The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Madison Symphony Orchestra’s music director John DeMain discusses the 2017-18 season with critic John W. Barker

May 11, 2017
6 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, an interview with the Madison Symphony Orchestra‘s music director John DeMain about the next season, conducted and written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog John W. Barker.

Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who hosts an early music show once a month on Sunday morning on WORT FM 89.9 FM. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.

By John W. Barker

Last month, I had a welcome opportunity to sit down with John DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad), music director of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, together with his marketing director, Peter Rodgers, to discuss the orchestra’s recently announced 2017-18 concert season. (NOTE: Today is the deadline for current subscribers to renew and keep their seats. You can call 608 257-3734 or go to https://www.madisonsymphony.org/reneworder)

This meeting allowed me new insights into the various factors that go into selecting a season’s repertoire. It also gave me further appreciation of Maestro DeMain’s personality and talents.

It further revealed the unfairness of some criticism made that the coming season is “conservative” and repetitive of familiar works. In fact, his programming involves very thoughtful awareness of the differing expectations of the varied audience.

It has become customary to make the season’s opening concert a showcase for talented members of the orchestra, rather than for guest soloists.

The September program thus offers a masterpiece I particularly relish, Hector Berlioz’s Harold in Italy, a symphony with viola obbligato — featuring the orchestra’s principal violist, Chris Dozoryst (below).

But the inclusion of the neglected Fifth or “Reformation” Symphony by Felix Mendelssohn was decided as a link to this year’s 500th-anniversary commemoration of Martin Luther’s launching of the Lutheran Reformation in 1517. Also on the program is Leopold Stokowski’s orchestral arrangement of the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor for organ by Johann Sebastian Bach.

The October program contains a notable example of a familiar and popular “warhorse,” Antonin Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9, “From the New World.” This was indeed performed by the MSO two seasons back as part of the “Beyond the Score” presentations. DeMain indicates that the close repetition is made deliberately to connect with that past event, to expand further the audiences’ understanding of the work.

He is also juxtaposing the symphony with the appearance of the acclaimed Olga Kern (below), playing the Piano Concerto by Samuel Barber and with the “Mother Goose” Suite by Maurice Ravel.

The November soloist is guitarist Sharon Isbin, in two concertos, one new (“Affinity” by Chris Brubeck) and one old (Concierto de Aranjuez by Joaquin Rodrigo)  She plays with her instrument electronically amplified, something very off-putting in my experience. But DeMain notes that all guitarists do that now in concert work, and he wanted to include the guitar to bring in new and different audience members.

Inclusion of suites by Aaron Copland and Manuel de Falla – “Billy the Kid” and “The Three-Cornered Hat,” respectively — also represent popular appeal.

January will bring a triumph for DeMain: the appearance of violinist Gil Shaham (below), after 15 years of efforts to secure him. Shaham will perform the Violin Concerto by Peter Tchaikovsky.

The all-Russian program also allows DeMain to venture for the first time into “The Love for Three Oranges” suite by Sergei Prokofiev and the Third Symphony of Sergei Rachmaninoff.

The issue of “warhorse” repetition is raised by the First Symphony by Johannes Brahms in the February program. But DeMain points out that it has been 10 years since the MSO played the work, a significant one that richly deserves performance by now.

He is also proud to include with it the outstanding Rossini opera overture (Semiramide) and the rarely heard Cello Concerto, with German cellist Alban Gerhardt (below), by the 20th-century British composer William Walton.

DeMain admits to mixed feelings about the “Beyond the Score” presentations of music and background context, but he is confident that the one offered (one night, outside subscriptions) on March 18, about the monumental Enigma Variations, by Sir Edward Elgar, (below) will work well.

The combination in April of Benjamin Britten’s powerful Sinfonia da Requiem and Robert Schumann’s First Symphony (“Spring”) with Antonin Dvorak’s sadly neglected Violin Concerto has special meanings for the maestro. It allows the return of the greatly admired Augustin Hadelich (below) as soloist.

But it also allows DeMain’s return, for his first time since 1974, to the Schumann score, with which he had a crucial encounter in a youthful appearance with the Pittsburgh Symphony.

Finally, the May program is an unusually exciting combination of Mozart’s too-little-appreciated Piano Concerto No. 22 with soloist Christopher O’Riley (below) of NPR’s “From the Top” with the roof-raising Glagolitic Mass, featuring the Madison Symphony Chorus, of Leos Janacek.

DeMain has made important commitments to the orchestral music of Janacek (below) before this, and his advance to the composer’s great blockbuster choral work is a landmark.

Amid savoring DeMain’s thoughts on the season – which also includes the MSO’s traditional Christmas concert in early December — and his wonderful recollections of past experiences, I came to recognize more than ever the remarkable combination of talents he brings to his Madison podium.

Beyond so many conductors, DeMain has had deeply engaging phases of his career in orchestral literature (large and small), in opera and musical theater, and in chamber music, while being himself an accomplished pianist.

With the breadth of his range, he brings a particular sensitivity to the contexts and diversities of what he conducts. He has become to his musicians not only a skilled guide, but also a subtle teacher, deepening their understanding without any hint of pedantry.

It cannot be said enough how truly blessed we are to have him with us in Madison.

For more information about the 2017-18 season, including specific dates and times, and about purchasing tickets for new subscribers and renewing subscribers, go to:

http://www.madisonsymphony.org/17-18


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Classical music: Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra concert shows Andrew Sewell is a born Bruckner conductor who uses a smaller orchestra to reveal structure

January 30, 2017
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, a review written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker. Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who hosts an early music show once a month on Sunday morning on WORT FM 89.9 FM. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.

John-Barker

By John W. Barker

The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below) gave the second concert of its season on Friday evening in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center.

WCO lobby

The program opened with a rarely performed symphony, No. 30 in D Major, K. 202, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Mozart did not muster in this score anything like the ideas he delivered in his symphonies on either side of this one.

Still, it is an engaging piece, and maestro Sewell always shows great sympathy for the Austrian Classical-era composers of the late 18th century, so the performance was nicely molded.

The guest soloist this time was Croatian-born guitarist Ana Vidovic (below). She was originally scheduled to play the Second Guitar Concerto by Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, but for some reason she switched late on to the more substantial Concierto de Aranjuez by the 20th-century Spanish composer Joaquín Rodrigo.

ana-vidovic-2017

Unfortunately, Vidovic followed other guitarists of today who feel they must fortify their performances with electronic amplification, so she brought her own rig with her. The result was a boomy, hollow sound, completely artificial, pitted in fake balance against the natural world of the orchestral writing that was rendered, by the way, with charm and delicacy.

The composer (below) was very careful about not allowing the orchestra to overwhelm the intimate guitar, and generations of guitar players have been able to perform this and parallel concertos without benefit of sonic hype.

Alas, the combination of technology with egotism! Vidovic is obviously a musician of genuine artistry, but she quite sabotaged her playing by use of this six-string howitzer. And the knobs were still on through an encore, a trivial Cavatina by one Stanley Meyer.

joaquin rodrigo

The evening was richly redeemed by the main work. Sewell has, in recent years, been working his way into the symphonies of the 19th century, late Romantic Austrian composer Anton Bruckner—a composer usually tackled by large orchestras. But he has brought off the first two numbered symphonies with aplomb, and now was the turn of the Third.

This is a work with a complex history of versions and revisions. Sewell bravely chose to use the 1874 revision of the original 1873 version, rather than the ill-fated revision of 1877 or the once-standard bowdlerization of 1889.

Sewell could command only 20 string players, but they proved quite sufficient, even with the occasional divisions of the violins. The reduced lushness resulting allowed inner parts to come through, and the rest of the orchestra played magnificently. Sewell understands Bruckner’s individual rhetoric, with its stop-and-start pacings and dramatic shifts between tremendous power and great delicacy.

Sewell (below) is indeed a born Bruckner conductor. The second movement in particular I have never heard played so eloquently. (You can hear the second movement of the 1874 edition in the YouTube video at the bottom.) I don’t know if Sewell plans to probe still further into Bruckner’s symphonies, but I am ready to follow him eagerly if he does.

AndrewSewellnew

Far from being put off by the often-maligned music of Bruckner, the very large audience gave the performance a justly deserved standing ovation. This was, I think, a genuine landmark in the WCO’s history.


Classical music: The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra shows its impressive mastery of many musical styles in a concert of Mozart, Castelnuovo-Tedesco and Bruckner that marks again just how superb its music-making has become. Plus, read John W. Barker’s review for Isthmus.

January 19, 2014
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

There are many ways to take the measure of a performing arts group. And by all the important measures you can think of, the concert Friday night in the Overture Center’s Capitol Theater by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below) succeeded superbly.

WCO lobby

Not that we should be surprised. For many seasons now, the WCO, under the programming and baton of its longtime director Andrew Sewell (below) has been turning in higher and higher caliber performances in the Masterworks winter series.

andrewsewell

But this concert may well mark a new highpoint.

Do you like light and easy-listening fare? Then the opening work, Mozart‘s overture to “The Impresario,” proved a perfect curtain-raiser. It possessed the right energy and articulation to make it seem, at least for a few minutes more than the things that the young Mozart (below) could toss off pretty much without thinking.

mozart big

Do you like to hear the orchestra accompany a soloist? Then the Croatian guitarist Ana Vidovic (pronounced VIDO-vich, not vik) proved terrific in an ideal vehicle.

Ana Vidivic

It was the Guitar Concerto No. 1 by the early 20th-century Italian composer Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, whose gift for accessibility, transparent structure and melody may be linked to his composing of movie scores. Take the bittersweet, heartbreaking song, Mozartean in its single-note simplicity, that opens the slow movement (at bottom, in a YouTube video).

Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco

True, Vidovic amplified her guitar And while purists might object to that, from where The Ear sat, the amplification helped maintain balance and kept the orchestra from holding back and the guitarist from forcing her sound. Plus, I am not sure the acoustics of the old refurbished Capitol Theater (below) allow for unamplified playing of the classical guitar. (Check out the microphone in the YouTube video at the bottom that comes from a live recording at a prestigious international guitar competition.)

Capitol Theater

Cutting an attractive figure with her long brunette hair, bright yellow dress and gracious stage presence, Vidovich also offered approving fans a beautiful solo encore, Francisco Tarrega‘s haunting “Remembrances of Alhambra.” The Ear expects, and hopes, we will be hearing her again in a couple of seasons, maybe in a concerto by Antonio Vivaldi or Joaquin Rodrigo.

Ana Vidivic

Do you like music that is “red meat,” as a close friend of The Ear described the Symphony No. 2 in C minor by the late 19th century Romantic Anton Bruckner (below)? Then you wouldn’t have been disappointed either. In fact, this work that lasted over an hour was the only one that brought the audience to its feet -– and in a town renowned for easy standing ovations.

This particular standing ovation, I suspect, was more for the performance than for the demanding music. The audience recognized effort, force and precision when they heard them. The WCO poured itself, heart, soul and body into this work, which was clearly rehearsed long and in careful detail under Sewell’s guidance.

Anton Bruckner 2

The work itself is early and somewhat disjointed, lurching from the dramatic to the lyrical and back again. Clearly Bruckner relies more on rhythm and pulse than on melody. I do not find that he sings all that naturally or all that much. But he certainly does engage you by the way works over the music, and especially by the way he uses the brass and percussion as well as nthe strings and winds. Bruckner sure was sone kind of orchestrator!

Bruckner’s sound is his own, whatever its historical roots or influences. I am reminded of the scratched out scrawls one sees in Beethoven’s notebooks. I suspect Bruckner, an endless reviser, worked the same way.

The deeply religious Bruckner (below) does not seduce you; sensuality is not his strong suit. Instead he forcefully grabs you and compels you to listen. We should hear more of him, and conductor Sewell, pretty much by himself, seems to be making sure that we do. And his efforts are appreciated.

bruckner2

Not for nothing did that the WCO, on a cold and snowy winter night, play to a full house of about 1,200. At this rate, and with this kind of mastery, one hopes that perhaps the WCO can one day justify doing double performances, maybe a matinee. The quality of the WCO’s music-making certainly deserves it. And so do we listeners.

If you want to compare and see what another critic thought, here is a link to the review the John W. Barker did for Isthmus:

http://www.thedailypage.com/daily/article.php?article=41864

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