The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Acclaimed native son Kenneth Woods returns this weekend to conduct the Madison Symphony Orchestra. He talks to The Ear about what Madison meant to him and his international career

March 2, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

This weekend, native Madisonian Kenneth Woods (below) returns from his home in the UK to conduct three performances of the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

The concerts feature two MSO debuts: the prize-winning young Canadian violinist Blake Pouliot performing Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor; and the acclaimed guest conductor, Kenneth Woods, leading the orchestra for the MSO premiere of Haydn’s Symphony No. 96, “Miracle” plus Richard Strauss’ tone poem Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life).

Performances will be held in Overture Hall on Friday night, March 6, at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday night, March 7, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday afternoon, March 8, at 2:30 p.m.

Single tickets are $19-$95 each and are on sale now, along with discounted tickets, at: https://madisonsymphony.org/event/the-miracle/; through the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street; or by calling the Box Office at (608) 258-4141. Fees apply to online and phone sales.

You can view program notes for this concert online at http://bit.ly/msomar2020programnotes

A Prelude Discussion by Randal Swiggum will take place one hour before each concert.

Guest conductor Kenneth Woods is a busy and versatile musician. He is the Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra and the artistic director of both the Colorado MahlerFest and the Elgar Festival in England. (You can hear Woods conducting Carl Maria von Weber’s “Oberon” Overture in the YouTube video at the bottom.) 

Woods has won accolades for rediscovering and recording the music of the Austrian-British composer Hans Gàl. Woods, who has played guitar in a rock band, is also a professional cellist who solos with orchestras and plays chamber music. He writes a respected blog. And he currently plays and records in the Briggs Piano Trio for Avie Records.

For much more information about Kenneth Woods, including his blog “A View From the Podium,” go to: https://kennethwoods.net/blog1/

Woods recently spoke via email to The Ear about what Madison has meant to him and to his international career.

How did living in Madison play a role in your decision to become a professional musician?

Madison offered me a chance to hear music at an early age. I was taken to watch a rehearsal of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestra as a very young kid, maybe three or four years old. That made a huge impression on me, especially seeing the rehearsal process. Later, my parents took us to all the UW Symphony Orchestra concerts for years.

There’s really no reason not to take young kids to concerts! For me, a love of live music led to a love of recorded music, listening to records at home, and from there, to an interest in playing music as a kid.

We were lucky to have a very strong music program in the Madison public schools when I was growing up here. The orchestras at Memorial High School played some really impressive repertoire under Tom Buchhauser (below top, in a photo by Jon Harlow). The UW Summer Music Clinic made being a musician social – it was a great immersion with one’s peers.

Most important, however, was probably the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO). Playing under Jim Smith (below bottom) was the most fantastic education in orchestral playing one could hope for. He and Tom are a big part of why I became a conductor.

Madison in those days wasn’t a super-pressurized scene, like one might encounter around the big pre-college programs in New York or LA. But what I might have missed in terms of conservatory-level instrumentalists in every corridor, one made up in terms of feeling like you could find your own path. By the time I was in high school, I pretty much knew music was that path.

How did your experiences in Madison help prepare you for that career?

I learned so much about rehearsing from Jim Smith. In his first year, we worked on Dvorak’s 8th Symphony pretty much all year. Every week, he opened our ears to new facets of the music. I’ve never forgotten that.

I went off to Indiana University to do my Bachelor’s degree, but returned to Madison for a Master’s, when I studied cello with UW-Madison professor Parry Karp (below top).

Those were wonderful years for me. I learned an enormous amount from Parry as both a cello teacher and chamber music coach (and especially as a person).

I played in fantastic chamber groups, did lots of wacky new music and had solo opportunities. UW Symphony Orchestra conductor David Becker (below bottom) even gave me my first meaningful chance to rehearse an orchestra when he had me take a couple of rehearsals on the Copland Clarinet Concerto.

And I played in both the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra. I came away from that time with both new skills and new confidence.

What does returning to your hometown to conduct the Madison Symphony Orchestra mean to you?

It’s both very exciting and a little surreal. Under the leadership of John DeMain (below top, in a photo by Greg Anderson), the MSO (below bottom, in a photo by Peter Rodgers) has come so far since the time I was in it. And the new hall is such a treasure for all of Wisconsin – it’s practically a different orchestra.

I still have many friends and former mentors in the orchestra and it’s going to be wonderful to see them all and make music together again after so long.

But it’s more than a homecoming. It’s a chance to celebrate where we’ve all been and what we’ve all done the last 20 years or so. My musical life has mostly been in the UK for a long time, so to re-connect with my musical roots here is rather magical.

What are your major current and upcoming projects?

The English Symphony Orchestra (below) represents the biggest chunk of my musical life. This year we’re celebrating Beethoven’s 250th birthday and the orchestra’s 40th anniversary.

The ESO has a special commitment to new and unknown music, and right now we’re in the midst of something called the 21st Century Symphony Project, which involves commissioning, premiering and recording nine new symphonies by diverse composers. It’s one of the most ambitious commissioning projects I’ve ever heard of, let alone been involved in.

I’m also excited about this year’s Colorado MahlerFest in Boulder, where we’re focusing on Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 “Resurrection” this May, which will crown a week of music exploring themes of color and visual art with music by Wagner, Messiaen and British composer Philip Sawyers.

Is the MSO program special to you?

I must say that it was incredibly generous of John DeMain to offer me such a fantastic program. Not every music director is gentleman enough to let a guest have Ein Heldenleben.

What would you like the public to know about your approach to music and about the specific works by Haydn, Mendelssohn and Richard Strauss?

Haydn’s music is maybe the richest discovery of my adult life. I didn’t get it as a kid, largely because most performances I heard were so dull.

His music is so varied, and his personality so complex, one mustn’t try to reduce him down to a simplistic figure. The late symphonies, of which this is one of the finest, are inexhaustible sources of wisdom, beauty, humor and sanity.

The Mendelssohn is really an astonishing piece. I’ve probably conducted it as much as any piece of music, with so many different soloists, all of whom had hugely different temperaments, personalities, sounds and approaches.

I’ve played it with some of the greatest violinists in the world and with young students. Somehow, whoever is playing, it always leaves me, and the audience, smiling. I’m pretty sure we can continue that streak with Blake Pouliot (below, in a photo by Jeff Fasano).

The Strauss is a rich, personal, wise, funny and moving work. It’s always a challenge, particularly bringing out all the astonishing detail in the score, but it’s also a real joy to perform. If the Mendelssohn always leaves me smiling, the Strauss always leaves me smiling with a tear in my eye.

 


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Classical music: The UW Choral Union, UW Symphony Orchestra and guest soloists took the audience on a memorable musical voyage in Ralph Vaughan Williams “A Sea Symphony”

January 30, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

It took a postponement of almost two months before the UW Choral Union (below) finally got to perform last Saturday night in the Mead Witter Foundation Concert Hall in the new Hamel Music Center.

But the wait was worth it.

The combined forces – conducted by the retiring choral director Beverly Taylor – proved convincing and accomplished in the challenging score of “A Sea Symphony” by the early 20th-century British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams.

The performers did justice to the score’s vivid sound painting. You could hear the sea wind whistling through the rigging; you could feel the ship plowing through the swells and waves.

The American poet Walt Whitman (below) – whose epic-like poetry provided the text for this ambitious nautical and musical journey – would have been proud of the performance.

After all, like Whitman’s poetry, Vaughn Williams’ music — his first symphony — can be forceful and spacious at many moments, tender and reflective or even intimate at other times. The music matches the text, and the performers matched both.

The forces were precise under Taylor’s baton, with sharp attacks and no ragged stopping. True, there were a few moments when the balance seemed a bit off, when the UW Symphony Orchestra overpowered the large campus and community chorus, especially in the very brassy and thickly scored first movement. You just wanted to hear the words better and felt frustrated not to.

But for the most part, though, the student orchestra proved impressive. They were tight and crisp, accurate and transparent, allowing listeners to hear the inner part playing and even certain modernist harmonies of the generally conservative Vaughan Williams (below).

Moreover, the symphony, the chorus and the soloists blended especially well and movingly in the symphony’s quieter moments.

Those moments included the second movement, “On the Beach at Night, Alone”; and the quiet, understated ending where the idea of voyage and exploration becomes personal and metaphorical or spiritual as well as literal: “Reckless, O soul, exploring, I with thee, and thou with me … O my brave soul! O farther, farther sail!”

(You can hear a sample in the hymn-like opening of the fourth movement in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

In addition, the outstanding acoustics of the new hall – where the chorus sits above and behind the orchestra – brought the performance to life even more convincingly.

There were two soloists (below): soprano Chelsie Propst and baritone James Harrington.

Harrington possessed a pleasing tone, but he seemed to be holding back for some reason. He could have projected more confidence and been more energetic or assertive in his delivery. After all, neither Whitman nor Vaughan Williams is shy in this large-scale work.

Curiously, it was the woman soloist, Propst, who roared like the sea, whose big voice easily soared over the orchestra and chorus. Her singing was thoroughly beautiful and thoroughly engaging.

Unfortunately, the very successful concert was not sold out, but the audience proved attentive and very enthusiastic.

This debut performance in the new hall made one look forward all the more to another big piece and big performance by the UW Choral Union and UW Symphony Orchestra, one that will wrap up the season and end Taylor’s long tenure at the UW-Madison: the dramatic and operatic Requiem by Verdi on Saturday and Sunday, April 25 and 26.


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Classical music: This Saturday night, UW pianist Christopher Taylor will perform the virtuosic Liszt transcriptions of Beethoven’s Symphonies Nos. 1 and 9

January 28, 2020
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ALERT: The first concert by the Verona Area Community Orchestra is set for this Wednesday, Jan. 29, at 7 p.m. in the Verona Area High School’s Performing Arts Center at 300 Richard St. in Verona. A reception, with a sheet cake, will follow the concert. Admission is FREE.

Thirty-five amateur string orchestra musicians will play selections from: Johann Sebastian Bach (Brandenburg Concerto No. 3), Aaron Copland (“Rodeo”), Sir Edward Elgar (“Serenade for Strings”), Eric Whitacre (“October”), Louis Prima (“Sing Sing with a Swing”), and Peter Warlock (“Capriol” Suite).

By Jacob Stockinger

This coming Saturday, Feb. 1, will see what promises to be one of the most interesting and impressive events of The Beethoven Year in Madison.

At 8 p.m. in the Mead Witter Foundation Concert Hall, in the new Hamel Music Center at 740 University Avenue, the UW-Madison’s virtuoso pianist Christopher Taylor (below) will perform the solo piano transcriptions made by Franz Liszt of Beethoven’s Symphonies Nos. 1 and 9.

When he was just 12, the young Liszt — often considered the greatest pianist who ever lived — performed for and met Beethoven, who gave the boy his blessing.

For the rest of his life, Liszt (below top) promoted Beethoven’s piano sonatas and symphonies through the keyboard. Liszt also studied with Carl Czerny, who studied with Beethoven (below bottom).

These performances mark Taylor’s completion of the ambitious and monumental cycle of Liszt’s Beethoven symphony transcriptions.

The Ninth or “Choral” Symphony – with the famous “Ode to Joy” finale – will also have five singers to perform the solo and choral parts. They are: Mead Witter School of Music faculty members Mimmi Fulmer and Paul Rowe (below top); and graduate students Sarah Brailey (below bottom), Thore Dosdall and Benjamin Liupaogo.

(You can hear the famous Scherzo movement played by Cyprien Katsaris and see the note-filled score for it in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Tickets are $20, except for music school faculty and students who will be admitted free on the night of the performance if space allows.

For more information about the tickets, parking, the performers and the program, go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/christopher-taylor-and-friends-beethoven-symphony-extravaganza/

To just purchase tickets, go to the Campus Arts Ticketing box office in the Memorial Union, call (608) 265-ARTS (2787) or go to: https://artsticketing.wisc.edu/Online/default.asp?doWork::WScontent::loadArticle=Load&BOparam::WScontent::loadArticle::article_id=79084672-5D75-4981-B0A3-B135EDB97FF1

For more information about the extraordinary keyboard transcriptions, go to the Wikipedia entry and be sure to read the section on History: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beethoven_Symphonies_(Liszt)

 


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Classical music: Thursday night, the Middleton Community Orchestra closes its season with duo-pianists in music by Mozart and Saint-Saens, and the latter’s “Organ” Symphony. Wednesday is the last Just Bach concert of the season 

May 28, 2019
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ALERT: This Wednesday, May 29, at 1 p.m. in Luther Memorial Church, 1021 University Avenue, is the last FREE Just Bach concert of the season. The one-hour early music program includes: the cantata “Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen” (Praise Ye God in All Lands), BWV 51; Duetto II in F Major, BWV 803; and the cantata “Wachet! Betet! Betet! Wachet!” (Watch! Pray! Pray! Watch!), BWV 70. For more information, go online to the home website: https://justbach.org

By Jacob Stockinger

This Thursday night, May 30, the largely amateur but critically acclaimed Middleton Community Orchestra (below, in a photo by Brian Rupert) will close its ninth season with a special family-friendly concert.

The concert, under the baton of conductor Steve Kurr (below), takes place at 7:30 p.m. in the Middleton Performing Arts Center that is attached to Middleton High School, 2100 Bristol Street.

Guest artists are University of Wisconsin-Madison students and duo-pianists Satoko Hayami (below top) and Thomas Kasdorf (below bottom). They will perform the witty and entertaining “Carnival of the Animals” by Camille Saint-Saens and then the Concerto for Two Pianos, K. 365, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Wisconsin Public Radio host Norman Gilliland (below) will be the narrator in “The Carnival of the Animals.” (In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear the opening Introduction and Royal March of the Lion, with the late Sir Roger Moore — aka James Bond or 007 — as the narrator plus an all-star cast of musicians and some very cool animal videos in back-and-white.) 

The concert concludes with the always impressive, ambitious and popular Symphony No. 3  — the famous “Organ” Symphony – by Saint-Saens (below, seated at the piano in 1900).

Adds MCO co-founder Mindy Taranto: “We are really excited to share a special concert with the community as we celebrate the end of MCO’s ninth season.

“It took a village to make this concert possible. Farley’s House of Pianos is donating the use of an 1890 Steinway to match the Steinway at the hall. WPR radio host Norman Gilliland is generously volunteering to narrate the ‘Carnival of the Animals’ and Full Compass is offering us a discount on the sound equipment we need to play the “Organ” Symphony. Our very own recording engineer, Alex Ford, is playing the organ.

“Please bring your kids and share this information to invite all students free of charge to hear this concert.”

Admission is $15 for adults; all students get in for free. Tickets are available at the Willy Street Coop West and at the door. The box office opens at 6:30 p.m. and the auditorium opens at 7 p.m.

As usual, after the concert there will be a free meet-and-greet reception for musicians and the public.

For more information about this concert, and about how to join or support the Middleton Community Orchestra, call 608 212-8690 or go online to: http://middletoncommunityorchestra.org


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Classical music: What music is good to listen to every day for a year? And why? Clemency Burton-Hill discusses her book “Year of Wonder” on PBS’ “Newshour”

March 23, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

What different pieces of classical music would be good to listen to every day of the year?

And what should you know about it?

Those are the simple but ambitious questions that the British writer Clemency Burton-Hill — who now works for the famed classical radio station WQXR in New York City — tackles in her book “Year of Wonder: Classical Music to Enjoy Day by Day” (below).

You can get a sample by going to the book section of Amazon.com and looking inside the book. Just click on the Introduction for an overview and then click on some specifics dates to see how it works.

But recently Burton-Hill (below) also appeared on “The NewsHour” on PBS to talk about the book, where she explained her purpose and method, especially her intent to help expand the audience for classical music.

Her remarks impressed The Ear who has ordered a copy of her book and hopes to learn from it and maybe even pass along some lessons from it.

All the genres, all the great composers (dead and living) and most of the great works are covered, as are many other neglected composers and unknown works. So the book can be considered a terrific resource for music education for both beginners and those who are experienced.

Her commentaries are also a model of brevity and engaging interest.

All in all, “Year of Wonder” seems a supremely practical, unpretentious and informative guide to daily listening, especially given how many of these works – often they are shorter sections of larger works — can be found for free on YouTube. (In fact, a playlist of music featured in the book is available on YouTube. Go to YouTube and type in “Year of Wonder Playlist” into the search engine, then look to the upper right for a list. A sample is at the bottom. Or use this direct link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0wNTNEZYoHg&list=PLKPwLlyrD2y-1x-uKmUBzSOiAh83GhU7A

But you don’t have to take my word for it. Here is a link to the television interview:

https://www.pbs.org/newshour/show/embracing-classical-music-and-its-potential-for-sonic-salvation

The Ear hopes you find the interview both informative and useful.

Happy listening!


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Classical music: “Into the Woods” is a big deal in many ways for the UW-Madison. There are five performances at the Memorial Union between this Thursday night and Sunday afternoon

February 20, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Make no mistake.

The modern musical and theatrical retellings by Stephen Sondheim (below) of well-known childhood fairy tales do not offer your usual versions of Little Red Riding Hood, Prince Charming, Cinderella and Rapunzel among others.

Moreover the local production of the acclaimed 1986 Broadway musical “Into the Woods” – the woods being a dark, adult and disturbing Freudian metaphor of deeper meanings — is literally a big deal. (You can hear a sample of Sondheim’s music and supremely clever lyrics, taken from the 2014 movie version by Walt Disney, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

It involves both the University Opera and the University Theatre and Drama Department. The ambitious joint production – the first in a dozen years – took almost two years and involves over 90 people.

You can see the promising results for yourself in five performances starting this Thursday night in Shannon Hall at the Wisconsin Union Theater. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights; and at 2 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday.

Happily, there are a lot of ways to check out background and prepare for the show, which faced its own trials.

You’ll notice, for example, that  the rehearsal picture below —  taken by Beau Meyer of Elisheva Pront (Cinderella) with Jake Elfner (her Prince Charming) — was taken with no costumes, even though such photos were planned. But during the recent deep freeze and big thaw, Vilas Hall got hit with flooding from broken pipes and the costumes got clobbered, so such photos are delayed.

Still, the show must go on — and did.

Here is an interview with David Ronis (below, in a photo by Luke DeLalio), the prize-winning director of University Opera and other members of the production team and actors:

https://arts.wisc.edu/2019/02/15/into-the-woods/

Here is more information, including a plot summary, a cast and ticket information from the University Opera:

https://www.music.wisc.edu/2018/12/27/opera-theatre-sondheim-into-the-woods/

Here is a story from the Department of University Theatre and Drama, including interviews with the two women who play Cinderella:

https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/university-opera-and-university-theatre-sondheims-into-the-woods/2019-02-22/

From the Wisconsin Union Theater, here is the complex and complete ticket pricing information ($10-$40):

https://union.wisc.edu/events-and-activities/event-calendar/event/into-the-woods/#additional

And here is a complete list of the student cast, who will sing under the baton of UW-Madison professor Chad Hutchinson (below)  who will conduct the orchestra:

https://theatre.wisc.edu/2018/10/18/into-the-woods-cast/


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Classical music: You Must Hear This: Violinist Hilary Hahn plays “Mercy” by Max Richter

March 26, 2018
4 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

One of the gems in the 27 encores that violinist Hilary Hahn commissioned from 27 different composers a couple of years ago is “Mercy” by the German-born British composer Max Richter.

Hahn has played here several times, mostly at the Wisconsin Union Theater but also with the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

Although Max Richter’s Minimalist music has not been played in Madison as far as The Ear remembers, you might already know his name from the popular recording of his take on Vivaldi in “The Four Seasons Recomposed” or his more ambitious and most current project “Sleep,” which provides music for eight and a half hours of sleeping.

But The Ear confesses he had not heard this moving miniature called “Mercy” until recently, even though Hahn recorded it along with the other 26 encores with pianist Cory Smithe.

He likes it.

And so apparently do a lot of other listeners.

So it is something that is well worth using five minutes of your time to sample.

Write your comments, positive or negative, below.

The Ear wants to hear.


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