The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra turns in a two-fold triumph with a Madison’s first live Bruckner symphony and a darkly elegant Mozart piano concerto with Shai Wosner as soloist. Moreover, the WCO plans on another Bruckner symphony (No. 2) next season.

March 25, 2013

By Jacob Stockinger

Is this a case of saving the best for last (or next to last) ?

Probably not, as most performing groups want to put their best foot forward all season long.

But now there can be no doubting that the smaller David took on the bigger Goliath (the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra vs. the Madison Symphony Orchestra, though they are really friendly competitors, not enemies) for the honor of presenting live Bruckner symphonies in Madison first – and won. Moreover, the ambitious and accomplished WCO has programmed Bruckner’s Symphony No. 2 for next season while the MSO has once again taken a pass.

So some history was made, and much beauty was created at last Friday night’s concert in the Overture Center‘s Capitol Theater by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below top) under its longtime music director and conductor Andrew Sewell (below bottom).

WCO lobby


The evening started off with the Israeli-born and now New York-based pianist Shai Wosner (below) once again substituting for a missing Anne-Marie McDermott in Mozart’s dark and dramatic masterwork the Piano Concerto No. 24 in C Minor. K. 491.

Wosner is a master of clarity, elegance and rounded tone with a great gift for playing quietly, with understatement.  His scales remain strings of individual pearls — not a choker. Trained as a composer, Wosner also played his own cadenzas in the first and last movements, and provided his own variations and ornamentation in the second movement when the theme gets repeated five times.

Shai Wosner Photo: Marco Borggreve

Most of all, Wosner displayed in abundance what great Mozart concertos – which are  difficult to bring off because of their transparency – require. Both Wosner and the WCO played the concerto as chamber music, holding dialogues with the various sections of the chamber orchestra.

The effect was magical and moving. It was an enthralling performance, and makes one hope to hear more of the Wosner-Sewell partnership in more Mozart piano concertos as well as other repertoire. There are, after all, 27 piano concertos by Mozart, of which at least 12 or 18 are undeniable masterpieces. And Wosner told The Ear that is looking into recording piano concertos by Haydn and Ligeti. Madison could be a test run.

The audience appreciated the Mozart performance so much that they elicited from Wosner a perfect encore: a Schubert miniature, the haunting “Hungarian Melody,” which Wosner plays on his all-Schubert CD for the Onyx label. (Below is a YouTube video with Andras Schiff playing part of it.) The audience was hushed and spellbound by the entrancing beauty played so subtly, so fluidly and so warmly.

It sure makes one hope that someone – perhaps the Wisconsin Union Theater or Farley’s House of Pianos – brings Shai Wosner back for a solo recital.

Then, after intermission, came the historic Bruckner.

This is officially his “Zero” or “Nullte” Symphony, as good a place as any to start a Bruckner quest. And once again the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and Sewell showed their respective talents in this long and difficult, if early, score by the deeply religious and solitary Austrian Bruckner (below):

Anton Bruckner 2

All the sections  — strings, brass, winds, percussion — performed superbly with sharp attacks and even sharper silences.

To be clear: This is certainly not Bruckner’s greatest symphonic work. But it is well worth playing and hearing, and it proved a wonderful first introduction to hearing live Bruckner symphonies in Madison.

I loved especially the first movement, with its haunting violin opening that made one wonder if the sophisticated movie composer and orchestrator Bernard Hermann had listened to it or had it in mind while he was writing the edgy score for Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho.”

Compare the opening minutes of the two works with the sharp, jagged violins and judge for yourselves:

The slow movement proved lovely, and the Scherzo, which looks forward and is perhaps the most Brucknerian movement, proved by turns forcefully dramatic and songfully lyrical.

All in all, this was one of the finest and most impressive pairings – of both the programming and the performances – of this season. It was on par with the outstanding concert of an early Mozart Violin Concerto and a late Shostakovich symphony that the Madison Symphony Orchestra performed only two weeks ago. Are we in Madison not lucky? One can only hope for more concerts like these two.

Of course, we are all critics. And you should know that The Ear is not alone is his very positive regard for the WCO concert with Wosner and Bruckner.

Here, for example, is the review by John W. Barker, a frequent guest blogger for this blog, that appeared in Isthmus and briefly explores the contrasts between Bruckner and Mahler, who are so often mentioned together:

 And here is a review by Greg Hettmansberger for the “Classically Speaking” blog he writes for Madison Magazine:

Classical music: The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and pianist Shai Wosner (substituting for Anne-Marie McDermott) offer a MUST-HEAR concert of Mozart and Bruckner this Friday night. Plus, guitarist Joseph Spoelstra and singer Alyssa Anderson perform the “Dream Songs Project” this Friday night.

March 21, 2013
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REMINDER: Today is the 328th birthday of J.S. Bach (below) and between 5 a.m. and 8 a.m. this morning WORT 89.9 FM will mark the occasion by airing local performers playing Bach works. I posted about this yesterday. Here is a link:


ALERT: Guitarist Joseph Spoelstra and mezzo-soprano Alyssa Anderson (below) will perform the acclaimed “Dream Songs Project” this Friday night at 7:30 p.m. at the First Unitarian Society, 900 University Bay Drive. The “We the People” program includes Benjamin Britten’s inventive arrangements of British Folksongs for voice and guitar; three of Brahms’ German Folksongs; Four French Folksongs by Hungarian Matyas Seiber; the very popular arrangements of Brazilian Folksongs by Laurindo Almeida; and as new arrangements of Swedish, and American folksongs.  Tickets: $10-$15 at the door or at For more information about the project, visit:

Dream Song Project Jospeh Spoelstra and Alyssa Anderson

By Jacob Stockinger

Madison has been waiting a long time to hear the late Romanticism of Austrian composer Anton Bruckner (below in a photo from 1894).

Anton Bruckner in 1894

The Madison Symphony Orchestra and its maestro John DeMain have repeatedly promised that it would soon do one of the big symphonies, especially now that the playing of the ensemble has reached a high enough level to surmount the technical challenges of Bruckner’s scores and do justice to the music.

But just this past week, the MSO announced its next season – and Bruckner was once again nowhere to be found.

Well, if you need consolation perhaps you should consider attending the concert by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below top) this Friday night at 8 p.m. in the Overture Center’s Capitol Theater. The WCO and music director-conductor Andrew Sewell, it seems, believe they are up to the challenge.

Tickets are $15-$65. Call the Overture Center box office at (608) 258-4141. Here is a link to WCO website where you can more out more information about the program, the performers and tickets:

WCO lobby

Only two works make up the program “Viennese Virtuosi.” But both works promise to be memorable.

The concert’s first half is made up of Mozart’s dramatic and stirring Piano Concerto No. 24 in C Minor, K. 491. It is one of the two great piano concertos (the other, more popular one is in D minor, K. 466) that Mozart composed in darker minor keys.

It is also the piano concerto that the young piano virtuoso and composer Ludwig van Beethoven heard and sop impressed him that he remarked something to effect, “We shall not hear its like again.”

And indeed, we probably didn’t until Beethoven’s own Piano Concerto in C minor, OP. 37, the third of his five published piano concertos, appeared.

The soloist in the Mozart WAS to be Anne-Marie McDermott (below), an extremely talented, distinguished and much honored pianist as well as an Artist Member of the famed Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. (McDermott, who made her debut at 12, has received, among many honors, an Avery Fisher Career grant and the prestigious Andrew Wolf Chamber Music Award.)

But McDermott had to cancel at the last minute because of a family emergency. She will be replaced by the Israeli-born, New York-based pianist Shai Wosner (below), who performed the Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 4 beautifully with the WCO two years ago — that time also as a substitute for McDermott who then had a scheduling conflict. 

This time Wosner will play the same great Mozart concerto that was originally programmed. It will be interesting to hear his Mozart.  Wosner has made terrific recordings of Brahms and Schoenberg along with an all-Schubert CD.

Here is a link to his website:

And here is a link to a previous post about his last appearance with the WCO:

Shai Wosner Photo: Marco Borggreve

The second half will be devoted to Anton Bruckner’s Symphony No. 0 (called “Die Nullte”) in D minor. (Apparently there are major problems with the numbering and publishing and composing chronologies of Bruckner’s symphonies, which is how we end up a ZERO.)

But his ZERO is definitely NOT the same as nothing. It is really more of Symphony 1-1/2, coming between No.1 and No. 2, but retracted for revisions and never performed in the composer’s lifetime.

For more information about Bruckner (below), his life and his problematical work, here is a link to the Wikipedia entry:

Anton Bruckner 2

However the symphony is labeled, one thing is clear. The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and its music director Andrew Swell have beaten the older, larger and bigger Madison Symphony Orchestra to offering orchestral music by Bruckner (below). True, the UW Choral Union and UW Symphony Orchestra did the deeply religious Bruckner’s “Te Deum” for chorus and orchestra many years ago.


Bruckner’s combining of modernism and polyphony, his radically long and repetitious and, yes, sometimes ponderous and pompous aesthetic that used unorthodox pre-modern harmonies, is not to everyone’s liking. But when it works, I have found, it works wonderfully -– which may be why his now popular contemporary Gustav Mahler (below), who shared a propensity for length and complex inventiveness, called Bruckner “half-simpleton and half-God.”

Gustav Mahler big

I love the Symphony No. 4 “Romantic” with its great brass work:

The rousing and almost scary Scherzo from the incomplete Symphony No. 9 (also in D minor) was used to terrific effect in the soundtrack to “Saraband,” the last movie by the great Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman.

In any case, this strikes The Ear as close to perfect programming, much the way that recently John DeMain and the MSO mixed a Mozart violin concerto with a Shostakovich symphony. The two minor key works should, across the centuries, resonate and echo with each other.

Plus, increasingly, Bruckner’s earlier symphonies — more Schubert-like in texture and orchestration than the bigger and bolder later works — than are being played by chamber orchestras and not only full-blown symphony orchestras. (Hear the first movement of the Bruckner Symphony No. 0 in D minor, with Sir George Solti conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, in the YouTube video at bottom. Nice and not so intimidating, nicht wahr?)


Classical music: One musician’s cancellation can make another musician’s career. Just ask conductors Leonard Bernstein, Fabio Luisi and Michael Tilson Thomas; pianists Lang-Lang, Yuja Wang, Jonathan Biss and Jeremy Denk; and singer Renee Fleming among many others.

April 28, 2012

By Jacob Stockinger

We are all disappointed when we buy a ticket to hear a well-known musician perform a great piece of music, only to find out that the artist is “indisposed” and has cancelled.

In some cases, of course, it can be downright ludicrous.

For example, whenever pianist Martha Argerich (below) – who was notorious for cancelling concerts – used to release a schedule of her upcoming concerts for the next seasons, some waggish critics would joke about her releasing her list of upcoming cancellations for the next season.

Sometimes it is something as simple as a scheduling conflict. That is how the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra gave us the local debut of the terrific young Israeli-American pianist Shai Wosner (below) last spring when Anne Marie McDermott had to cancel. (She will perform Mozart’s Piano Concerto in C Minor with the WCO next March.)

But most often, I suspect it is genuine. Still, there is an upside when a performer becomes ill or sick or otherwise indisposed.

It often marks the beginning of another stellar career and gives a break to a promising artist who needs a break to advance their career or have a major debut. Just ask conductors Leonard Bernstein, Michael Tilson Thomas and Fabio Luisi; pianists Lang-Lang, Yuja Wang, Jonathan Boss and Jeremy Denk; and superstar singer Renee Fleming among many others who got their big break through someone else’s illness.

In fact, you have to wonder if sometimes the famous artist who cancelled wasn’t really sick at all but instead cancelled deliberately to give a younger talented colleague they admired a break in such a competitive profession. Why not? I say. Whatever works.

For example, that’s how soprano Renee Fleming (below) got to make her Metropolitan Opera debut a year earlier than scheduled, much like Leonard Bernstein with the New York Philharmonic. And there are many such stories and examples. Just look up musicians’ biographies in Wikipedia and check out their early careers.

Here is a link to a fine in-depth story, which also talks about repertoire complications and how the right substitutes are found, in the Wall Street Journal about that phenomenon:

Have you ever heard a great musician by chance and because he or she was a substitute for the scheduled “indisposed”performer who had to cancel?

Who was it and what did you think?

The Ear wants to hear.

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