes haunting melodies, captivating waltzes, Russian and Hungarian folk themes, and a Spanish dance.

Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Concerto No. 1 for Piano displays a youthful freshness and an assertive, extroverted personality.  Indeed, the composer began this work when he was 17!  For audience members who delight in keyboard fireworks, this piece will thrill.

Symphony No. 6 by Dmitri Shostakovich, written as war clouds were gathering in Russia, was quite a contrast to Symphony No. 5.  Lopsided movement lengths, a lack of obvious theme, and characters of anxiety and desolation reflect the intriguing political situation of the time, as well as Shostakovich’s own remarkably wide emotional compass.

Olga Kern, Mogens Dahl Konsertsal 26.1.2009

NOVEMBER 7, 8 and 9, 2014

“Scandinavian Wonders” with John DeMain, conductor, and Sarah Chang (below), violin

EDVARD GRIEG, Lyric Suite

JEAN SIBELIUS, Concerto for Violin

CARL NIELSEN, Symphony No. 4 (“The Inextinguishable”)

Over the course of his long career, Edvard Grieg composed 66 Lyric pieces for piano, strongly rooted in the songs, dances, mythology, and spirit of Norway.  He selected four of these fragrant and diverse miniatures for an orchestral suite, premiered in 1906.

 “…For…10 years it was my dearest wish to become a great virtuoso.” wrote Finnish composer Jean Sibelius in his diary.  Unfortunately the composer never reached great proficiency on the instrument, and his Concerto for Violin, awash in Nordic textures, expresses a melancholic farewell to that childhood dream.

As a philosophical guideline to his often raging Symphony No. 4, Danish composer Carl Nielsen said, “Music is life, and, like life, inextinguishable”.  Four interlinked movements of frequently agitated energy lead to a climax of ultimate triumph and grand 19th century symphonic tradition.

Sarah Chang playing

DECEMBER 5, 6 and 7, 2014

A Madison Symphony Christmas

With John DeMain, conductor; Alyson Cambridge (below), soprano; Harold Meers, tenor; the Madison Symphony Chorus, Beverly Taylor, director; the Madison Youth Choirs, Michael Ross, artistic director; and the Mt. Zion Gospel Choir, Leotha Stanley, director.

John DeMain and the Madison Symphony don their Santa hats for this signature Christmas celebration. This concert is filled with traditions, from caroling in the lobby with the Madison Symphony Chorus to vocal performances by hundreds of members of Madison’s musical community. Christmas classics are interwoven with enchanting new holiday music. The culminating sing-along is Madison’s unofficial start of the holiday season!

Alyson Cambridge

DeMain Santa Bob Rashid

FEBRUARY 13, 14 and 15, 2015

“Fliter Plays Chopin” with John DeMain, conductor, and Ingrid Fliter (below), piano

BENJAMIN BRITTEN, Variations on a Theme by Frank Bridge

FREDERIC CHOPIN, Concerto No. 2 for Piano

ROBERT SCHUMANN, Symphony No. 4

Frank Bridge, one of Benjamin Britten’s earliest composition teachers, was certainly responsible for the surpassing clarity, individuality, and discipline in Britten’s most cherished works.  Britten’s “Variations” on Bridge’s theme range from passionate to playful, capturing the heartfelt musical admiration of a pupil for his teacher.

From the moment he arrived in Paris at age 21, Frederic Chopin drew the admiration of both the public and esteemed critics, alike.  Concerto No. 2 was in fact his first concerto, displaying the composer’s prolific improvisatory and imaginative style.  

In composing Symphony No. 4, Robert Schumann departed significantly from the standard Classical form he previously employed, connecting all four movements with recurring musical ideas–a novel proposition at the time.

Ingrid Fliter playing

MARCH 6, 7 and 8, 2015

“Composers in Exile: Creating the Hollywood Sound” with John DeMain, conductor, and  Daniel Hope (below), violin

FRANZ WAXMAN, Sinfonietta for Strings and Timpani Ride of the Cossacks from “Taras Bulba”

MIKLÓS RÓZSA, Theme, Variations and Finale;  Parade of the Charioteers from “Ben Hur”;                          Love Theme from “Ben Hur”; Love Theme from “Spellbound”

ERICH KORNGOLD, Concerto for Violin and the  Suite from “Captain Blood”

This unique concert features the works of great classical composers before they fled Nazi persecution and also showcases their later brilliant contributions to Hollywood film scores.

Franz Waxman (below) is responsible for a long list of memorable Hollywood scores, including “The Bride of Frankenstein,” “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” and “Rebecca.”  His Sinfonietta, written for only strings and timpani, is comprised of three wildly different movements. Waxman also composed the soundtrack for the 1962 epic, “Taras Bulba.”  “Ride of the Cossacks” is the exhilarating theme to which Taras and his army gallop to Dubno.

Franz Waxman

According to Miklos Rózsa (below), his “Theme” was conceived in the manner of a Hungarian folk song, then treated in variations of contrasting feeling, and summarized in a wild and swift finale.  The 1934 work earned him his first international success. By the late 1940’s Rózsa was an Oscar-winning, film score composer, and joined the staff of Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer.  His thrilling score for the 1959 film “Ben Hur” is one of his lasting achievements, earning him his third and final Oscar.

Miklos Rozsa

The Concerto for Violin, written by Erich Wolfgang Korngold (bel0w top) in 1945, perfectly blends the two musical lives of the composer, unapologetic in both its rigorous craftsmanship and its Hollywood charm. “Captain Blood” was a milestone for Korngold, as it was his first fully symphonic movie score.  Produced in only three weeks, the music evidences his most professional and imaginative effort.

erich wolfgang korngold at piano

savannah_french

APRIL 10, 11 and 12, 2015

“Piano Genius” with John DeMain, conductor, and Christopher Taylor (below), piano

JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH, Concerto No. 4 for Clavier

FRANZ LISZT, Concerto No. 1 for Piano

ANTON BRUCKNER, Symphony No. 7

Concerto No. 4 by Johann Sebastian Bach is part of a set of six concertos, dated to 1738.  The piece was originally written for harpsichord and is ripe with movement and ornamentation. Bach’s concertos laid a crucial formal and harmonic groundwork for centuries of composition to follow.

Franz Liszt’s Concerto No. 1 for Piano is more than a century-long leap forward in time. Liszt’s Romantic genius is unabashedly on display, with thick orchestration, cadenzas that range from delicate to thundering, and lush harmonies.

Anton Bruckner was a country man, transplanted into bustling cosmopolitan Vienna, and he and his music were unlikely successes with audiences and critics. His music was said to “compel the element of the divine into our human world”.

ChristopherTaylorNoCredit

MAY 8, 9 and 10, 2015

“Ode to Joy” with John DeMain, conductor; concertmaster Naha Greenholtz (below top), violin; Melody Moore, soprano; Gwendolyn Brown, contralto; Eric Barry, tenor; Morris Robinson (below bottom), bass; and the Madison Symphony Chorus, Beverly Taylor, director.

LEONARD BERNSTEIN, “Serenade” (after Plato’s “Symposium”)

LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN, Symphony No. 9 (“Choral”)

Leonard Bernstein’s “Serenade” for violin and orchestra, resulted from a rereading of Plato’s charming dialogue, “The Symposium.”  The music dances through a series of inter-related “speakers” at a banquet (Phaedrus, Aristophanes, Erixymachus, Agathon, and Socrates), praising love.

Naha Greenholtz [playing

Ludwig van Beethoven’s last and monumental Symphony No. 9 stands apart from his other symphonies by virtue of its humanistic message, enormous scale and organic unity of design.  The mammoth fourth movement, operating like a symphony in miniature, is like nothing else in symphonic music.  Four soloists, full chorus, the entire orchestra, and the famous “Ode to Joy” theme will conclude the Madison Symphony Orchestra’s season. (You can hear a populist flash mob version of the “Ode to Joy” at the bottom in a popular YouTube video that had almost 4-1/2 million hits.)

Morris Robinson

MSO Chorus CR Greg Anderson

Single tickets for individual concerts have increased slightly and are $16 to $84 each, and go on sale Aug. 16. They are available at www.madisonsymphony.org/singletickets and through the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street or call the Box Office at (608) 258-4141.

New subscribers can receive savings up to 50%.  For more information and to subscribe, visit www.madisonsymphony.org/newsub or call (608) 257-3734.

Groups of 15 or more can save 25% by calling the MSO office at (608) 257-3734. For more information visit, www.madisonsymphony.org/groups

Discounted seats are subject to availability, and discounts may not be combined.

You can also check out the official MSO website announcement of the new season by visiting:

http://www.madisonsymphony.org/14-15

The Madison Symphony Orchestra engages audiences of all ages and backgrounds in live classical music through a full season of concerts with established and emerging soloists of international renown, an organ series that includes free concerts, and widely respected education and community engagement programs. Find more information at www.madisonsymphony.org.

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