The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The experts said his music wouldn’t last. But Rachmaninoff and his fans proved them wrong. Hear for yourself this Wednesday night at this summer’s final Concert on the Square

July 30, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

The experts sure got it wrong.

Only 11 years after the death of Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff (below, 1873-1943) – also spelled Rachmaninov — the 1954 edition of the prestigious and authoritative “Grove Dictionary of Music” declared Rachmaninoff’s music to be “monotonous in texture … consist[ing] mainly of artificial and gushing tunes” and predicted that his popular success was “not likely to last.”

That opinion probably came from the same academicians who favored the atonal and serial composers at the time.

But Rachmaninoff’s music is so emotional, so beautiful and so easy for audiences to connect with that it can be a challenge to remember its serious backstory.

For example, much personal turmoil and anguish went into his Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor, Op. 18, which headlines this Wednesday night’s final summer Concert on the Square by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra.

(Other works on the program, to be performed at 7 p.m. on the King Street corner of the Capitol Square, are the Overture to “The Magic Flute” by Mozart, the Firebird” Suite by Igor Stravinsky, the “Cornish Rhapsody” for piano and orchestra by Hubert Bath.)

For more information – including rules, food and etiquette — about the concert, go to: https://wisconsinchamberorchestra.org/performances/concerts-on-the-square-6-4/

The perfectly chosen soloist is the Russia-born and Russia-trained pianist Ilya Yakushev (below), who has appeared several times with Andrew Sewell and the WCO as well as in solo recitals at Farley’s House of Pianos, where he will perform again this coming season as part of the Salon Piano Series.

Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 (1901) may well be the most popular piano concerto ever written, one that has often been used in many novels, movies and popular songs. Some would argue that Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 (1910) has surpassed it in the popularity and frequency of performance.

True or not, the second concerto is a triumph of the human spirit and individual creativity. (You can hear the dramatic and lyrical opening movement, played live by Yuja Wang at the Verbier Festival, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

It was written in 1900-01 after the composer’s first symphony had not succeeded with the critics and when personal problems had overwhelmed him (below, around 1910).

Rachmaninoff fell into a severe depression that lasted four years. During that time he had daily sessions with a psychotherapist whose cure used hypnosis and repeating to the composer that one day soon he would write a piano concerto that prove very good and very popular.

And so it was. The therapist was Dr. Nikolai Dahl (below) — and that is whom the concerto is dedicated to.

Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 is often considered the Mount Everest of piano concertos for the sheer physicality and stamina required to play it.

Yet the composer himself — who premiered, recorded and often performed both concertos — said he thought the second concerto, although shorter, was more demanding musically, if not technically.

For more information about Rachmaninoff and his Piano Concerto No. 2 as well as its place in popular culture, go to these two Wikipedia websites where you will be surprised and impressed:

For the Piano Concerto No. 2: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Piano_Concerto_No._2_(Rachmaninoff)

For general biographical details about Rachmaninoff: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sergei_Rachmaninoff


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Classical music: Concerts on the Square begin this Wednesday night – and half of the six concerts feature classical music

June 25, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

The 36th annual FREE summer series of six Concerts on the Square, performed by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below) and guest soloists, will begin this Wednesday night, June 26, at 7 p.m. on the King Street Corner of the Capitol Square in downtown Madison.

Each concert draws an average of 30,000 people.

But if you think it is largely a pops concert event, think again.

One of the many outstanding achievements that WCO music director Andrew Sewell (below) has brought to the event – billed as “the Biggest Picnic of Summer” — over the past 20 years is an increased emphasis on classical music, perhaps to help build new audiences for the WCO’s winter Masterworks concerts.

The opening concert, for example, has become a tradition, a chance to introduce to the public the latest winner of the WCO’s young people’s concerto competition – and this year is no different.

Three of the six concerts will be also all-classical – and that’s not counting Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture” that will be featured on the Fourth of July program on July 3.

There will also be pops music of course, including a tribute to the 50th anniversary of The Beatles’ iconic album “Abbey Road”; patriotic fare for Independence Day; and an evening of movie scores, most composed by John Williams, with concertmaster Suzanne Beia as violin soloist in the theme from “Schindler’s List.”

All concerts are on six consecutive Wednesday nights from June 28 through July 31. Performances begin at 7 p.m. on the King Street corner of the Capitol Square. They usually last about two hours.

To find out more, including the programs and biographies of performers for each program, go to: https://wisconsinchamberorchestra.org/performance-listing/category/concerts-on-the-square

Once there, if you click on a specific date, on the right hand side you will also find information about concert etiquette, seating on the Capitol lawn, weather cancellations, catering menus, food vendor sales and other information, including details about volunteering and donating. Here is a link to general guidelines:

https://wisconsinchamberorchestra.org/performances/concerts-on-the-square/attending-the-concert/ 

Here are the three classical concerts:

JUNE 26

“East Meets West” features the WCO’s concerto competition winner pianist Sakurako Eriksen (below) – a Madison native now living in Milwaukee — in the popular and virtuosic Piano Concerto No. 3 by Sergei Prokofiev.

Also on the program are “Francesca da Rimini” by Russian composer Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky; “Noble and Sentimental Waltzes” by French composer by Maurice Ravel; and an unnamed work by Spanish composer Isaac Albeniz.

JULY 10

“Finlandia” features the Russian-born and Moscow Conservatory-trained accordion virtuoso Sergei Belkin (below).

On the program are unnamed works by Czech composer Antonin Dvorak and Alexander Glazunov; “Oblivion” by Argentinian composer Astor Piazzolla; the “Sabre Dance” by Russian composer Aram Khachaturian; and “Finlandia” by Finnish composer Jean Sibelius.

JULY 31

“Rockin’ Rachmaninov” features Russian pianist Ilya Yakushev (below), a frequent WCO guest artist who teaches at the Mannes College of Music in New York City.

The program includes the Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18, by Sergei Rachmaninov; the Overture to the opera “The Magic Flute” by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; the 1944 “Cornish Rhapsody” piano concerto score, composed by English composer Hubert Bath for the World War II film “Love Story”; and a Suite from “The Firebird” by Igor Stravinsky.


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Classical music: “Into the Woods” proved a complete, first-rate theatrical experience

February 26, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Larry Wells – the very experienced Opera Guy for The Well-Tempered Ear blog  – attended two performances of “Into the Woods” at the Wisconsin Union Theater, and filed this review. (Photos are by Beau Meyer for the UW-Madison Department of Theatre and Drama.)

By Larry Wells

The University Theatre and University Opera’s recent joint production of “Into the Woods” was a feast for fans of Stephen Sondheim (below). It was a complete theatrical experience with excellent singing, a nuanced orchestral accompaniment, skilled acting and enchanting staging.

The nearly three-hour work is an amalgamation of several well-known fairy tales exploring themes such as parent-child relationships, loss of innocence, self-discovery, the consequences of wishes being fulfilled, and death – but all in an amusing, literate, fast-paced kaleidoscope of witty dialogue, catchy music and sophisticated lyrics.

The production employed an attractive, ever-changing set, designed by John Drescher, that was vaguely reminiscent of Maurice Sendak.

Stage director David Ronis (below, in a photo by Luke DeLalio) utilized the large cast and what had to be an equally large number of backstage crew members in a captivating succession of ensemble pieces and solo numbers. I was never aware of the passing of time. Not looking at my watch is my acid test of a production’s success.

Among the many standout performances, Bryanna Plaisir (below) as the Witch was comical in her delivery and quite amazing in the physicality of her performance. There were a number of times when she flew, and each time I was taken by surprise at her effortlessness. Her initial song, accompanied mostly by percussion, was mesmerizing.

There were two roles that were double cast: Elisheva Pront and Miranda Kettlewell (below) as the Cinderellas; and Meghan Stecker and Zoe Bockhorst as the two Little Red Riding Hoods.

Both Pront and Kettlewell possess excellent voices.

Stecker was the more girlish of the two Red Riding Hoods, whereas Bockhorst (below left) portrayed a slightly more canny character.  Both were very funny in their encounter with Cobi Tappa’s Wolf (below right).

Tappa is a physical actor whose tall lankiness conveyed the Wolf’s lupine nature flawlessly. He also portrayed the Steward, and I was completely captivated by his performance, as was the appreciative audience.

Joshua Kelly (below) was the narrator and also played the baker’s father.  His was a professional quality performance from beginning to end – enunciating so clearly that he was completely understandable throughout.

Jack was played by Christian Michael Brenny. His portrayal of a simple-minded boy was touching, and his singing was outstanding.

Emily Vandenberg (below left) as the wife of the baker (played by Michael Kelley, below right) was another outstanding performer – an excellent comic actress and an accomplished vocalist.

Mention must also be made of Rapunzel and Cinderella’s princes, Tanner Zocher  and Jacob Eliot Elfner. Their two duets, “Agony” and “Agony Reprise,” were enthusiastically received by the audience not only for their delivery but also for such lyrics as “…you know nothing of madness ‘til you’re climbing her hair…”.

Sondheim’s way with words continues to amaze me. In describing a decrepit cow, Jack’s mother gets to sing “…while her withers wither with her…”.  The Wolf gets to sing the line “…there’s no possible way to describe what you feel when you’re talking to your meal…”

Chad Hutchinson (below) conducted the orchestra in a finely shaded performance – never overpowering and always supportive.

There were many other excellent performances and memorable moments. Suffice it to say that altogether cast, crew, artistic and production staff created a show that I enjoyed on two consecutive evenings. In fact I was completely entranced both times.

Postscript: The first evening I sat in front of a person who coughed more or less continually the entire first act.  Mercifully she left at the intermission. Next to me was a woman who alternated between audibly clearing her throat and blowing her nose — when she wasn’t applying moisturizer to her hands — throughout the entire show. Stay home if you’re sick. And remember that you are not at home watching your television.  You are in a theater.


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