The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: American composer Stephen Paulus dies at 65. The Festival Choir of Madison performed many world premieres by him and will perform the All-Night Vigil by Tchaikovsky this coming Saturday night.

October 27, 2014

By Jacob Stockinger

Last week brought sad news.

The prolific American composer Stephen Paulus, who lived and worked in St. Paul, Minnesota, died last week at 65. He died of complications from a stroke he suffered last year, according to his son.

Stephen Paulus 1

Paulus was probably best known to Madison-area residents for the many works and several compositions that the Festival Choir of Madison commissioned and performed.

And talk about timing.

The Festival Choir of Madison (below) will open its new season by performing the All-Night Vigil of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky –- NOT the more famous work with the same name by Sergei Rachmaninoff –- on this coming Saturday night, November 1, at 7:30 p.m. at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Day Drive, on Madison’s near west side.

Festival Choir of Madison 2013

One wonders if the group will dedicate the performance to the memory of Paulus, whose music proved both modern and accessible, and often seemed Midwestern in that Aaron Copland kind of way.

Written nearly 35 years before the more famous Vespers by Sergei Rachmaninoff, the All-Night Vigil by Tchaikovsky (below) was written in an attempt to ensure that church music in Russia retained a uniquely Russian flavor. (You can hear a sample of the Tchaikovsky work in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

young tchaikovsky

The work, containing settings from three “overnight” canonical hours (Vespers, Matins and First Hour), is a beautiful representation of the Russian liturgical repertoire.

A pre-concert lecture begins at 6:30 p.m.

Tickets are $15 for the general public; $12 for seniors; and $9 for students.

Here is a link with information and reservations:

And here is more about Stephen Paulus (below), whom The Ear interviewed many years ago when he was working for The Capital Times. He was the model of a cordial and gracious artist who cared deeply about the public’s ability to appreciate his work.

Stephen Paulus 2

Here is an obituary that appeared in The New York Times:

And here is a story that appeared on Minneapolis Public Radio, which, like Wisconsin Public Radio, emphasizes classical music when many affiliates of NPR (National Public Radio) are increasingly turning to talk radio.



Classical music: Here are news items. Elusive and eccentric pianist Grigory Sokolov signs with Deutsche Grammophon. Italian maestro Daniele Gatti is named director of the famed Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam. The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra remains silent and locked out. And THIS AFTERNOON is your last chance to hear the Madison Symphony Orchestra and pianist Olga Kern in an all-Russian program of Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff and Shostakovich.

October 19, 2014
Leave a Comment

ALERT: Today at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall is the final performance of this season’s second concert by the Madison Symphony Orchestra under the baton of John DeMain. Pianist Olga Kern (below) is the soloist in Sergei Rachmaninoff‘s Piano Concerto No. 1 in F-sharp minor. Other music includes the Suite from the ballet “Swan Lake” by Peter Tchaikovsky and the Symphony No. 6 by Dmitri Shostakovich. For information about tickets, the artists and the program, visit:

Here are reviews of Friday night’s opening night performance:

By John W. Barker of Isthmus:

By Jess Courtier for The Capital Times:

And by Greg Hettmansberger, who writes the Classically Speaking blog for Madison Magazine:

Olga Kern

By Jacob Stockinger

The much admired but elusive, eccentric and enigmatic Russian pianist Grigory Sokolov (below) has signed up with Deutsche Grammophon and will release a live recital –- he refuses to make studio recordings – in January.

For the news plus an interesting interview and profile of Sokolov, here is a link to a story in the British magazine Gramophone. It includes some of his quirks such as not playing pianos older than five years and his specific repertoire favorites:

Grigory Sokolov, Piano

Italian conductor Daniele Gatti is named the new maestro of the famed Dutch Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam. He starts in 2016 and sounds like he might be quite a bit of a contrast to past Concertgebouw conductors such as Bernard Haitink. Here is a story:

Daniele Gatti

The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra continues its lockout over labor disputes, thereby postponing or canceling the opening of the new season. But last weekend ASO music director Robert Spano conducted the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra in the German Requiem of Johannes Brahms.

Here is a link to a story on NPR  (National Public Radio) to yet another turmoil in the world of American symphony orchestras:

Atlanta Symphony Orchestra





Classical music: What has the UK’s Scotland contributed to classical music -– besides bagpipes? Plus, this afternoon is the last performance of the season-opening program by the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

September 21, 2014

ALERT: The final performance of the Madison Symphony Orchestra’s season-opening program of Richard Strauss “Also Sprach Zarathustra” (with the organ theme from “2001: A Space Odyssey”), Frank Martin’s Concerto for Seven Wind Instruments and Camille Saint-Saens (Symphony No. 3 “Organ”) will be given today at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall of the Overture Center. Here is a link to a previous post about the concert as well as links to several very positive reviews:

Here is a link to a review by John W. Barker (below) for Isthmus:

John Barker

Here is a link to the review by Gregg Hettmansberger (below) for Madison Magazine’s blog “Classically Speaking”:

greg hettmansberger mug

And here is a link to Lindsay Christians’ review for The Capital Times and 77 Square:

John DeMain and MSO from the stage Greg Anderson

By Jacob Stockinger

All right, then.

The Big Vote is over.

By a wider-than-predicted margin of 55 to 45 percent, Scotland has chosen to remain a member of the United Kingdom.

The outcome surprised The Ear since so many of the arguments offered by Great Britain seemed similar to the ones that were probably made about why the United States should remain a colony of England.

But now the question is answered for at least another generation.

So, in the traditional of newsy arts coverage, the Deceptive Cadence blog of National Public Radio (NPR) asked: What has Scottish culture contributed to classical music?

You’d be surprised. I was.

One obvious, and, for many, noisily unpleasant, answer is the bagpipes. We’re not talking about Scotland-inspired music such as Felix Mendelssohn‘s justly famous “Hebrides” Overture (at bottom in a popular YouTube video featuring Claudio Abbado conducting the London Symphony Orchestra, though it sure does seem to capture the dark North Sea atmosphere of Scotland.)

scotland bagpipes

But there are other answers too, and some of them may surprise you.

Be sure to listen to some of the sound samples provided on the NPR website posting. Here is a link:

Also be sure to check out the readers’ comments. They are a hoot, or whatever the equivalent saying is in Scotland.

And the reader comments contain one of the all-time best puns, based on The Rolling Stones song “Hey You, Get Off of My Cloud.” Of course, someone says it isn’t funny! Which makes it only funnier to The Ear.


Classical music: Beauty is big business and a hard job. PBS’ economics reporter Paul Solman insightfully explores how hard it is to find good jobs for even the most talented musicians and other performing artists. Plus, Madison Opera’s 12th annual Opera in the Park is tonight at 8.

July 13, 2013

ALERT : Just a reminder that the Madison Opera‘s 12th annual FREE Opera in the Park (below) will be held tonight at 8 p.m. in Garner Park on Madison’s far west side. The outdoor concert will feature guests soloists, the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Madison Opera Chorus and the Madison Youth Choirs, all under the baton of conductor John DeMain. It is a great program that looks forward to next season and includes Broadway theater, and the weather looks to be pleasantly coolish if not exactly perfect. For more information, here is a link:

Opera in Park 2012 crowd 2 James Gill

By Jacob Stockinger

Probably my favorite economics reporter these days is Paul Solman (below) of PBS TVI like the clarity and simplicity of his reporting, and the comparisons he makes as well as the original angles he takes on his subject. He comes up with great story ideas and then turns them into great stories. If that isn’t the definition of an outstanding journalist, I don’t know what is.

I love watching and hearing Solman’s reports on the “PBS Newshour.” I also admire him because he continues to work — and love his work — at age 68, despite a brush with serious illness. The Boston-based Solman doesn’t just report for PBS, but he also holds down a second job teaching as a Distinguished Fellow at Yale University. Plus, I like his sense of humor and irony about himself that comes through his stories, and how he interviews himself in a YouTube video at the bottom of this post. 

Paul Solman hat

Of course there are other economics reporters I like and hold in high regard from my political perspective.

At the Wall Street Journal, I like David Wessel, who also makes regular appearances on PBS shows like “Washington Week.”

At The New York Times, I like Joe Nocera, who also does guest spots on PBS; Andrew Ross Sorkin, the articulate author of “Too Big to Fail,” who so clearly documented how The Great Recession came about; the Nobel Prize-winning researcher, columnist and Princeton University professor Paul Krugman (below), who debunks right-wing lies, baloney and mythology with hard facts; and Gretchen Morgenson who appears on a variety of other media outlets.

And I like Zanny Minton Beddows and Greg Ip of The Economist. Both explain complex matters clearly and succinctly as well as fairly.

Paul Krugman

I am sure there are more, but those will do to illustrate the point.

Yet perhaps the reason I like Paul Solman’s reports the most is because he goes at economics from angles that others economists and economics reporters ignore or don’t think are important.

I feel close to that same approach because I also took it back n the days when I was an arts reporter at the daily evening newspaper The Capital Times in Madison, Wisconsin.

A lot of money changes hands through the arts. And a lot of economic development takes place through the arts, especially since Richard Florida (below) has popularized the idea of the key role that the Creative Class plays in generating new prosperity.

richard florida

Curiously, though I have found that arts organizations – and even many arts patrons and customers – resist that quantitative economic approach because linking money and the arts somehow seems to dirty the hands of the artists – a really stupid reaction. That kind of knee-jerk elitism, as well as the kind of misplaced and desperate secrecy that arts groups often wrap their financial operations in, does a deep disservice to the big business of beauty.

Of course, non-monetary values are vital, central in the performing arts and visual arts. (Did you know for example that the biggest tourist attraction in New York City is the Metropolitan Museum of Art?) But as many arts organizations have found out, without the appropriate financial backing, that non-monetary message won’t go anywhere.

Anyway, recently Paul Solman explored the problem of young performing artists finding and keeping good jobs. As examples, he even went to some of the most talented performing artists and musicians whom he found as students (below) at the prestigious, exclusive and expensive Juilliard School in Manhattan, where classes are held in dance and acting as well as music.

Juilliard School BIG

Juilliard students

Here is a link to his report. I urge all fans of the arts — participants, audiences or patrons – to look at and listen to the video and not just read the transcript.

Solman’s report is nothing short of eye-opening and helps to explain why so many of the most talented musicians I meet at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music are choosing to relegate music to a secondary role as an lifelong avocation or serious hobby while they pursue degrees and careers in the sciences or technology or some other more lucrative and secure profession. (Below, a UW students performs in Mills Hall.)

Beethoven sonatas 26 Margaret Runaas

It also helps explain why regional symphony orchestras are rising in quality and why recently there were almost 40 applicants from across the U.S. who actually made the final auditions for the open chair of Principal Tuba with the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

Here is the link. Enjoy and think, and let The Ear know your reactions:


Classical music: The Madison Symphony Orchestra performs charming Mozart and overpowering Shostakovich in ways that impressively demonstrate how much it has grown over the past 20 years under music director and conductor John DeMain. Plus, the MSO is looking for a Principal Tuba player.

March 12, 2013

ALERT: The Madison Symphony Orchestra (MSO) announces auditions for the Principal Tuba position. Auditions will be held by appointment on Thursday, June 13. Qualified candidates are encouraged to sign up for an audition time by emailing a one-page resume to A list of excerpts and a season schedule are also available.  All musicians qualifying for a position will be expected to attend all rehearsals and concerts as instrumentation demands. The MSO is a professional, fully orchestrated ensemble comprised of 91 contracted per-service musicians, offering approximately 80 services per season. 


By Jacob Stockinger

Later this week, the Madison Symphony Orchestra will announce the programs and soloists for its next season. It is sure to be noteworthy, since the 2013-14 season marks the 20th year of the tenure of music director and conductor John DeMain (see below in a photo by James Gill.)

And it will surely be a season loaded with special events, DeMain has that Italian flavor for both drama and festive celebration, which is now doubt why he is also great opera conductor.

John DeMain HeadShot color by James Gill

But in a way, the Madison Symphony didn’t wait for the 20th anniversary season to announce just how accomplished it has become under DeMain and his team. In short, they upstaged themselves.

This past weekend in Overture Hall  we saw in this season’s penultimate concert aspects of the performance that highlighted what next season can only underline: that the programming has become more ambitious; that the soloists have become more predictable (perhaps too predictable in some ways, but that is a topic for another posting and another time); and that the players have become terrifically accomplished, consistent and precise in a thoroughly professional ensemble way.


The concert, which I heard Sunday afternoon, started with the opening half devoted to Mozart, whose music is the ultimate test of refinement, taste and charm. The first half started with a wonderfully upbeat rendering of the Overture to “The Impressario.” Some might have found the tempo a bit fast; I loved the brisk tempo and found it close to what I think the early Classical period was about. I particularly loved the way DeMain emphasized counterpoint and the subtle influences of Bach and the Baroque on Mozart.

Then came the youthful Violin Concerto No. 4 with the gifted Norwegian violinist Henning Kraggerud (below). One of the real finds made by the MSO during The DeMain Years, Kraggerud once again did not disappoint. True, the music is early Mozart and in some ways immature Mozart, compared to the late works that are deeper and more bittersweet.

Henning Kraggerud MSO 2013

And it is also true that Kraggerud could not have, and should not have, tried to turn the Mozart concerto into the kind of dramatic vehicle for his virtuosity that his past performances of concertos by Sibelius and Tchaikovsky offered.

But virtuosity matters in understatement too. And Kraggerud excelled there. His playing was clear and precise, yet also lyrical and charming. Transparency is what makes Mozart difficult, and the art of the virtuoso is to make the difficult seems easy. Kraggerud did that in spades. Both he and DeMain seemed to exult in the George Szell approach, somewhat clipped but clear in manner, that made the performance a model of Mozartean music-making. And talk about tone! (Hear Henning Kraggerud playing a Telemann Fantasie at the bottom in a YouTube video.)

And the audience to loved him, offering Kraggerud a standing ovation that brought him to play an impressive encore: one of his own improvisations on a theme by Ole Bull (below), the famed Norwegian violinist who also just happened to live in Madison, at 130 West Gilman Street, during the 1870s with his younger second wife Sarah Thorpe. He also established ties to the Scandinavian Studies Department at the UW-Madison.

Here is a link to a story I once posted  with references about Ole Bull and Madison as well as a previous performance with Kraggerud:

Ole Bull_playing

Clearly, when it comes to Kraggerud, this Nordic violinist has many sides to him, and we can hope we have not heard the last of him. I would love to hear Kraggerud in the violin concertos by all those B’s –- Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Bartok and Barber — as well as some of the rarities, like violin concertos by Ludwig Spohr, that he has recorded for Naxos.

The concert concluded with one of the titanic works of the 20th century: The Symphony No. 10 in E minor by Dmitri Shostakovich (below), who wrote to celebrate the death of the mass murderer and Soviet dictator Josef Stalin who had so oppressed the composer and censored his work.

dmitri shostakovich

Once again, you might justly expect the massive Shostakovich to overwhelm to Mozart, And in a way it did, from sheer power and scale.

But some of the same qualities that made for great Mozart playing made for great Shostakovich, Music, after all, is music.

That is, DeMain had his ensemble perform with clarity, but always with the right momentum and drive. The precision matched and even enhanced the moodiness, no small feat. And the fact that all the principal chairs performed so well as speaks volumes about the DeMain tenure.

John DeMain conducting

If Kraggerud demonstrated the less-is-more kind of virtuosity, the orchestra exuded the more-is-more kind of virtuosity. Little wonder, then, that as the composer whipped up a coda and finale – he had a knack for that – the end left the audience jumping to its feet in an enthusiastic and prolonged ovation.

(PS: Was the subtle but obtrusive background noise –- that almost seemed like a falsetto overtone of the piccolo — during the third movement of the symphony feedback from a hearing aid? A cellphone? Does anyone know?)

I will be honest: I generally prefer the smaller scale, more intimate Shostakovich, especially the string quartets. But there was no denying -– and no resisting — the power of this large-scale work, especially in the capable hands of DeMain and the MSO players.

Of course not all critics agreed with my takes.

John W. Barker (below) of Isthmus had reservations about DeMain’s Mozart just as he did about DeMain’s Haydn. But I really like DeMain in both and wish the MSO would program more Mozart and Haydn. Here is a link to Barker’s review:

John Barker

Here is a link to a review by Greg Hettmansberger (below), who didn’t like the juxtapositional contrast of Mozart and Shostakovich as much I did, for his “Classically Speaking” blog for Madison Magazine: 

greg hettmansberger mug

Unfortunately, I cannot link to a review, as I usually do, by critic Lindsay Christians in 77 Square, The Capital Times or The Wisconsin State Journal. The newspapers’ new policy is NOT to review music performances with rare exceptions (like big rock shows maybe?).

It seems odd, irresponsible and maybe even “shameful,” to quote one local classical music fan, for a local paper to forgo reviewing a local cultural event that draws 5,000 to 6,0000 listeners over a weekend – especially in such an arts-rich city as Madison.

But times are tough for the print media, which must do more with less. And it is hard to cover local culture when staff and budgets have been cut. So apparently there will be more trend pieces and previews that links different performing groups.

Hey, maybe some TV station could pick up the slack and offer a two-minute classical review segment on a weekend broadcast, or something similar.

Anyway, what did you think of the performances by MSO and Henning Kraggerud?

The Ear wants to hear.

Classical music: Pianist Gabriela Montero and the Madison Symphony Orchestra show that a gift for improvisation also serves the printed score of old masterpieces well.

January 22, 2013

A REQUEST: Apparently the Overture Center and the Madison Symphony Orchestra don’t recognize that we are currently in the middle of a serious flu epidemic as measured by cases, hospitalizations and deaths. At the concert I attended Sunday afternoon, there were NO dispensers of hand sanitizers, not even in the restroom, and an usher I asked didn’t recall seeing any all weekend long. I seem to recall that the Madison Opera used them. And it makes good sense when you are sitting so close and shaking hands, touching handrails, seat armrests etc. I hope that the situation can be remedied soon. Hand sanitizer is a good, well proven public health measure.

hand sanitizer stand

By Jacob Stockinger

Venezuelan-born pianist Gabriela Montero has a very special talent, even a extraordinary gift: She can improvise in a structured, classical manner and in a variety of styles. And she does so without appearing nervous or unsure of herself, so complete is her relaxation and command of herself on-stage. She simply does not stumble.

Montero (below) demonstrated her gift in abundance during her three performances with the Madison Symphony Orchestra last weekend.

Gabriela Montero

On Friday night, she improvised on the tune “On Wisconsin” and then played a free association that someone described as a Scriabin-like nocturne.

On Sunday afternoon I heard her improvise to “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” (“I never heard that one before,” she quipped, after someone in the audience shouted it out and before she sounded it out and then improvised) . She also played a kind of lyrical meditation that she said was inspired by the pleasures of her stay in Madison. To my ears, it possessed a Faure-like.

Some of her improvisations – many of which you can find on best-selling recordings (below) — I really like. Some others sound to me like just a cut or two above cocktail lounge or piano-bar fare. But improvising remains a skill that too many classical musicians lack today, one that used to be a prerequisite for classical musicians and composers in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.

Montero CD

Ironically, however, I found that Montero’s gift for improvisation served her best not in the impressive solo improvisations that she played as popular encores -– they drew standing ovations and cheers from the sizable audiences – but rather in the way she took small but exciting liberties with the printed score to Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1, which dates back to 1798.

Montero brought the kind of zesty and improvisational life to the piano part that one imagines the young and rebellious Beethoven himself brought to his own impressive appearances in the usually staid city of Haydn and Mozart.

Her first movement was all high-energy. It emphasized counterpoint, dialogue with the orchestra and glittering and dramatic passage work, but also featured big contrasts and a particular attention to  soft-and-loud. The most glaring weakness to me was her own cadenza, which may have been intended to sound Beethoven-like but which can’t compare to the third and longest cadenza that Beethoven, himself a keyboard virtuoso, wrote for his concerto.

In Montero’s hands, the slow movement provided a beautiful foretaste of dreamy and lyrical Romanticism in its extreme slowness – almost a stasis that barely seemed to move or advance, said one keen and correct observer.

And the third and final movement, by contrast, turned into exactly the kind of fast and free-wheeling rondo that a young virtuoso like the young Beethoven (below) –- who was often known for his fast metronome markings as well as his ability to improvise –- would have appreciated. It was the fastest I ever heard that movement played, but it worked. And The Improviser also played right to the end along with the orchestra, even though the printed score calls for the orchestra to finish alone.

young beethoven etching in 1804

The concerto was bookended by two solid performances of contemporary and classical works.

The first was the opening 13-minute tone poem “blue cathedral” by Jennifer Higdon (below), an American composer who has won a Pulitzer Prize and a Grammy Award. She is accessible and popular, but also serious. This piece from 2000 — composed to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia and to memorialize the composer’s brother, who died of cancer – has already been played by over 400 orchestras. Not many new pieces or contemporary classical composers can make that claim.

Higdon-and-Beau-Candace DiCarlo

That is impressive for so-called new music. And the brother-clarinet, sister-flute dialogue in the piece was performed superbly by the MSO. The whole work has a kind of Copland-like harmonic spaciousness or mood to it, a Gothic-like grandeur of innerness that reminded me of Monet’s Impressionist paintings of the “blue cathedral” at Rouen (below):

monet rouen cathedral in blue

The concerto finished with perfect winter fare: the Symphony No. 6 in D Major by Antonin Dvorak (below. Music by Dvorak is invariably tuneful, melodic and toe-tapping. Conductor John DeMain proved especially adept at bringing out lines and at whipping the orchestra up to a controlled frenzy in the folk dance Scherzo-Furiant (at bottom) and the brassy finale.

The MSO should play, and we should hear, more Dvorak. After all, this was the MSO’ premiere performance of a work composed back in 1880.


Of course, The Ear wasn’t alone in making sense of this infectious and ear-grabbing concert, which I found to be one of the best and most memorable of the season.

Here are links to other reviews and of course you have every right to your own your judgment or critique, which you can leave in the COMMENT section:

Here is a link to John W. Barker’s review in Isthmus:

Here is a link to Lindsay Christians review for 77 Square, The Capital Times and The Wisconsin State Journal:

Here is a link to Greg Hettmansberger’s review for the “Classically Speaking” blog he wrotes for Madison Magazine:

Classical music education: Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras offer fall concerts all day this Sunday in Madison. UW violinist Tyrone Greive performs tonight.

November 14, 2012
Leave a Comment

ALERT: Tonight at 7:30 p.m in Mills Hall, UW violinist and former Madison Symphony Orchestra concertmaster Tyrone Greive (below, in a photo by Katrin Talbot) will perform a FREE recital on the UW-Madison Faculty Concert Series. Greive will be joined by pianists Martha Fischer and Ted Reinke and as well as his wife cellist Janet Greive. The program will feature Four Pieces for Violin and Piano, Op. 115 by Jean Sibelius; Sonata in E for violin and piano by Paul Hindemith; Sonata in D minor, Op. 9 by Karol Szymanowski; a collection of short duets for violin and cello; Romance in E-flat Major, Op. 44, No. 1, by Henryk Wieniawski; and Three Dances by Polish composer Grazyna Bacewicz.

By Jacob Stockinger

The Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO) will hold the first performance series of the season, the Steenbock Fall Concerts, all day this coming Sunday, Nov. 18. More than 350 young musicians will display their talents to the community during the three concerts, which are dedicated to local music teachers.

The Evelyn Steenbock Fall Concerts will be held in Mills Concert Hall in the UW Humanities Building, 455 N. Park Street, in Madison.

WYSO concerts are generally about an hour and a half in length, providing a great orchestral concert opportunity for families. Tickets are available at the door, $10 for adults and $5 for youth 18 and under. WYSO was founded in 1966 and has served nearly 5,000 young musicians from more than 100 communities in southern Wisconsin. 

On Sunday, WYSO’s youngest members, the string orchestra Sinfonietta (below), will kick off the concert series at 1:30 p.m. with selections including “Four Royal Dances” by Eric Ewazen. The Concert Orchestra will follow with works by Berlioz and von Gluck.  

At 4 p.m., the popular Percussion Ensemble (below top) will perform an arrangement of Dvořák’s Slavonic Dance No. 8 in G minor under the direction of Vicki Jenks, in her 31st season at WYSO. The Philharmonia Orchestra (below bottom, photo by Jon Harlow) will then entertain the audience with Copland’s “An Outdoor Overture,” and works by Strauss, Vaughan Williams and Borodin. 

At 7 p.m., the Harp Ensemble (below top), a unique group of performers age 11-17, will perform Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in E minor.  The Youth Orchestra (below bottom) will close out the concert series with Joaquin Turina’s “Danzas fantásticas” and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Symphony No. 2.

The Ear would only add that the playing is much better than you might think from student groups (listen to the finale of Shostakovich’s epic Symphony No. 5 on YouTube at the bottom). And it is also great fun to see the large WYSO audiences, which are made up of young friends, family members and admirers. WYSO concerts draw the youngest, most animated and most enthusiastic audiences in town.

Especially in this time of tight family and educational budgets, special mention should be made of sponsors. This WYSO project is supported by Dane Arts with additional funds from the Endres Mfg. Company Foundation and the Evjue Foundation, Inc., charitable arm of The Capital Times. This project is also supported by the Alliant Energy Foundation and by a grant from the Wisconsin Arts Board with funds from the State of Wisconsin and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Classical music: “Long Love the King!” Madison Opera’s successful production of Verdi’s “A Masked Ball” is an auspicious beginning to the tenure of its new general director Kathryn Smith. But the opera needs some Great Moments.

October 30, 2012

By Jacob Stockinger

You could view the Madison Opera’s decision to stage Verdi’s “A Masked Ball” as a great choice for Halloween week, when disguised truth is celebrated. You could also view the Verdi opera, full of political intrigue and betrayals, as an apt choice during a presidential election  campaign.

But surely the best way to see it is as an auspicious beginning to the tenure of the company’s new general director Kathryn Smith (below, in a photo by James Gill). True, she was here for last season, but that was to implement the plans draw up by her predecessor Allan Naplan.

With this successful production we now get to see Smith as her own woman.

And clearly Smith is interested in taking the Madison Opera level to a new level. Why else would she open the season with the Madison Opera premiere, in half a century, the neglected Verdi opera, which she says is one of her favorites? And why else would she slate the Madison Opera’s premiere production of a Handel opera (“Acis and Galatea”) for January? Smith is out to leave her mark.

The houses from the performances Friday night and Sunday afternoon crowds were smaller than expected or hoped for, but they were very enthusiastic. A company spokesperson said that probably had to do with so many other activities going on and with the political season upon us.

Still, there was much to like about the production, and I, like so many others, had fun. (All production photos below are by Madison photographer James Gill, taken for the Madison Opera.)

Here are do some things about “A Masked Ball” that appealed to The Ear.

I liked the pre-opera background talk given by Kathryn Smith. In the Promenade Hall of the Overture Center, she told a packed house about the place of “A Masked Ball” in Verdi’s output and traced the struggle by Verdi (below) with political censors to arrive at a plot that would satisfy them. After all, regicide – the killing of a king — was not something that the royal houses of Europe took lightly, encouraged or forgave shortly after the French Revolution.

I liked the excellence and evenness of the cast. All of the leads and secondary roles, including the energetic servant Oscar (played by Caitlin Cisler) and the fortune-teller Ulrica (Jeniece Golbourne) showed strong voices with excellent pitch, wide ranges, fine diction and power to project. But most of all, they showed balance. And evenness is something to cherish in an ensemble production.

William Joyner (below), who also sang in the Madison Opera’s production last season of Philip Glass‘ “Galileo Galilei,” excelled as the Swedish King Gustav III:

Here he is in a pivotal scene, getting his fortune told by Ulrica:

Hyung Yun (below left) was terrific as the king’s friend and betraying assassin Anckarstrom, while Alexandra LoBianco (below right) was terrific as the courtier’s wife and would-be adulterous Amelia:

I liked the staging by Metropolitan Opera veteran Kristine McIntyre (below). Her idea was clearly to serve the opera, not some bizarre idea of novelty. So the stage direction matched the sets, the costumes and the score. It did not call attention to itself, which is another of way of saying it served the opera, not dominated it.

I liked the sets from the Lyric Opera of Kansas City and the costumes. They were luxurious enough to capture the sense of an 18th century royal court, but also simple enough and period or historical enough not to push the production into some postmodern meaningfulness. (The photo below is by Douglas Hamer for the Lyric Opera of Kansas City.)

I especially liked the gallows set.  Its contrasting Gothic starkness played well as a context for the theme of a betraying love and the doom it entails. Love can indeed be a deadly noose (below), as King Gustav and Amelia will soon discover:

I found myself listening closely and paying special attention to the orchestra and I liked the way the orchestral accompaniment was superbly handled by players from the Madison Symphony Orchestra under the Madison Opera’s artistic director John DeMain (below). It was precise and balanced. Never did the pit overwhelm the singers.

Most of all, especially in its solo passages I found myself impressed with Verdi’s instrumental writing. Verdi possessed a command of counterpoint and orchestration, punctuated with sharp rhythms and converging lines. He knew exactly how to achieve the effects he wanted. I realized just why the “Force of Destiny” Overture and other orchestral excerpts by Verdi are popular. Take away the voices — not that you would want to — and what is left is still great music.

I liked the way the Madison Opera Chorus handled the crowd scenes. They seem blended and just as even as the secondary soloists and leads. I did find some of the hip-hoppy choreography by Madisonian Maureen Janson a bit awkward – I almost always do – but I really couldn’t tell whether that was because of period-appropriate dance steps; because the dancers simply felt a bit awkward; or because the choreography was a bit contrived and self-conscious.

While I liked the singing, I still came away more a fan of Puccini (below) than of Verdi. A day later at home, I can’t recall a tune from “A Masked Ball.” The score always seemed promising, but the Great Moment never materialized. In that respect, evenness was unfortunate, not laudable. The opera needed some stand-outs. It needed memorable tunes, the kind you hear and remember from “La Boheme” and “Madama Butterfly,” “Tosca” and “Turandot.”

Unfortunately, I didn’t like the plot. If this opera were just a play or movie, it would B-grade, too predictable and even stereotypical. Verdi was smart in other operas when he borrowed from Shakespeare, a master of human psychology, or even Victor Hugo for his librettos.

But that’s show biz — and the prolific but reliable Verdi.

Local critics universally praised the Madison Opera’s production of “A Masked Ball.” But each one discovered different points to make. That speaks well for the production.

Here is a sampling:

Here is a link to John W. Barker’s review, which makes an excellent point about smaller regional opera companies, for Isthmus:

Here is a link to Greg Hettmansberger’s review for his Madison Magazine blog ”Classically Speaking”:

Here is a link to Rena Archwamety’s review on for 77 Square, The Capital Times and The Wisconsin State Journal:

Here is a link to the review by Mike and Jean Muckian for their Brava magazine blog “Culturosity”:

Now you be the critic and tell us what you thought.

The Ear wants to hear.

Classical music: Let us now praise and appreciate the Madison Symphony Orchestra during The Dark Days for so many American orchestras. Plus, violist Elias Goldstein returns to the University of Wisconsin for a FREE recital on Monday night.

October 14, 2012
1 Comment

REMINDER: Monday night at 7:30 p.m. in Morphy Recital Hall, two UW alumni — violist Elias Goldstein (below) and pianist Thomas Kasdorf (below bottom) — will give a free recital at the University of Wisconsin School of Music. Goldstein’s performance is a part of this year’s Guest Artist Showcase of former Collins Fellows. The program includes “Piano Divertimento” by Thomas Kasdorf, “Suite No. 2 in D Minor” by J. S. Bach, “Sonata No. 6 in A Major” by Luigi Boccherini, “Pièce de concert for Viola and Piano” by Georges Enescu and “Caprice No. 24” by Nicolo Paganini.

By Jacob Stockinger

This weekend, I very much look forward to hearing the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below, as seen from above in Overture Hall), which is performing its second set of concerts for the season.

On the MSO program are Berlioz’ Overture to “Beatrice and Benedict”; Bartok’s violin Concerto No. 2 with guest soloist, the highly acclaimed Canadian violinist James Ehnes in his Madison and Wisconsin debut; and Brahms’ titanic last Symphony No. 4 (the dramatic fourth and final movement is at bottom). MSO music director John DeMain will be on the podium to conduct.

If you want to know more, here is a link to a Q&A that violinist Ehnes did with The Ear:

Here is a link to a review by John W. Barker for Isthmus, which might make you want to hear this concert:

And here is a link to Lindsay Christians’ review for 77 Square, The Capital Times and The Wisconsin State Journal:

Should you want to attend the last remaining performance, which is this afternoon, Sunday afternoon, at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall, tickets are $16.50 to $78.50. Call the Overture Center‘s box office at (608) 258-4141. You can also check out

In the meantime, it will only enhance your respect for the achievement of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, and for the concert-going public here, to read about how bigger name groups in bigger cities – like the Minnesota Orchestra, below in a photo by Greg Helgeson — have been having a rough time of it lately with labor disputes, lockouts, possible bankruptcies and other woes.

NPR’s always reliable and always excellent “Deceptive Cadence” blog recently featured a fine story, originally broadcast on “Morning Edition” about the state of symphony orchestras in the U.S.

It is a sobering read that makes The Ear grateful to be in Madison.

The story is well worth reading and remembering that Madison is blessed not only with the MSO, but also with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, the University of Wisconsin Symphony Orchestra, the UW Chamber Orchestra, the Edgewood College Chamber Orchestra, the accomplished Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras and several community orchestras – all of which seem to be weathering the national crisis pretty well.

True, last season the MSO did post a small deficit for the first time in its history. Nonetheless, the MSO is polling subscribers and seriously thinking about going back to nine concerts per season, perhaps to celebrate the 20th anniversary of its Maestro John DeMain (below, in a photo by James Gill) coming to Madison, which is next season.

In any case, here is a link to the NPR story.

What do you think of the problems plaguing symphony orchestras around the US?

What do you think is a good and fair solution?

And how does it make you feel about the classical music scene in Madison?

The Ear wants to hear.

Classical music: The Madison Symphony Orchestra hits its first glorious high note of the new season with an all-Russian program plus a tribute to the loss of two of its own.

September 24, 2012
Leave a 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 every other Sunday morning on WORT 88.9 FM. He serves on the Board of Advisors for the MadisonEarly Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.

By John W. Barker

The Madison Symphony Orchestra opened its new season with a truly memorable program this past weekend.

It had been planned as a collection entirely of Russian music, but the mood and organization were complicated by two sad losses of recent months. One was the orchestra’s long-time and beloved tuba player, Paul Haugan (below top), and the other was Roland Johnson (below), the long-time builder and conductor of the MSO as well as the co-founder of the Madison Opera.

In their memory, maestro John DeMain opened the concert with a performance of the “Adagio for Strings” — not the famous one by Samuel Barber but the one by John Stevens (below) of the University of Wisconsin School of Music. It is easy to find initial parallels with Barber’s celebrated and moving, but basically rather simplistic piece. The one by Stevens is longer, more complex: it has an integrity of its own, and more extensive thematic growth. In short, a worthy tribute.

Then came the originally intended opener, the Symphony No. 1, popularly known as the “Classical Symphony,” by Prokofiev (below). This clever and totally enjoyable re-imagining of the idiom of Haydn and Mozart is justly familiar, and widely performed. Many conductors lean a little forcefully on the score, but DeMain seemed consciously to aim for greater lightness and deftness. Though the approach diminished the tensions of the second movement, it worked well otherwise.

For this concert, be it noted, DeMain once more shifted the second violin section behind the first, instead of opposing them. The decision was made partly to address some problems of co-ordination by the violins, in what is famously tricky string writing. The issue of the players hearing each other more effectively is important, though from the audience side I still think the firsts/seconds opposition works better sonically, as DeMain (below, in a photo by Jim Gill) had been proving in recent seasons.

To balance the program around the intermission more sensibly, with the Stevens piece added, what was intended to be the final work was shifted to close the first half of the program.

This was the Suite from Stravinsky‘s “Firebird” ballet. This suite exists in two forms: the popular 1919 version, and a longer one that Stravinsky (below) made in 1945. His logic was less musical than financial: he had lost out on full royalties for the 1919 suite, and so he made this “revision” to claim new contractual profits.

Aside from tinkerings with the orchestration, the main difference between the two versions is that Stravinsky added further segments from the original ballet. While this gives us more of the score, the additions are mainly of functional and movement-supporting stuff that is of limited musical interest and strains the patience. Better to have picked the concise 1919 version. Still, DeMain led a colorful and precisely disciplined reading.

The Big Event came as the program’s second half. It is to the credit of DeMain and some of his recent guest soloists that they have avoided warhorse concertos and given us bold rarities.

And it is to the credit of the guest soloist this time, Garrick Ohlsson, that a noble rarity was indeed set forth. Instead of the terribly overplayed Piano Concerto No. 1 of Tchaikovsky (below), we were given the Concerto No. 2.

This is a far more expansive, substantial and inventive work than the flashy but superficial No. 1. While composed in the usual three movements, it is full of experiments. There are two unusually big cadenzas woven into the first movement. The second adds solo violin and cello to play off the pianist — one thinks at times of the fabulous Piano Trio in A Minor by Tchaikovsky for this combination, so memorably played last June in the Bach Dancing and Dynamite concerts.

The orchestra in general has more of a “symphonic” role of its own. And, above all, the work is filled with magnificent melodies representative of the composer at his best.

This superb work is heard far too rarely in concerts and recordings. That may be because of its length, or because the pianist fears he is being upstaged by the other two soloists in the second movement.

There is, of course, demanding bravura solo work demanded of the pianist, and Ohlsson (below) brought it off with confident musicality. His collaboration with DeMain and the orchestra was music-making of the highest quality.

This is what concerts should be like at their best — really glorious.

EDITOR’S NOTE: All of the city’s critics generally agreed.

Here is a link to what critic Greg Hettmansberger had to same about the same concert for his Madison Magazine blog “Classically Speaking”:

And here is a link to what Lindsay Christians had to say for 77 Square, The Capital Times and The Wisconsin State Journal:

Next Page »

    Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

    Join 1,245 other subscribers

    Blog Stats

    • 2,425,415 hits
%d bloggers like this: