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 Madison Opera stages Bizet’s “Carmen” this Friday night and Sunday afternoon

October 31, 2017
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

The Madison Opera will perform Georges Bizet’s “Carmen” this Friday night, Nov. 3, at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon, Nov. 5, at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall at the Overture Center, 201 State Street. (Below is the set from the Lyric Opera of Kansas City that is being used for the production.)

Tickets are $18-$130. (See below for details.)

With some of the most famous music in opera, Bizet’s passionate work is a vivid story of love, jealousy and betrayal.

Set in 19th-century Seville, Spain, the opera follows a gypsy determined to live life on her own terms – whatever her fate may be.

On a break from her shift at the cigarette factory, Carmen tosses a flower at a corporal named Don José, who ignores her advances. Only after Carmen is arrested and placed in José’s custody does he begin to fall for her, breaking the law and abandoning his hometown sweetheart.

What follows is a torrid love affair of passion, agonizing rage, and fanatical desire that will change their lives forever.

“Carmen is the reason I run an opera company,” says Kathryn Smith, Madison Opera’s general director (below, in a photo by James Gill).  “I fell in love with opera as a teenager in the children’s chorus of a ‘Carmen’ production, as its incredible score and intense story hooked me immediately – not to mention the sheer excitement of having principal artists, chorus, children’s chorus, dancers, and orchestra all come together to create this astonishing world.  I am so delighted to produce ‘Carmen’ in Madison, with this spectacular cast and production team.”

At the premiere of “Carmen” in Paris on March 3, 1875, audiences were shocked at its characters’ apparent lack of morality and virtue, and critics derided Bizet’s music. (You can hear the ever-popular Toreador Song in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Three months after the opera’s premiere, Bizet died of heart disease. He was only 36 years old and would never know that his “flop” of an opera would become a global sensation over the next two centuries.

“Carmen was the first opera I saw as a young teenager,” remembers Madison Opera’s artistic director John DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad). “It should be everyone’s first opera. It is the perfect blend of musical theater and grand opera, with thrilling choruses, great tunes from start to finish, and a compelling story of ill-fated love. And then there is Carmen herself, one of the most alluring characters of all time. I love conducting this great opera, which is so gorgeously orchestrated.”

Madison Opera’s cast features both returning artists and debuts. Making her debut in the title role is Aleks Romano (below), a rising young singer whom Opera News recently praised for her “attractively smoky mezzo-soprano.”

Acclaimed tenor Sean Panikkar (below) makes his role debut as Don José. He debuted with Madison Opera at Opera in the Park 2014, but this is his first mainstage appearance with the company.Also returning to Madison Opera are Cecilia Violetta López (below top) as José’s hometown sweetheart Micaëla and Corey Crider (below bottom) as the toreador Escamillo. López debuted at this past summer’s Opera in the Park; Crider sang the title role in “Sweeney Todd” with Madison Opera in 2015.

Thomas Forde (below), who most recently sang Luther/Crespel in Madison Opera’s “The Tales of Hoffman,” returns to play José’s commanding officer, Zuniga.

Studio artists Anna Polum and Megan Le Romero play Carmen’s friends Frasquita and Mercedes. Studio Artist Benjamin Liupaogo and Wisconsin native Erik Earl Larson play the smugglers, Remendado and Dancaïre. Rounding out the cast is Charles Eaton in his debut as Morales. (Many have ties to the opera program at the UW-Madison.)

Directing this traditional staging is E. Loren Meeker (below) in her first production for Madison Opera. Meeker has directed at opera companies around the United States, including Lyric Opera of Chicago, Washington National Opera, the Glimmerglass Festival and Wolf Trap Opera.

“A piece like Carmen captures our imagination and begs to be re-told over the centuries because the characters speak to the deepest and most honest parts of human nature,” says Meeker.  “Today we grapple with love, lust, jealousy, morality, honor, and freedom just as much as people did when this opera premiered in 1875.

“At Madison Opera we have a brilliant cast who is willing to unravel the mystery of these characters with me scene by scene – making each choice onstage new, fresh, and true to the characters and arch of the story.

“Bringing this vivid world to life set to some of the most rich and well known music in the operatic canon, plus the fun of working with dancers, a fight director, the Madison Youth Choir, and a large adult chorus challenges me and inspires me all at the same time. The energy created in the performance, the brilliant music sung by such amazing artists, makes this classic opera worth seeing again and again and again.”

Carmen is a truly grand opera and features the Madison Opera Chorus, led by chorusmaster Anthony Cao (below); members of the Madison Youth Choirs; the Madison Symphony Orchestra; and dancers from Tania Tandias Flamenco and Spanish Dance.

For more information about the cast, go to:

http://www.madisonopera.org/performances-2017-2018/carmen/cast/

For informative and entertaining Q&As with the cast members, go to the Madison Opera’s Blogspot:

http://madisonopera.blogspot.com

For tickets, call the Overture Center box office at (608) 258-4141 or go to:

http://www.overture.org/events/madison-opera


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