The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: This weekend the Madison Symphony Orchestra, with guest conductor Carl St. Clair and trumpet virtuoso Tina Thing Helseth, performs music by Beethoven, Hummel and Richard Strauss

March 8, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

This weekend the Madison Symphony Orchestra (MSO) features Tine Thing Helseth (below), the Norwegian virtuoso trumpet soloist, for a special performance of Johann Nepomuk Hummel’s Trumpet Concerto.

Conductor Carl St. Clair (below) returns for a third visit as guest conductor with the MSO to lead a pair of early 19th-century works with 112 musicians performing the largest of Richard Strauss’s symphonic tone poems. (MSO music director and conductor John DeMain is conducting a production of Puccini’s opera “Turandot” in Virginia.)

The program begins with the Egmont Overture by Ludwig van Beethoven, followed by the MSO’s premiere performance of the Trumpet Concerto by Johann Nepomuk Hummel, featuring HelsethThe concert ends with a nod to the awesome splendor of the Bavarian Alps, “An Alpine Symphony,” by Richard Strauss.

The concerts are this weekend on Friday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall, 201 State Street. See below for ticket information.

Beethoven (below top) composed his Egmont Overture in 1810. Both Beethoven himself, and playwright Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (below bottom) upheld the ideals of human dignity and freedom in their works.

Their personal relationship stemmed from Beethoven’s incidental music for a new production of Goethe’s play Egmont in 1810. This play about a nobleman’s betrayal by the Spanish monarchy, is beautifully paired with Beethoven’s music. As Goethe called it, Egmont Overture is a “Symphony of Victory.” (You can hear the dramatic “Egmont” Overture, performed by the Vienna Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Another friend of Beethoven’s, was Johann Nepomuk Hummel (below). Even though they were rivals, their respect for each other’s talent kept the relationship afloat.

Hummel’s Trumpet Concerto is a frisky fanfare with “playful dancelike” episodes laced throughout. This is the first time Hummel’s Trumpet Concerto will be performed by the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

Richard Strauss (below top) composed his Eine Alpensinfonie (“An Alpine Symphony”) from 1911-15. The final score used materials from some of his unfinished works, including an Artist’s Tragedy and The Alps.

Though there are many influences for this piece, the main is Strauss’s love for the Bavarian Alps. In his diary he wrote: “I shall call my alpine symphony: Der Antichrist, since it represents: moral purification through one’s own strength, liberation through work, worship of eternal, magnificent nature.” Antichrist is a reference to an essay by philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (below bottom), and though the title was dropped for its publication, the work still carries many of Nietzsche’s ideals.

One hour before each performance, Michael Allsen (below, in a photo by Katrin Talbot), the author of MSO program notes and an MSO trombonist as well as a UW-Whitewater Professor of Music, will lead a 30-minute Prelude Discussion in Overture Hall to enhance concertgoers’ understanding and listening experience.

For more background on the music, please visit the Program Notes at:

Single Tickets are $16 to $87 each, available at and through the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street or call the Box Office at (608) 258-4141.

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

Club 201, MSO’s organization for young professionals, has continued to fulfill its mission for the past 11 years as the premiere organization promoting classical music and networking opportunities to the young professionals’ community in Madison. Tickets are $35 each and include world-class seating in Overture Hall, an exclusive after-party to be held in the Promenade Lounge, one drink ticket and a cash bar.

The conductor as well as musicians from the symphony may also be in attendance to mingle with Madison’s young professionals during the after-party.

The deadline to purchase tickets is Thursday, March 9, pending availability. Tickets can be purchased for this event, as well as the other events throughout the 2016-17 season by visiting the Club 201 page on the MSO’s website at

Student rush tickets can be purchased in person on the day of the concert at the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street. Students must show a valid student ID and can receive up to two $12 or $15 tickets. More information is at: Students can receive 20% savings on seats in select areas of the hall on advance ticket purchases.

Seniors age 62 and up receive 20% savings on advance and day-of-concert ticket purchases in select areas of the hall.

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

Major funding for the March concerts is provided by: The Madison Concourse Hotel & Governor’s Club, An Anonymous Friend, and Madison Gas & Electric Foundation, Inc. Additional funding is provided by: Audrey Dybdahl, Family and Friends, in loving memory of Philip G. Dybdahl, John A. Johnson Foundation, a component fund of the Madison Community Foundation, Madison Veterinary Specialists, Gary and Lynn Mecklenburg, and the Wisconsin Arts Board with funds from the State of Wisconsin and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Classical music: See what goes into making a Stradivarius violin great, from the special Italian spruce trees to the master violin-makers who come to Cremona, Italy from around the world. But are the old violins really better than the best new ones?

December 13, 2014
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By Jacob Stockinger

Ever wonder what goes into a great violin made centuries ago by Stradivarius or Guarneri or Amati that makes them the favorite instruments of great performing virtuosos?

Stradivarius violin

(The Ear will forget for a while the stories about how blind hearing tests with professional violinists showed that new or modern instruments outscored the centuries-old masterpieces.)

For whatever reason last weekend brought two terrific stories about what goes into making world-class violins – in specific the violins, worth millions of dollars, by Antonio Stradivari (below) and other master crafters and luthiers in Cremona, Italy.

Antonio Stradivari

The stories followed the great violins — and also violas and cellos — from the special Italian spruce trees grown in the dolomite Alps, which are celebrated and serenaded with music, to the actual makers of the instruments and the overall cooperative music culture of Cremona, Italy.

Serenading spruce trees

One of the stories appeared on NPR (National Public Radio) , specifically on Weekend Edition with Scott Simon. Here is a link:

The other was a great segment on CBS’ “60 Minutes.” It has great visuals and interviews. Here is a link:

And at bottom in a YouTube video, is a comparison test of old and new violin sounds. Listen to it, take it and see how you do.

What do you think of the comparison results?

The Ear wants to hear.

Classical music Q&A: What makes Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2 so great? French pianist Philippe Bianconi discusses his upcoming performances of it this weekend with the Madison Symphony Orchestra. Plus, the memorial performances for singer Ilona Kombrink are this Sunday afternoon.

October 15, 2013

ALERT and REMINDER: Ilona Kombrink (below), UW Emeritus Professor of Voice, passed away on Friday, August 9, 2013 in Stoughton, Wisconsin, at the age of 80. A Memorial Concert and celebration of Ilona’s life will be held on this Sunday, October 20, 2013 at 3 p.m. in the Grand Hall at Capitol Lakes Retirement Community, 333 West Main Street, Madison. The public is invited with no formal reservations necessary.

A member of the University of Wisconsin-Madison voice faculty from 1967-2003, “Ms. K” counted among her students hundreds of singers and teachers working all over the world today. She performed frequently in her own recitals and collaborated often with many of her UW faculty colleagues on and off-campus. She was beloved in the wider Madison community for her uncompromising vocal artistry, and was featured in appearances with Madison Opera, Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Capitol City Band, and others.

Among the performers will be former students: Kathleen Otterson (Edgewood College), Margaret (Peggy) Walters, and Daniel Johnson-Wilmot (Viterbo University); UW colleagues: Professor Howard Karp (piano) and Professor Parry Karp (‘cello); Professor Karlos Moser (opera); and Professor Tyrone Greive (violin). Participating pianists include Michael Keller, Bruce Bengtson, Michael Ross, Janet Smith, and Melinda Moser. UW Professor Mimmi Fulmer, former student Marcia Roberts McCoy, and Professor James Latimer will offer remembrances. A reception will follow in the Capitol Lakes Encore Room.

Ilona Kombrink color

By Jacob Stockinger

French pianist Philippe Bianconi (below), a favorite of Madison audiences, returns this weekend for three performances, with the Madison Symphony Orchestra, of the towering Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat Major, Op. 82, by Johannes Brahms.


The program also includes Claude Debussy’s famous tone poem “La Mer” and Benjamin Britten’s “Variation and Fugue on a Theme of Henry Purcell,” which the composer also used in the popular “The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra” (that will be performed at the MSO’s fall school concerts) and which will mark the centennial of the composer’s birth.

Performances, under the baton of MSO music director John DeMain, are in Overture Hall in the Overture Center at 7:30 p.m. on Friday; 8 p.m. on Saturday; and 2:30 p.m. on Sunday.

Tickets are $13.50-$82.50. For more information, visit:

For program notes by J, Michael Allsen, who plays trombone in the orchestra, visit:

For more about Philippe Bianconi, who was born in Nice in 1960 and is the new director of the famed American Conservatory in France, visit:

To The Ear, Bianconi – who won a silver medal in the Seventh Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in 1985 – is a rare find: an outstanding virtuoso pianist who is also a poetic and complete musician in almost any repertoire, not just French music. I find his Rachmaninoff Rhapsody as convincing as his Debussy Preludes.

Bianconi (below) recently agreed to an email interview:


How do you rate the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2 among the other standard or popular concertos in the repertoire and in your own preferences?

I am not so sure that the Brahms Second Piano Concerto belongs to the most standard repertoire or to the most popular concertos, but it is certainly considered one of the great masterpieces of the kind.

In my own preferences, it stays at the very top. As a matter of fact, if I were pressed to choose one piano concerto for a desert island, my choice would be Brahms second. (Of course, I’d be devastated to leave behind a number of other great concertos!)

What makes it do great or special for you? What role has it played in your career? Do you play a lot of other Brahms and what do you like about Brahms?

There are many reasons that make it so special in my own pantheon, but the main one will seem a little odd: to me this concerto is not really a concerto – it is really a symphony with principal piano.

It has four movements, like a symphony, and everything about it — the structure, the texture, the way the piano is integrated into the orchestral fabric i– s very symphonic. And that is what I love about it: I have the feeling I’m playing in a Brahms symphony !


I don’t think it has played a particular role in my career, but every time I had the opportunity to play this piece was a great moment of happiness.

The sheer beauty of this music is simply overwhelming. And I don’t know many concertos that have such a great range of moods and emotions.

There is such grandeur and majesty in the first movement, it’s like climbing a mountain in the Alps, and when you get to the top, you discover a panorama of breathtaking beauty. Then there is the dark and violent passion burning in the second movement.

Then comes the sublime slow movement with the unforgettable solo of the cello that brings tears to my eyes every time. And finally, the lightness, the grace, the spirit of the last movement, in great contrast with the other movements, in the pure tradition of Haydn, even with the gypsy touch of the second theme.

This concerto is like a fabulous journey.

I have played a lot of other music by Brahms (below), including most of the chamber music with piano, and among the music for solo piano, I have a deep love for his late cycles. To me, Brahms is a true romantic at heart. He explores such a variety of feelings: passion, lyricism, dreamy intimacy, stormy conflicts, and it is all molded in classical form, and that is what gives his music such emotional power.


I know that one very well-known pianist said he had to perform it more than 200 times live before recording it. What makes the Brahms Second so challenging? Technical difficulties? Interpretive difficulties? What would you like the audience to listen for in your performance?

This concerto is very challenging for many reasons.

It is very long, between 45 and 50 minutes depending on the tempi chosen. It requires great strength, especially in the first two movements. Of course you must find a natural and relaxed strength in order to maintain a large, singing tone all the time. If you force or bang, the sound becomes ugly and it’s just unbearable.

The technical difficulties are numerous: the horrendous chords and jumps, the runs in double notes. There are also very “un-pianistic” things too. Because the piano is really part of the orchestra, and conceived in orchestral terms, in “coloristic” terms, and in relationship with the other instruments, certain things are technically very strange and awkward. Alfred Brendel (below) used to talk about the “pianistic perversions” of Brahms’ Second Concerto.

Then of course, the interpretative challenge is great too, and also because of the integration of the piano in the orchestra. You cannot think as a “soloist” when you play it. From beginning to end, you must have in mind the structure of the whole piece and the full orchestral texture, even in the solo passages. As a matter of fact, the collaboration with the conductor is absolutely crucial in this piece.

Brendel playing BIG

You have become a favorite pianist of Madison audiences and the Madison Symphony Orchestra and conductor John DeMain? How do you feel about the city and its audiences as well as about the orchestra?

I am so happy to come back to Madison. It’s a beautiful, lively city, and I love coming here. And I love the audience too. They are always so warm and enthusiastic.

I have played a number of times with the Madison Symphony and John DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad), and every time has been a great musical and human experience. I feel a little bit like I’m coming back home to my family.

As I said, when you play Brahms Second, collaborating with the conductor is very important, so you can imagine how I look forward to performing it with John DeMain. I know it’s going to be one of the best experiences of my life with this piece.

John DeMain full face by Prasad

What are your current projects and plans for concert performances, recordings, etc.?

In the next few months, I have some recitals planned in Europe, and in February I will be back in the States for a series of concerts with the Buffalo Philharmonic and Joann Falletta, playing Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in Buffalo and then on tour in Florida. Then I will be playing the Grieg Concerto in Santa Rosa, California, with the Santa Rosa Symphony and Bruno Ferrandis. It will be a great month of February for me.!

Last week, I recorded my first Chopin CD, which should be released in 2014. It’s with the same label (La Dolce Volta) I recorded the complete Debussy preludes (below, in a YouTube video) last year. It’s a new and energetic label and I’m really happy to work with them.

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