By Jacob Stockinger
A friend and reviewer for this blog – his specialty is opera but he also is very experienced with the symphonic repertoire — sent in the following opinion piece.
It is being posted in the wake of the announcement by the Madison Symphony Orchestra of its 2017-18 season.
For reference, here is a link to the lineup of the next season’s concerts that was posted yesterday:
By Larry Wells
I received my subscription renewal package for the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson) a couple of weeks ago, and I was struck then by how conservative and prosaic most of the offerings are.
I’ve mentioned my feelings to acquaintances, and one of the prevailing arguments is that they have to fill the seats.
The assumption seems to be that the patrons will only tolerate music written before 1850.
I’m 70 and I grew up with Stravinsky. I can recall the world premieres of Shostakovich’s final three symphonies. I once eagerly awaited recordings of Britten’s latest works. And I heard the first performances of several works by John Adams (below) while living in San Francisco in the 1980s.
If the assumption is that most reliable patrons are in their 70s and 80s, this seems like a dead-end (pardon the pun). There will be no audience in 20 years.
I believe that audiences can tolerate music of the 20th century — look at the glowing reviews of and enthusiastic ovations for last week’s performances of Witold Lutoslawski’s “Concerto for Orchestra’’ — and attracting younger patrons with bolder musical choices seems an economic necessity.
How can the MSO not be commemorating the centenary of Leonard Bernstein (below, in a photo by Jack Mitchell)? The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra is performing several of his pieces in its upcoming season.
On a positive note, I was heartened to see that Benjamin Britten’s “Sinfonia da Requiem” is scheduled next season since that has been on my wish list for years. Likewise, Leos Janacek’s “Glagolitic Mass” is a nice surprise.
However, when will we hear Britten’s “War Requiem,” Bernstein’s “Mass” or “‘Songfest,” a symphony by Walter Piston (below top) or William Schuman (below middle) or Alan Hovhannes (below bottom)?
I’m really tired of going to concerts where only one of the works is of interest to me and the others are historic artifacts. I’d like to see a reversal wherein Brahms, Mozart and Beethoven are brought out occasionally, but the bulk of the music performed comes from the rich source of the 20th century.
What do you think?
Leave word in the COMMENT section.
By Jacob Stockinger
Of course, the maestros – who were asked to name their Top 3 symphonies to generate a master list — might well disagree with the public. One suspects that conductors like BIG, difficult and complex works that challenge them.
Now making such rankings and lists is certainly a subjective experience, some say, silly.
Still, it can be informative as well as fun.
Do you agree with the maestros?
What modern and contemporary symphonies would you name?
What great symphony, from any period, do you think is missing from the Top 10 and would you add?
ALERT: The UW Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of music director UW-Madison Professor James Smith, will perform a FREE concert on this Sunday night at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall. The program features “Mathis der Mahler” by Paul Hindemith and the Symphony No. 1 by Finnish composer Jean Sibelius.
By Jacob Stockinger
The pioneering conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt (below) died this past week.
He was 86. He had been ill, and died only three months after his last public appearance on the concert stage.
He leaves behind a huge recorded legacy, some 560 entries — including many multiple-disc boxes — according to a search at Amazon.com.
Harnoncourt started as a concert-level cellist who was especially well-known for who conducting early music. But he also worked with more modern orchestra groups and soloists in a lot of big mainstream music. (Below, in photo from Getty Images, he is seen conducting in 2012.)
True, it for his Johann Sebastian Bach, his Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and his Ludwig van Beethoven — done with the group he and his wife Alice founded, the Concentus Musicus Wien — that The Ear will most remember him for. They were strong and forceful. No music box Mozart for Harnoncourt!
But Harnoncourt refused to be pigeonholed into smaller Baroque ensembles.
The Ear also likes him with much larger modern groups in mainstream Romantic fare such as the symphonies and concertos by Franz Schubert, Robert Schumann, Johannes Brahms, Anton Bruckner and Antonin Dvorak with the Royal Concertgebouw of Amsterdam, the Berlin Philharmonic and the Vienna Philharmonic. He even conducted Johann Strauss waltzes for the New Year’s Concerto from Vienna.
Harnoncourt often found beauty in unexpected places, in music that we thought had nothing new to say after so many performances and such a long history. But he loved vibrancy and modernity. He did what Ezra Pound advised poets to do: Make it new.
And boy, did Harnoncourt — a thoughtful and passionate advocate — ever make music new, whether it was Baroque, Classical or Romantic! Although he was not a pioneer of new music per se, he always seemed to turn early music or whatever else he touched into new music.
The Ear recalls with relish some of the ways he put percussion and brass forward in early music, giving incredible rhythm and impulse or momentum to it. The same goes for using boy sopranos instead of women in the cantatas, oratorios and passions by Johann Sebastian Bach.
Harnoncourt always seemed less interested in authenticity as a justification than in the results he got from such changes or such different interpretations.
Often Harnoncourt had certain differences he wanted to emphasize. They were not always convincing, but they were usually convincing. And they were always interesting and illuminating, even if you disagreed with them.
In the special memorial YouTube video at the bottom is the Sinfonia from J.S. Bach’s Cantata BWV 156 in a performance by Nikolaus Harnoncourt and the Concentus Musicus of Vienna:
Here are some illuminating obituaries:
From The New York Times:
From the Deceptive Cadence blog on NPR (National Public Radio) by Anastasia Tsioulcas:
From The Guardian in the United Kingdom:
From The Washington Post:
And finally, here is a story from MTV, which called Harnoncourt the “punk genius of classical music,” a description The Ear likes and which he suspects Harnoncourt himself would have liked:
Do you have an observation about Nikolaus Harnoncourt to share?
Is there a specific composer, work or recording of his that you hold special?
Leave word in the COMMENT section.
The Ear wants to hear.
By Jacob Stockinger
Today is a lot of things.
It is the summer solstice — the first day of summer — so a lot of people will be listening to “Summer” section (below in a popular YouTube video with more than 9 million hits) from “The Four Seasons” by Antonio Vivaldi. Or perhaps they will celebrate the coming of summer with other music and other composers?
It is also the FREE citywide and mostly outdoor festival of Make Music Madison. Here is a link to the website, where you can find a search engine that feature genres and performers as well as locations:
So here it is, for you Dad.
ALERT: This afternoon at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall is your last chance to hear what may be the best concert of this season by the Madison Symphony Orchestra. The program features UW-Madison virtuoso pianist Christopher Taylor (below) in Keyboard Concerto No. 4 by J.S. Bach and Piano Concerto No. 1 by Hungarian composer Franz Liszt as well as a “landmark” performance of the Late Romantic Austrian composer Anton Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7.
Here is a rave review by John W. Barker, the dean of Madison’s music critics who writes for Isthmus and for this blog:
By Jacob Stockinger
The Madison Symphony Orchestra’s Principal Organist and Curator Samuel Hutchison will mark a decade of memorable performances on the Overture Concert Organ (below) in a recital on this coming Tuesday, April 14, at 7:30 p.m. in Overture Hall, 201 State Street.
The program will include music by Johann Sebastian Bach, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Alexander Guilmant, Jehan Alain, Charles-Marie Widor and Charles Villiers Stanford. (You can hear one of the Bach works he will play — the Fantasy and Fugue in G Minor, BWV 542, in a YouTube video at the bottom.)
For the specific works on the program and more information, go to:
Hutchison (below) has presented many recitals in the U.S and in Europe in locations that include the Riverside Church, New York City; St. Paul’s Cathedral, London; and Notre Dame, St. Sulpice and St. Étienne-du-Mont, Paris.
He also performed the complete works of J.S. Bach – himself primarily an organist — in a series of 11 weekly recitals for the 300th anniversary of the composer’s birth in 1985.
Student rush tickets are $10 day of show with a valid student ID see http://www.madisonsymphony.org/studentrush).
This concert is sponsored by Friends of the Overture Concert Organ.
For more Overture Concert Organ information, including recital, hymn sings and community visit http://www.madisonsymphony.org/organseason
By Jacob Stockinger
This weekend brings what, for The Ear, is the most interesting program of the season from the Madison Symphony Orchestra. The combination of Baroque, Romantic and Late Romantic music includes the long-awaited performance of a major symphony—the Seventh—by Anton Bruckner (below).
The program, to be performed under the baton of longtime MSO music director John DeMain, includes the Keyboard Concerto No. 4 by Johann Sebastian Bach and the Piano Concerto No. 1 by Franz Liszt. The soloist for both works is the dynamic and versatile Christopher Taylor (below), the resident virtuoso at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music. Here is a link to an interview with him that appeared here earlier this week:
Tickets are $12-$84.
For details, go to https://www.madisonsymphony.org or call the Overture Center Box Office at (608) 258-4141.
Maestro DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad) recently agreed to do an email Q&A about Bruckner with The Ear:
Why has the MSO gone so long without playing a Bruckner symphony? Why did you choose the Symphony No. 7 as the first Bruckner symphony to be performed by the MSO during your tenure?
When I first came to Madison, I was so focused on Mahler that I didn’t think much about Bruckner. Doing so much Mahler in a short season of seven classical concerts, I felt that adding Bruckner to the mix was too much for our audiences from this period.
Now I can focus on other composers from the late Romantic period, most notably Anton Bruckner. The MSO performed Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony (“Romantic”) in the mid-1980s. So I felt the Seventh would be the right symphony to perform after such a long hiatus, and one the audience would have enormous pleasure listening to.
Do you plan to program other Bruckner symphonies in future seasons? What is the next one you would like to conduct?
I’m certainly interested in a reload at the Fourth Symphony as well as the Eighth and Ninth in some future year.
What makes Bruckner great and how does his music differ from that of his contemporaries such as Gustav Mahler? What are his musical signatures?
Bruckner’s music is monumental in structure. The music basks in tonal beauty. His melodic lines are long, and he loves sequences, modulating as he goes along, building to temporary climaxes, until the big ones come along. The slow movement of the Seventh Symphony is achingly beautiful and moving.
At times, he sounds like Mahler (below), and why not? They were both writing at the same time, so musical trends are going to creep into the composers’ writing in any given era. The lilting waltz in the middle of the slow movement and the scherzo are two such examples that call to mind the music of Mahler.
For me, Mahler’s music struggles more, from the depths of human misery to the glories of newfound salvation. Bruckner doesn’t do that. His music is more architectural in its dramatic unfolding, relying on sequential melodic and harmonic tension, and powerful eruptions from the brass sections of the orchestra.
What are the major challenges, technical and interpretive, for you and the MSO players in doing Bruckner?
Bruckner is not as explicit as Mahler or Richard Strauss in his directions to the interpreter. Often a movement will have one, or, at the most, two or three general tempo indications. This leaves enormous leeway for the conductor to interpret Bruckner’s intentions. Listening to a variety of past performances by some of our greatest German and Austrian conductors of the past reveals enormous differences regarding tempo, consistency of tempo and general shaping. My influences will be more recent to reflect the scholarship and musical sensibilities of our time.
The challenge for the orchestra will primarily be endurance, particularly for the brass, as Bruckner the loves repetition during his big climaxes, literally embracing the audience with rapturous sound. Also, the strings are asked to play tremolo a lot, and that can be fatiguing. The effect, however, is wonderful. (Note: You can hear that for yourself in a YouTube video at the bottom that features an excerpt from the Scherzo movement of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7 as performed by Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic.)
The biggest challenge for me will be the shaping of the symphony. Finding the right tempo, and knowing when to depart from it, so the music can breathe, are additional challenges, as well as paying strict attention to the long crescendos, diminuendos and sudden dynamic changes.
I can’t wait to get to work on it. Other aspects of orchestral playing are always present, like the intonation of the Wagner tubas that we will be using and strict adherence to dynamic changes that are bold, frequent and often extreme.
What would you like the audience to pay special attention to in the symphony and your performance of it?
I think the audience should let the power and beauty of this symphony take them on their own personal journey. The Wagnerian and Mahlerian influences, as well as the Germanic nature of the music, should be immediately apparent to the listener and put them on familiar territory.
Is there anything else you would like to say about Bruckner?
I would just like to say to the audience, that if they haven’t had a chance to hear Bruckner live, or much at all, this is the perfect choice and chance to get closer to this major composer of 19th-century German Romanticism.
ALERT: For the latest news from the 10-day tour to Argentina by the Youth Orchestra (below) of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO), here is a link to Day 6:
By Jacob Stockinger
One of the many summer musical events that have become institutions to look forward to are the two concerts by the Isthmus Vocal Ensemble.
Here are the details, from a press release, for this weekend’s sets of two concerts:
ISTHMUS VOCAL ENSEMBLE RETURNS FOR ITS LUCKY 13TH SEASON
MADISON – When conductor Scott MacPherson –- a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music — convened some of Madison’s top singers in 2002, he had no way of knowing that the newly formed Isthmus Vocal Ensemble (below) would begin one of Madison’s most anticipated summer musical traditions. (You can hear a stirring sample at the bottom in a YouTube video of a live performance by the Isthmus Vocal Ensemble.)
Now in its 13th year, the ensemble -– a professional-level choir of approximately 60 singers –- brings new life to over 500 years of choral music. Amazingly, the choir continues to do it all within a brief two-week rehearsal period.
This intense spirit of camaraderie produces a singular and remarkable experience, year after year.
Madison-area audiences have two opportunities to hear the 2014 program.
The traditional Friday night concert will take place at 7:30 p.m. on this Friday, August 1, at Christ Presbyterian Church, 944 East Gorham Street. Tickets are $15 for adults, $10 for students and seniors; children 12 or under get in for free. Tickets can be bought at the door or on-line at http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/802712
The program will be repeated at 3 p.m. on Sunday afternoon, August 3, at Covenant Presbyterian Church, 326 South Segoe Road. General admission tickets are $15 for adults; $10 for students and seniors. Children under 13 get in free. Tickets can be bought at the door or on-line at: http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/802714
This year, the singers will tackle texts in Latin, French (medieval and modern), Russian, German, English and even a form of nonsense language, notated loosely in Finnish, inspired by both Scandinavian folk dance and the Muppets’ Swedish Chef (below).
This year’s performance includes introspective choral masterworks by Henry Purcell, Johannes Brahms, Anton Bruckner and others, exploring the labyrinth of emotions begat by LOSS.
The French chanson “Mille regretz” by the 15th century composer Josquin des Prez (below top) is matched by a modern setting by Andrew Rindfleisch (below bottom). Here is a link top the home website for the Prix de Rome-winning composer Andrew Rindfliesch, who did his bachelor’s degree at UW-Madison:
The choir’s renowned low basses will be on display in Russian works including Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “Tebé poyém (We Hymn Thee)” and Alexander Gretchaninoff’s stunning “Ñe rïdáy Meñé, Máti (Do not lament me, O Mother).”
From the German tradition, Johannes Brahms’ Two Motets, Op. 74 (beginning with “Warum ist das Licht gegeben”), join Anton Bruckner’s classic “Virga Jesse.”
Other composers represented include Jaako Mäntyjärvi, Lionel Daunais, Henry Purcell (below), Imant Raminsh and the great spiritual arranger Moses Hogan.
The Isthmus Vocal Ensemble is led by Scott MacPherson (below), director of choral activities at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio, who trained at the UW-Madison.
The IVE’s members include professional singers and choral directors, professors, lawyers, students and passionate advocates for the arts. The choir has performed by invitation at the North Central Conference of the American Choral Directors Association, commissioned several world premieres and released two albums.
For more information, visit www.isthmusvocalensemble.org or the choir’s page on Facebook.
By Jacob Stockinger
The Madison Symphony Orchestra (below) has just announced its next season for 2014-15.
It strikes The Ear as both deeply interesting and tightly cohesive, a good blend of sure-fire hits and unknown or rarely heard repertoire. It also features some fine local talent and some unusual repertoire, though, unlike the past several seasons, no new or contemporary music is included. After all, this is a business with seats to fill, not some theoretical exercise in programming.
“You can’t have everything, especially when you are playing only eight concerts,” lamented MSO maestro John DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad) when he discussed the new season with me.
But, DeMain added, the MSO is exploring doing another Chicago Symphony Orchestra “Beyond the Score” format concert — like this season’s presentation of Antonin Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony, which sold out — probably in January and probably with more than one performance, if they can find a sponsor to front the $50,000 cost. Then he will decide on what work out of more than 20 possibilities would be right.
Concerts take place in Overture Hall in the Overture Center on Friday nights at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday nights at 8 p.m.; and Sunday afternoons at 2:30 p.m.
The deadline for subscriptions renewals and keeping your current seat is May 8.
Here is the official press release that unveils the new season. The Ear also talked at length one-on-one with MSO music director and conductor John DeMain. Since the announcement is long enough for one post, DeMain’s insightful comments will appear a bit later in another post.
MADISON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA ANNOUNCES 2014-15 SEASON
Maestro John DeMain and the Madison Symphony Orchestra (MSO) will deliver a diverse and exciting season of composers and guest artists for 2014-2015.
Beginning with a September program that focuses on the highly-talented musicians in the orchestra, DeMain will lead the audience through an exhilarating variety of themes and cultures throughout the season. Russia, Scandinavia, and Golden-Age Hollywood are just a few of the sound worlds the MSO will explore, while monumental works central to the orchestra, such as Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, will anchor the year.
A world-class roster of guest artists has been invited to Madison for the season’s performances, including violinist Sarah Chang, pianist Olga Kern, violinist Daniel Hope, pianist Ingrid Fliter and University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music pianist Christopher Taylor.
SEPTEMBER 19, 20 and 21, 2014
“Orchestral Splendor,” John DeMain, Conductor
RICHARD STRAUSS, “Also sprach Zarathustra”
FRANK MARTIN, Concerto for Seven Winds
CAMILLE SAINT-SAËNS, Symphony No. 3 (“Organ” Symphony)
German composer Richard Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra was once among his least performed works, but it is now firmly established as standard orchestral repertoire. The trumpet theme and thunderous timpani entrance (heard in Stanley Kubrick’s epic film “2001: A Space Odyssey”) are unmistakable.
Swiss composer Frank Martin’s Concerto for Seven Winds was written in 1949. It features seven solo instruments, exploring differences in sonority and expression. The virtuosic and conversational writing in these piece results in a playful, sportive character.
French composer Camille Saint-Saëns’ Symphony No. 3, known also as the “Organ” Symphony, draws on elements of both the conventional symphony and the tone poem. Formally unusual in its own time, yet popular from its conception, the work features virtuosic piano and organ passages and a masterful display of the vast colors possible in the symphony orchestra.
OCTOBER 17, 18 and 19, 2014
“The Russian Spirit” with John DeMain, conductor, and Olga Kern (below), piano
PETER ILYICH TCHAIKOVSKY, Suite from “Swan Lake”
SERGEI RACHMANINOFF, Concerto No. 1 for Piano
DMITRI SHOSTAKOVICH, Symphony No. 6
The Suite from “Swan Lake” tells the magical tale of a young prince enchanted by a swan maiden under the moonlight. Peter Tchaikovsky’s charming work utilizes haunting melodies, captivating waltzes, Russian and Hungarian folk themes, and a Spanish dance.
Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Concerto No. 1 for Piano displays a youthful freshness and an assertive, extroverted personality. Indeed, the composer began this work when he was 17! For audience members who delight in keyboard fireworks, this piece will thrill.
Symphony No. 6 by Dmitri Shostakovich, written as war clouds were gathering in Russia, was quite a contrast to Symphony No. 5. Lopsided movement lengths, a lack of obvious theme, and characters of anxiety and desolation reflect the intriguing political situation of the time, as well as Shostakovich’s own remarkably wide emotional compass.
NOVEMBER 7, 8 and 9, 2014
“Scandinavian Wonders” with John DeMain, conductor, and Sarah Chang (below), violin
EDVARD GRIEG, Lyric Suite
JEAN SIBELIUS, Concerto for Violin
CARL NIELSEN, Symphony No. 4 (“The Inextinguishable”)
Over the course of his long career, Edvard Grieg composed 66 Lyric pieces for piano, strongly rooted in the songs, dances, mythology, and spirit of Norway. He selected four of these fragrant and diverse miniatures for an orchestral suite, premiered in 1906.
“…For…10 years it was my dearest wish to become a great virtuoso.” wrote Finnish composer Jean Sibelius in his diary. Unfortunately the composer never reached great proficiency on the instrument, and his Concerto for Violin, awash in Nordic textures, expresses a melancholic farewell to that childhood dream.
As a philosophical guideline to his often raging Symphony No. 4, Danish composer Carl Nielsen said, “Music is life, and, like life, inextinguishable”. Four interlinked movements of frequently agitated energy lead to a climax of ultimate triumph and grand 19th century symphonic tradition.
DECEMBER 5, 6 and 7, 2014
A Madison Symphony Christmas
With John DeMain, conductor; Alyson Cambridge (below), soprano; Harold Meers, tenor; the Madison Symphony Chorus, Beverly Taylor, director; the Madison Youth Choirs, Michael Ross, artistic director; and the Mt. Zion Gospel Choir, Leotha Stanley, director.
John DeMain and the Madison Symphony don their Santa hats for this signature Christmas celebration. This concert is filled with traditions, from caroling in the lobby with the Madison Symphony Chorus to vocal performances by hundreds of members of Madison’s musical community. Christmas classics are interwoven with enchanting new holiday music. The culminating sing-along is Madison’s unofficial start of the holiday season!
FEBRUARY 13, 14 and 15, 2015
“Fliter Plays Chopin” with John DeMain, conductor, and Ingrid Fliter (below), piano
BENJAMIN BRITTEN, Variations on a Theme by Frank Bridge
FREDERIC CHOPIN, Concerto No. 2 for Piano
ROBERT SCHUMANN, Symphony No. 4
Frank Bridge, one of Benjamin Britten’s earliest composition teachers, was certainly responsible for the surpassing clarity, individuality, and discipline in Britten’s most cherished works. Britten’s “Variations” on Bridge’s theme range from passionate to playful, capturing the heartfelt musical admiration of a pupil for his teacher.
From the moment he arrived in Paris at age 21, Frederic Chopin drew the admiration of both the public and esteemed critics, alike. Concerto No. 2 was in fact his first concerto, displaying the composer’s prolific improvisatory and imaginative style.
In composing Symphony No. 4, Robert Schumann departed significantly from the standard Classical form he previously employed, connecting all four movements with recurring musical ideas–a novel proposition at the time.
MARCH 6, 7 and 8, 2015
“Composers in Exile: Creating the Hollywood Sound” with John DeMain, conductor, and Daniel Hope (below), violin
FRANZ WAXMAN, Sinfonietta for Strings and Timpani Ride of the Cossacks from “Taras Bulba”
MIKLÓS RÓZSA, Theme, Variations and Finale; Parade of the Charioteers from “Ben Hur”; Love Theme from “Ben Hur”; Love Theme from “Spellbound”
ERICH KORNGOLD, Concerto for Violin and the Suite from “Captain Blood”
This unique concert features the works of great classical composers before they fled Nazi persecution and also showcases their later brilliant contributions to Hollywood film scores.
Franz Waxman (below) is responsible for a long list of memorable Hollywood scores, including “The Bride of Frankenstein,” “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” and “Rebecca.” His Sinfonietta, written for only strings and timpani, is comprised of three wildly different movements. Waxman also composed the soundtrack for the 1962 epic, “Taras Bulba.” “Ride of the Cossacks” is the exhilarating theme to which Taras and his army gallop to Dubno.
According to Miklos Rózsa (below), his “Theme” was conceived in the manner of a Hungarian folk song, then treated in variations of contrasting feeling, and summarized in a wild and swift finale. The 1934 work earned him his first international success. By the late 1940’s Rózsa was an Oscar-winning, film score composer, and joined the staff of Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer. His thrilling score for the 1959 film “Ben Hur” is one of his lasting achievements, earning him his third and final Oscar.
The Concerto for Violin, written by Erich Wolfgang Korngold (bel0w top) in 1945, perfectly blends the two musical lives of the composer, unapologetic in both its rigorous craftsmanship and its Hollywood charm. “Captain Blood” was a milestone for Korngold, as it was his first fully symphonic movie score. Produced in only three weeks, the music evidences his most professional and imaginative effort.
APRIL 10, 11 and 12, 2015
“Piano Genius” with John DeMain, conductor, and Christopher Taylor (below), piano
JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH, Concerto No. 4 for Clavier
FRANZ LISZT, Concerto No. 1 for Piano
ANTON BRUCKNER, Symphony No. 7
Concerto No. 4 by Johann Sebastian Bach is part of a set of six concertos, dated to 1738. The piece was originally written for harpsichord and is ripe with movement and ornamentation. Bach’s concertos laid a crucial formal and harmonic groundwork for centuries of composition to follow.
Franz Liszt’s Concerto No. 1 for Piano is more than a century-long leap forward in time. Liszt’s Romantic genius is unabashedly on display, with thick orchestration, cadenzas that range from delicate to thundering, and lush harmonies.
Anton Bruckner was a country man, transplanted into bustling cosmopolitan Vienna, and he and his music were unlikely successes with audiences and critics. His music was said to “compel the element of the divine into our human world”.
MAY 8, 9 and 10, 2015
“Ode to Joy” with John DeMain, conductor; concertmaster Naha Greenholtz (below top), violin; Melody Moore, soprano; Gwendolyn Brown, contralto; Eric Barry, tenor; Morris Robinson (below bottom), bass; and the Madison Symphony Chorus, Beverly Taylor, director.
LEONARD BERNSTEIN, “Serenade” (after Plato’s “Symposium”)
LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN, Symphony No. 9 (“Choral”)
Leonard Bernstein’s “Serenade” for violin and orchestra, resulted from a rereading of Plato’s charming dialogue, “The Symposium.” The music dances through a series of inter-related “speakers” at a banquet (Phaedrus, Aristophanes, Erixymachus, Agathon, and Socrates), praising love.
Ludwig van Beethoven’s last and monumental Symphony No. 9 stands apart from his other symphonies by virtue of its humanistic message, enormous scale and organic unity of design. The mammoth fourth movement, operating like a symphony in miniature, is like nothing else in symphonic music. Four soloists, full chorus, the entire orchestra, and the famous “Ode to Joy” theme will conclude the Madison Symphony Orchestra’s season. (You can hear a populist flash mob version of the “Ode to Joy” at the bottom in a popular YouTube video that had almost 4-1/2 million hits.)
Single tickets for individual concerts have increased slightly and are $16 to $84 each, and go on sale Aug. 16. They are available at www.madisonsymphony.org/singletickets and through the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street or call the Box Office at (608) 258-4141.
New subscribers can receive savings up to 50%. For more information and to subscribe, visit www.madisonsymphony.org/newsub or call (608) 257-3734.
Groups of 15 or more can save 25% by calling the MSO office at (608) 257-3734. For more information visit, www.madisonsymphony.org/groups
Discounted seats are subject to availability, and discounts may not be combined.
You can also check out the official MSO website announcement of the new season by visiting:
The Madison Symphony Orchestra engages audiences of all ages and backgrounds in live classical music through a full season of concerts with established and emerging soloists of international renown, an organ series that includes free concerts, and widely respected education and community engagement programs. Find more information at www.madisonsymphony.org.
ALERT: Today at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall of the Overture Center is the final performance of the all-Beethoven concert by the Madison Symphony Orchestra under John DeMain. It features pianist Yefim Bronfman (below) in TWO piano concertos (Nos. 2 and 5 “The Emperor”) plus the Symphony No. 1 and “The Creatures of Prometheus” Overture. Here are links to two rave reviews of the concert by Madison Magazine critic and blogger Greg Hettmansberger and by Isthmus critic John W. Barker, who also guest blogs for The Ear. It sure sounds like a NOT-TO-BE-MISSED concert. See you there!
By Jacob Stockinger
It has been a very busy time musically in Madison, with a lot of previews to post, which often supplant reviews since The Ear thinks previews are more useful than reviews to most listeners and performers. And this coming week and weekend are even worse. So much music, and so little space!
But here are some “outdated” capsule reviews, impressions really, with accompanying afterthoughts that come to The Ear as he listened and later thought about what he had heard:
MADISON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA AND TRUMPETER TINE THING HELSETH
It seemed a curious, even odd theme for a Valentine’s Day program. But BRASS – not romantic love — marked the Valentine’s Day weekend performances by the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below), although ending with the “Rosenkavalier” suite by Richard Strauss did indeed prove an inspired choice to combine brass and love. Plus by all accounts, the concert sold very well. It sure got standing ovations. In short, it may have seemed odd, but it worked.
The “Doctor Atomic” Symphony by the contemporary American composer John Adams (below), who put the instrumental work together from his own opera score, was powerful, and also fit the brass bill, with great solos by MSO trumpeter John Aley, and was impressive to hear –- though also hardly romantic.
Given conductor John DeMain (below) and his stupendous taste and talent for choosing great singers who are also affordable, I kept thinking: How I would like to have heard some great singers perform familiar and unknown love arias from operas by Mozart, Rossini, Verdi, Puccini, Saint-Saens, even Wagner. Now those would be symphony tickets to throw in with a box of chocolates and a bouquet of roses. But The Ear has been informed that such concerts often do not sell well and might also be seen as competing with the local opera company.
All that said, I thought that the guest soloist, Norwegian trumpeter Tine Thing Helseth (below), proved an inspired, if unexpected, choice. She showed an uncanny power for playing softly. Brass instruments are not easy to control with little breath and with soft tone. But she did both beautifully in two concertos by Franz Joseph Haydn and Alexander Arutiunian. She clearly has the lung power to blow down the Walls of Jericho. But what impressed and seduced me was her quietness, which nonetheless possessed rich tone and unwavering pitch. That is a rare talent, and one to be cherished — and brought back to Madison!
Maestro Andrew Sewell (below) has a never-failing knack of finding terrific music that has been overlooked but is actually very good, if not revolutionary or pioneering.
Sure, at his last concert I too, like the rest of the audience, loved what he did with the Jupiter Symphony of Mozart –- not too hectic, clear voicing, propulsive energy even with all the repeats. And the talented and congenial soloist Joshua Roman proved an irresistible highlight in Haydn’s Cello Concerto in D major.
But the real surprise of the night was the 20th-century Concerto Grosso by Vittorio Giannini (below), who taught composition at the Juilliard School and the Manhattan School of Music and then established the North Carolina School of the Arts. What a discovery! I want to hear more by this guy.
And Sewell will soon unwrap another surprise this week –- and I expect, as usual, that it will be modern music that is accessible and tuneful, not R&D Music (that’s short research and development) that sounds like jet noise or broken plumbing. Could that help explain why he gets full houses?
Sewell and the WCO will probably do so again THIS COMING FRIDAY NIGHT at 8 p.m. in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center. That is when he and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra combine the famous famously listenable and lovely Violin Concerto (with guest soloist Karina Canellakis) by Felix Mendelssohn and Franz Joseph Haydn’s “Clock” Symphony (Symphony No. 101 of his 104 symphonies) with “Elements” by American composer Michael McLean (below, and with a sample of “Elements” in a YouTube video at the bottom). Sounds like another MUST-HEAR concert to The Ear.
PRO ARTE QUARTET
Well, the headlines and chit-chat went rightfully to the world premiere of Belgian composer Benoit Mernier’s commissioned String Quartet No. 3, which sounded fiendishly difficult and seemed based largely on technical stuff like trills, tremolos and glissandos instead of themes and infectious rhythms. And the Pro Arte Quartet, artists-in-residence at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music since 1940 and celebration its centennial, played it with impressive aplomb and apparent ease.
“Do you like the music?” someone asked me right after the performance.
I think the better question is: “Does the music like me?”
Think about it: What is the composer’s responsibility to you the listener, and what is your responsibility to the composer (Mernier, below), especially if he seems to ignore you?
I also loved the rarely heard and beautifully performed viola quintet by Anton Bruckner and particularly the contrasts between Sally Chisholm’s viola and Samuel Rhodes’ viola (the two are below side-by-side). If you liked the combination –- and what is not to like with the darker hued voice of the viola –- be sure to try the viola quintets by Mozart and Brahms, which I would also like to hear the Pro Arte do more of.
But for old-fashioned me, the star of the evening was the Haydn Quartet, Op. 20, No. 4. It just cleaned out your ears and was proof again that, at its best, the genre is indeed still as it was described by Haydn himself when pretty much invented in the 18th century: A conversation of equals. And did the Pro Arte ever play it with accuracy, clarity and texture. It sparkled like a diamond. The string quartet may have evolved, changed or morphed over the centuries, but it has simply not gotten any better than Haydn.
So: Is there any chance that we night get of a multi-year Haydn cycle by the Pro Arte, which decades ago in another avatar or configuration of players started to record the complete Haydn quartets in the famous Abbey Road studio in London for RCA. They have done Beethoven and Shostakovich cycles. What about Papa Haydn? And if not a complete cycle of the 68 or so quartets, how about a fairly comprehensive survey or at least a very large sampler of Haydn’s early, middle and late styles?
PIANIST CHRISTOPHER TAYLOR
What more can you say about the award-winning, audience-approved star talent pianist Christopher Taylor (below) who teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music and concertizes around the world, and his stunning solo recital this year?
I loved the “War” Sonata No. 6 by Sergei Prokofiev, a great piece that he performed greatly with both riveting energy and heartbreaking lyricism. I also loved the encore — Scott Joplin’s “Pineapple Rag” –- as a contrast and change of pace.
But I have to be honest: I have heard enough of the Liszt piano transcriptions of Beethoven’s symphonies. Trust the genuine original! Accept no substitutes!
The next day I listened to a recording of the same work by a real orchestra — the Gewandhaus Orchestra of Leipzig under conductor Riccardo Chailly. What a difference when the “Eroica” is played with real brass countering, with jarring dissonance, real strings; when it is real tympani drumbeats rather than bass tremolos on the piano. Ludwig (below) simply had more of IT – whatever musical genius is — than Franz.
The real “Eroica” Symphony doesn’t — and shouldn’t — sound so much like a Hungarian Rhapsody or a Transcendental Etude. In their day, these transcriptions served a purpose and they stretched the resources of the piano, or at least, of pianists. Now, they strike The Ear as precious, more of a sideshow of amazing and ingenious pianism and not much little else aside from some strokes of minor genius here and there by the Paganini of the Piano.
From one of those transcriptions I learned something and I enjoyed it. But now that makes three down (symphonies numbers 3, 4 and 5) for Taylor. I, for one, sure hope we don’t have the other six to go. How much more I would have preferred to hear this supremely talented pianist and gifted musician in some serious and original piano repertoire –- maybe a late Schubert sonata, or a Bach partita, or a Chopin ballade, or a Schumann cycle. I want to hear Christopher Taylor in something that puts depth over display, substance over style.
Am I alone in that wish?
MIDDLETON COMMUNITY ORCHESTRA
Guest reviewer John W. Barker covered this recent concert of the mostly amateur Middleton Community Orchestra (below), which featured music by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Johannes Brahms and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, thoughtfully and thoroughly for this blog.
All I would add is a lesson that every teacher knows: Students with lesser abilities rise to meet high expectations. That is why symphony orchestras and chamber orchestras should book the best soloists they can get and afford: The Ear is convinced that the level of playing and performing usually rises to match the soloist and fosters cohesion.
With the MCO, it was two lifelong friends and award-winning, UW-Madison trained string players -– violinist Eleanor Bartsch and violist Daniel Kim (below) who soloed and who seemed in complete synch, down to the timing of their trills, during Mozart’s sublime Sinfonia Concertante.
Their playing was superb, and the amateur orchestra rose to meet them and give them the beautiful support they deserved. And with Mozart there is no place to hide, so flaws or mistakes are quickly revealed.
Well, now it is on to another busy week of concerts.
Where, I wonder, will the music lead The Ear this time?
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 every other Sunday morning on WORT FM 89.9 FM. He serves on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.
By John W. Barker
This past week witnessed the fifth in the projected six events in the centennial celebration for the Pro Arte Quartet (below, in a photo by Rick Langer; event photos are by The Ear), which has served as artists-in-residence at the University of Wisconsin-Madison since 1940, when its members were stranded here by World War II and Adolf Hitler’s Nazi invasion of their homeland Belgium. For me, it proved the most satisfying centennial event yet.
Here full disclosure is necessary. I am a member of the committee that has been planning all of these celebrations, under the diligent leadership of Sarah Schaffer. Accordingly, the piece that follows has more of a personal reminiscence than an objective distance.
Each of the events is focused on a composer who has been commissioned to write a piece for the Pro Arte Quartet. The first four resulting works were given their premieres, under the supervision of the individual composers, during the course of the 2011-12 season. (The PAQ performances of these four works have now appeared in a 2-CD set from the Albany label.) The fifth premiere had to be deferred from last autumn, and finally came about on Saturday night in Mills Hall.
Whereas the previous four composers were all Americans, it was felt that the remaining ones should have Belgian connections, in view of the initial PAQ’s origins in that country. After much scouting, the choice was given to Benoit Mernier (below, in a photo by Bernard Coutant), who is a member of the Royal Academy of Belgium.
Born in 1964, Mernier has rapidly emerged as one of the pre-eminent composers in Belgium today, perhaps the leading one. The hallmark of his output as a composer is his range and versatility. He has composed three operas — a scene of his opera “La Dispute,” based on a play by Pierre de Marivaux, is in a YouTube video at bottom — and he says he loves writing for voices in settings of poetry. He has also written widely for choral, chamber and orchestral media. He studied both organ and harpsichord, and is himself an accomplished performing organist, composing extensively for the instrument.
His commission, funded by both the Pro Arte Quartet and the Serge Koussevitzky Music Foundation, has resulted in his String Quartet No. 3, completed last year. He arrived in Madison early last week, flying directly from Belgium, to supervise the work’s premiere. He established an immediate and cordial rapport with his hosts here. He had warned that his command of English was poor, but he soon disproved that in quite workable facility (with occasional help from local Francophones).
Above all, he plunged into work with the PAQ with zest. The group had been working on his score for weeks before, by contrast with some groups with which he has worked, groups still struggling to master his music. As a result, our four players were fully in command of the quartet, so that Mernier (below) could move beyond technical drilling and concentrate on their expression of his ideas.
I sat in on a three-hour “public” rehearsal in Mills Hall on Thursday, Feb. 27, and was fascinated to see Mernier bustle about in constant consultation with the players as he polished their mastery of the work. Lithe, energetic, spontaneous, he is a bundle of energy and insight.
In addition, he has an open, unforced, and vivacious personality that makes working with him a great delight. In numerous social and planning contacts, he was bubbly, engaged company. Indeed, my perception was that he conveyed to all of us not only his music but also that very outgoing personality itself
Mernier had a chance to go along with the quartet members for an “out-of-town tryout”, a so-called “pre-premiere” of his quartet as part of a full concert in Prairie du Sac last Friday evening. Then, the next evening its program was given for the official world premiere.
It was a truly rich menu, beginning with Haydn’s early Quartet, Op. 20, No. 4, a little microcosm all its own; then came the new Mernier Quartet; and, finally, Anton Bruckner’s expansive String Quintet.
So, how was the new Mernier work? Well, it seems perhaps thorny music at first encounter, although it did receive a prolonged standing ovation (below, with members of the quartet and the composer standing second from right ). Long gone are traditional structural forms and lush melodies. But it is a very thoughtfully and skillfully composed piece of about 25 minutes in length. It is cast in nine movements of varying length, interrelated in ideas and ultimately cohering into a comprehensive structure.
Before the concert, in a “conversation” onstage (below, which—full disclosure again — I moderated) Mernier discussed the sonic elements, the “signposts” that he used recurrently in putting together the whole piece.
Met honestly, the score has a logic and even power to it that one might compare to Bela Bartók’s quartets — and we have all caught up with those by now, haven’t we? I had worried that the latest blizzard that day would result in an empty house. But Mills was packed with people, and they gave an enthusiastic, and justified, standing ovation to Mernier and the PAQ players.
For my part, I think I have found this Mernier Quartet the most musically satisfying of all the commissioned works presented so far.
The concert program, minus the Haydn, was repeated the following day at the midday presentation of “Sunday Afternoon Live From the Chazen,” a concert open to the public and broadcast live on Wisconsin Public Radio.
But, if as an epilogue, I must point out the performance of the work by Bruckner (below) was an event in itself. This involves one of only two substantial chamber works composed by Bruckner, better known for massive and grandly architectural symphonies for large orchestra.
Completed in 1879, between his Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, this is an extensive (one should not say “sprawling”) work, calling for a second viola as the fifth instrument. Composed in the same format and style as symphonic works of Bruckner (below), this score might almost be understood as the blueprint for a kind of mini-symphony by the composer.
The performance by the PAQ, their first address to it, was for me another reminder of the value of experiencing in a “live performance” a work I have known only from recordings.
Being able to watch the players in action helps to understand the writing. I realized for the first time, for example, just how much of a prominent role is accorded to the first viola in the string texture here. And in this performance, that role was vividly fulfilled by a guest player, Samuel Rhodes (below) of the Juilliard School , who recently retired from the Juilliard String Quartet and remains one of the country’s leading violists, and a good friend of many of the PAQ players.
Also, I could observe clearly how Bruckner, in this chamber writing, treated the two violins and the two violas (below, Sally Chisholm on the left and Samuel Rhodes on the right) as distinct entities, variously using them in either interplay or opposition, while the cello receded to pizzicato rhythms, or dropped out entirely. Such are the revelations that direct personal experience of performances allow!
In all, then, a truly wonderful event this centennial concert proved to be a truly wonderful event. And there is still one more, with the world premiere of a Clarinet Quintet by French-Canadian composer Pierre Jalbert (below) next September, with another delightful pre-concert dinner (below) and art tour in the new wing of the Chazen Museum of Art scheduled to take place.