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
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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: Violinist Daniel Hope explores the music created by composers who emigrated from Nazi Europe to Hollywood and wrote film scores. He performs that music with the Madison Symphony Orchestra this weekend.

March 2, 2015
6 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

British violinist Daniel Hope (below) is a man on a mission.

Hope wants to foster the public’s appreciation of the composers who had to flee from Nazi Europe during World War II and who ended up exiled in Hollywood, where they composed film scores. They ended up creating the  “Hollywood sound” and often won Oscars or Academy Awards, but recognition as serious concert composers usually eluded them.

Daniel Hope playing

Until recently.

Lately, a rediscovery of their merits has been taking place, and Hope will explore that legacy with the Madison Symphony Orchestra and its longtime music director and conductor John DeMain.

John DeMain and MSO from the stage Greg Anderson

John DeMain full face by Prasad

Performances are in Overture Hall on Friday night at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday at 8 p.m.; and Sunday afternoon at 2:30 p.m.

The program for “Composers in Exile: Creating the Hollywood Sound” includes the Violin Concerto and Suite from “Captain Blood” by Erich Wolfgang Korngold; the Sinfonietta for Strings and Tympani, and the score to “Taras Bulba” by Franz Waxman, who also founded the Los Angeles Music Festival in 1947; and the “Theme, Variations and Finale” as well as “The Parade of the Charioteers” and the “Love Theme” from “Ben-Hur” and the “Love Theme” from Alfred Hitchcock’s “Spellbound” by Miklos Rozsa.

Tickets are $16-$84 plus fees for the Overture Center.

For program, information about tickets and links to audio samples, visit: http://madisonsymphony.org/hope

For more about the music, here are the program notes by MSO trombonist Michael Allsen who also teaches at the UW-Whitewater:

http://facstaff.uww.edu/allsenj/MSO/NOTES/1415/6.Mar15.html

The award-winning Daniel Hope, who is busy touring and recording, graciously took time to answer a Q&A for The Ear:

Daniel Hope full face

How would you compare in seriousness and quality these “exiled in Hollywood” composers and their music to other well-known 20th-century composers and mainstream modern classical music?

I don’t make comparisons in music. The composers who escaped the Nazis found themselves for the most part in a very different set of circumstances than those for which they were trained. They were incredibly talented and had to adapt quickly.

I think the more interesting question is what would have happened to 20th-century music if countless musicians and composers had not been forced to leave Europe. (Below is a photo of Igor Stravinsky, on the left, and Franz Waxman in Los Angeles, where Waxman founded a music festival in 1947.) The world of music would be a very different place indeed.

franz waxman with stravinsky

Why do you think these composers and this music were kept out of the concert hall for so long? What traits most mark each composer’s style?

In those days, even writing one number for a movie would almost certainly have ruined your reputation as a “serious composer.” It was seen as selling out. The fact that many of these composers were trying to survive, to support their families and to get their relatives out of Europe, was often forgotten — especially after World War II.

But they were also phenomenally talented at what they did. As the son of Miklos Rozsa (below) wrote to me recently, one day these composers may actually be forgiven for writing film music.

Miklos Rozsa BW

In the case of Korngold (below), he was one of the first to really introduce a leitmotif, a recurring theme that followed the character throughout the film. Essentially an operatic composer, Korngold described each film for which he scored as “an opera without singing,” his music no longer passively accompanying the images but actively engaging in dialogue, emotion and presentation. I believe both Korngold and Max Steiner totally changed American film music, also by adding a fin-de-siècle European symphonic grandeur.

Erich Wolfgang Korngold BW piano

How much of their current appeal is cultural interest, human interest or personal stories, or the quality of the music itself?

I think it’s all of the above. But if you look at the symphonic works of some of the composers, Korngold’s and Rosza’s Violin Concertos or Waxman’s oratorio “The Song of Terezin,” you will find music of the highest quality. And let’s not forget, it was Mahler and Richard Strauss who forecast a great future for the young Korngold. (You can hear the lovely second movement of Korngold’s Violin Concerto performed by Hilary Hahn in a popular YouTube video at the bottom.)

What factors explain their revival as concert music? How did you rediscover them and become interested in them? Has a loosening of formal definitions of classical genres helped their revival?

I think both the role and the appeal of film music have changed in today’s society. I had long been aware of this group of émigré musicians.

Next to music, I’ve always had a passion for film, most of all for the movies of “vintage Hollywood,” for me the period beginning with the epic cinematic storytelling of the 1930s. As a young violinist, I was struck as much by the sound of the violin in these movies of the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s. I especially took note of the violinists playing this glorious mood music. To a young boy in London, names like Toscha Seidel, Felix Slatkin, Eudice Shapiro and Louis Kaufman sounded as exotic as the films they embellished.

But then writing for the studio musicians of prewar and postwar Hollywood was a group of astonishing composers, many of whom had escaped the Nazis, and who helped shape what was to become the Hollywood Sound. (Below, y0u can hear excerpts from a sampler from the Deutsche Grammophon CD on which Daniel Hope explores the Hollywood Sound.)

Hollywood muisicians with reels of film

You have recorded this music and performed it many times elsewhere. How do audiences typically respond to it?

Audiences are generally extremely enthusiastic about the music. And many of them are moved or intrigued by the stories of these composers.

 

 

 

 

 


Classical music: Play the expert insider. Listen to excerpts and then vote in the BBC Music Magazine Awards for 2015.

January 18, 2015
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By Jacob Stockinger

It is the season of entertainment awards, what with the Golden Globes, the Oscars or Academy Awards, and the Grammys among others.

YL Oscar foods statue

grammy award BIG

Those awards are given out by privileged insiders, who work inside the various industries.

But when it comes to classical music, you — and the ordinary listeners or the “common listener,” as writer Virginia Woolf might term it — can also vote in the BBC Music Magazine Awards for 2015.

So here is your chance to play the expert insider.

True, only United Kingdom residents can win prizes. But anyone can listen to the 1,200 entries and vote for the 200 ultimate winners.

Here is a link to the introductory story:

http://www.classical-music.com/news/vote-bbc-music-magazine-awards-2015

And here is a link to the various excerpts:

http://www.classical-music.com/awards

BBC Music Magazine


Classical music: Chamber music group Con Vivo! celebrates the anniversaries of maestro John DeMain (20 years) and composer Richard Wagner (200 years) in the opening concert of its 12th season this Friday night. Plus, violinist sisters Alice and Eleanor Bartsch discuss their upcoming concert Thursday morning on WORT FM.

November 6, 2013
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ALERT: Classical radio host and blog friend Rich Samuels writes: This Thursday morning, beginning at 7:08 a.m., I’ll be airing on my WORT 89.9 FM show an interview I recently recorded with sister UW violinists Alice and Eleanor Bartsch (below in a photo by Katrin Talbot) regarding their Friday night concert in Overture Hall with Madison Symphony Orchestra organist Samuel Hutchison. They will talk about the Friday evening program and give us brief samples of the Vivaldi and Bach they’ll be playing. They also tell us about how they are planning for careers in a music business that is evolving in challenging ways seemingly by the day. MSO concertgoers will recognize the Bartsch sisters as members of the MSO’s first violin section. Alice is a UW Madison senior; Eleanor is studying for a master’s degree in performance at the UW School of Music as well as for an MBA at the School of Business.

Alice  and Eleanor Bartsch (c) Katrin Talbot

By Jacob Stockinger

con vivo! … music with life (the core musicians are pictured below)  begins its 12th season of chamber music with a concert entitled “Baker’s Dozen” on this Friday, November 8, at 7:30 p.m. at First Congregational United Church of Christ, 1609 University Ave., across from Camp Randall.

Con Vivo core musicians

The performance will feature the Madison Symphony Orchestra’s Music Director John DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad) conducting chamber music by Richard Wagner and Mozart.

John DeMain full face by Prasad

To celebrate the 200th anniversary of the birth of opera composer Richard Wagner (below), the chamber music gem “Siegfried Idyll in its original version will be performed.

Richard Wagner

That will be followed by the piece that had a starring role in the movie “Amadeus,” Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s masterpiece the “Gran Partita Serenade for Winds.” (Hear the third movement, the heartbreaking Adagio, in a YouTube video with still photos from the Oscar-winning movie “Amadeus” at the bottom.)

mozart big

“We are very excited to be a part of Maestro DeMain’s 20th year in Madison as he returns to con vivo! to conduct our biggest production ever!

“Tickets can be purchased at the door for $18 for adults and $15 for seniors and students. Audience members are invited to join con vivo! musicians after the concert for a free reception to discuss this chamber music literature and to hear about their Carnegie Hall debut this past December.

Artistic Director Robert Taylor, in remarking about the concert, said:

“With 20 musicians performing, this concert promises to be a spectacular event in the history of con vivo! We are delighted to have Maestro DeMain return after his rendition of Igor Stravinsky’s “A Soldier’s Tale” with us two seasons ago. We continue the tradition of bringing to our audience works that are familiar and some that are new in perhaps a not so familiar format. So come join us for our post-Carnegie Hall debut season.”

con vivo! is a professional chamber music ensemble comprised of Madison area musicians assembled from the ranks of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, and various other performing groups familiar to Madison audiences. 


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