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: Next season the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra will expand to two performances of its winter Masterworks concerts by adding a Saturday night concert in Brookfield, near Milwaukee

May 21, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Next season will mark the 20th anniversary of Andrew Sewell (below top) coming to Madison to serve as the music director and principal conductor of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below bottom).

It is hard to imagine a better Bravo! or anniversary gift for the maestro – who has said he wants the WCO to become a chamber orchestra, as its name implies, for the entire state of Wisconsin — than what will in fact take place: the WCO will expand its winter Masterworks concerts to two performances by adding a Saturday night performance at 7:30 p.m. in the Sharon Lynne Wilson Center for the Arts (below) in Brookfield, a suburb of Milwaukee. (Sewell is also the music director of the San Luis Obispo Symphony in California.)

Madison performances of Masterworks will continue to take place at 7:30 p.m. on Friday night in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center.

You can find out more about the Masterworks programs for next season by going to the WCO home website:

https://wisconsinchamberorchestra.org/performance-listing/category/masterworks

There you will find the usual eclectic mix of new guest artists and new or neglected composers and repertoire that has marked Sewell’s tenure and brought him critical acclaim.

Pianist Orion Weiss will perform the popular  Piano Concerto No. 21 in C Major, K. 467 – “Elvira Madigan” – by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; violinists Giora Schmidt and Eric Silberger will perform concertos by Dmitri Kabalevsky and Niccolo Paganini, respectively; harpist Yolanda Kondonassis will perform a concerto by Argentinian Alberto Ginastera; and Andrew Balio (below), principal trumpet of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, will return to Madison where he grew up and perform a 1948 trumpet concerto by Italian composer Andre Tomasi.

Early music and new music to be featured includes works by: Donald Fraser (an acclaimed English conductor, composer and arranger, below) who now lives in Illinois, and often comes to Madison); Joseph Martin Kraus, known as the “Swedish Mozart”; Norwegian composer Johann Svensen; and three English composers (always favorites of Sewell who was born and educated in New Zealand) who are John Marsh, James Macmillan and York Bowen. (In the YouTube video at the bottom you can hear the English Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Kenneth Woods — a native Madisonian who will return next season to conduct the Madison Symphony Orchestra — recording the Scherzo movement from Donald Fraser’s “Sinfonietta,” the same work that the WCO will perform.) 

Works by Franz Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, Felix Mendelssohn and Sergei Prokofiev also figure prominently, including Mozart’s Symphony No. 41 “Jupiter” and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 “Pastoral” in honor of the composer’s 250th birthday in 2020.

Also on the website, you will find the upcoming season of Wednesday night Concerts on the Square for this summer (June 26-July 31) plus the dates and themes – although no guest artists or works — for 2020 (June 24-July 29).

Go to: https://wisconsinchamberorchestra.org/performances

You can also find information for next season about the WCO performing George Frideric Handel’s “Messiah,” Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s ballet “The Nutcracker” with the Madison Ballet; the Young Artist Concerto Competition; the free Family Series; and the community Super Strings program for elementary students.

To receive a brochure with information about all these events and about how to get tickets — an “early bird” discount on subscription tickets runs through May 31– call (608) 257-0638 or go to: https://wisconsinchamberorchestra.org


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Classical music: The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra’s “Messiah” marks 10 years with another sold-out performance and two new soloists this Friday night. Then starting Saturday, it’s on to “The Nutcracker”

December 6, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

There is no more iconic piece of classical music for the holiday season than the oratorio “Messiah” by George Frideric Handel. (You can hear the famous “Hallelujah” Chorus in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

For 10 years, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, the WCO Chorus, the Festival Choir and four guest soloists (all forces from a previous performance are in the photo below) have been bringing the masterwork to Madison. And it usually plays to a full house.

This year’s performance once again takes place at 7 p.m. this Friday night, Dec. 7, at the Blackhawk Church, 8629 Brader Way in Middleton. And once again, all 800 seats are sold out.

For more information, go to: https://wisconsinchamberorchestra.org/performances/messiah-1/

“It is very successful and has become a real tradition,” says WCO’s Chief Operating Officer Sue Ellen McGuire. “We have people and families who come year after year.”

But that does not mean each year’s performance, both acclaimed by critics and popular with the public, is a repetition of the previous year’s.

True, some things carry over, such as the longtime soprano soloist Sarah Lawrence and bass soloist Peter Van de Graaff (below), who is also the overnight resonant voice of classical music on Wisconsin Public Radio via The Beethoven Satellite Network.

“It is such a great masterpiece that I feel I can play around with it somewhat and make each year’s performance distinctive and different,” says WCO music director and conductor Andrew Sewell (below). Some years, he says, he cuts out or adds certain choruses; or changes the intermission break; or alters the makeup of the instruments or choruses; or uses different soloists, or continues to adapt to and adopt early music practices.

Take this year. For the first time, the performance will include two singers who competed in the annual Handel Aria Competition held in Madison: mezzo-soprano Johanna Bronk (a finalist in 2017), and tenor Gene Stenger (bottom left, the second prize winner and audience favorite in 2017).

“It’s a no-brainer and a natural fit to use the world-class talent that takes part in a local event,” says Sewell, who is also the music director of the symphony orchestra in San Luis Obispo in California.

And for those of you who wonder what the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra does after Concerts on the Square end in the summer and before its Masterworks series starts in January, the answer is marking the holidays.

In addition to “Messiah,” the WCO will accompany the Madison Ballet’s performances of Peter Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker” that take place between Dec. 8 and Dec. 26 in the Overture Center. For details and tickets, go to: https://www.madisonballet.org/nutcracker/


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Classical music: Tonight’s Concert on the Square features an 11-year-old cello prodigy and the Middleton High School Choir in an all-Russian program. It will be repeated on Wisconsin Public Television this Saturday night at 6 p.m.

July 11, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Tonight’s Concert on the Square promises to be a special event on several scores.

The “Slavic Dances” concert starts at 7 p.m. on the King Street corner of the Capitol Square.

The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, under the baton of music director Andrew Sewell, will perform an appealing all-Russian program.

It features a Concert Waltz by Alexander Glazunov; the beautifully melodic and very accessible “Variations on a Rococo Theme” for cello and orchestra by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (heard with Yo-Yo Ma in the YouTube video at the bottom); and the Intermezzo and Women’s Dance by Sergei Rachmaninoff.

Adding to the appeal is the appearance of Miriam K. Smith (below) in the Tchaikovsky. Smith, who played and was interviewed on Tuesday’s edition of “The Midday” on Wisconsin Public Radio, is an 11-year-old prodigy on the cello who already has an impressive history of concert appearances.

As a kind of preface or program note to read if you are at the concert, here is a link to Smith’s interview and appearance on “The Midday”: https://www.wpr.org/programs/midday

For more biographical information about Smith and about the concert, in general including rules (blankets can go down starting at 3 p.m.), etiquette and food vendors, go to: https://wisconsinchamberorchestra.org/performances/concerts-on-the-square-3-3/

Also joining the WCO is the Middleton High School Choir (below).

NOTE: If you can’t make the concert tonight in person, you can take consolation in the fact that the concert will be videotaped and then broadcast on Wisconsin Public Television on this coming Saturday night at from 6 to 7 p.m. on Channel 21 (Cable Channel 600).


Classical music: Today is the Fourth of July. Independence Day is the right time to celebrate American classical composers and patriotic concert music. Here are three ways to do that

July 4, 2018
7 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Today is the Fourth of July – Independence Day.

That makes it exactly the right time to think about American composers and American patriotic music – both of which have been receiving well-deserved airplay all week on Wisconsin Public Radio.

Here are three items that seem appropriate because they pertain to American composers and American classical music.

ITEM 1

Tonight at 7 p.m. on the King Street corner of the Capital Square in downtown Madison, guest conductor Huw Edwards (below) will lead the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra in its Concert on the Square for the Fourth of July.

The “American Salute” program includes: “American Salute” by Morton Gould; the Overture to “Candide” by Leonard Bernstein; “Wisconsin Forward Forever” by march king John Philip Sousa; and, of course, “The 1812 Overture” by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky.

Blankets can go down on the ground starting at 3 p.m. For more general information about attending the concert including weather updates, rules and etiquette, and food caterers and vendors, go to:

https://wisconsinchamberorchestra.org/performances/concerts-on-the-square-2-2/

ITEM 2

Can you name 30 American classical composers? The Ear tried and it’s not easy.

But thanks to Capital Public Radio in Sacramento, California – which will also play and stream (click on the Listen tab) such music today — it isn’t hard.

Here is a link:

http://www.capradio.org/music/classical/2018/07/02/the-30-american-composers-were-featuring-on-the-fourth-of-july/

You can click on the link “Playlist for Independence Day” and see the photo of the composers and the titles of compositions that will be played.

You can also click on the composer’s name in the alphabetized list and see a biography in Wikipedia.

Can you think of American composers who didn’t make the list? Leave the name or names – Henry Cowell and Virgil Thomson (below)  come to mind — in the COMMENT section.

The Ear wants to hear.

ITEM 3

Finally, given the controversial political issues of the day surrounding immigration, The Ear offers this take on perhaps the most virtuosic piano transcription of patriotic music ever played.

It was done by someone who immigrated permanently to the U.S. in 1939 and then became a naturalized citizen in 1944. He also raised millions through war bonds during World War II.

He was the Russian-born pianist Vladimir Horowitz, here playing his own celebrated virtuoso arrangement – done in 1945 for a patriotic rally and war bonds concert in Central Park — of ”The Stars and Stripes Forever” by John Philip Sousa.

Here is a link to his biography in Wikipedia:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vladimir_Horowitz

And here is the YouTube audio of his own performance of the Sousa piece, with the score, including all the special technical demands, especially lots of Horowitz’s famous octaves, to follow along with. It’s a performance that has become justifiably legendary:


Classical music: The 35th annual summer Concerts on the Square start this Wednesday night and will feature a lot of classical music

June 25, 2018
3 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Maestro Andrew Sewell usually makes sure the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra programs a fair amount of classical music for its annual summer Concerts on the Square (below).

The FREE popular outdoor concerts — billed as “The Biggest Picnic of  Summer” — usually draw up to at least 20,000 people for each performance on the King Street corner of the State Capitol.

They start this Wednesday night at 7 p.m. – blankets can go down at 3 p.m. — and run for six consecutive Wednesday nights through Aug. 1.

But this year Sewell (below) seems especially generous with the classical fare he is serving up. In fact, four of the six concerts are all classical – a much higher percentage than in most past years, if The Ear recalls correctly.

For the complete lineup of the concerts – and to compare this year’s offerings with those of past years — go to the website: https://wisconsinchamberorchestra.org/performance-listing/category/concerts-on-the-square

Then you can click on “More Info” for each individual concert date to get the full program and information about the performers.You can also find what you need to know about following rules, parking, reserving tables, listening etiquette, volunteering, donating and support, and finding menus for food providers.

For this opening concert “Carnival” on Wednesday, the WCO will showcase 18-year-old Kenosha high school senior Matthew Udry (below), a cellist who won this year’s Young Artist Concerto Competition. Udry will perform the Cello Concerto No. 1 by Dmitri Shostakovich.

Also on the all-Slavic program are two Czech compositions:  the “Carnival” Overture by Antonin Dvorak (heard in the YouTube video at the bottom); and “Three Dances” from the opera “The Bartered Bride” by Bedrich Smetana.

An all-Russian concert is slated for July 11 with another student cellist, Miriam K. Smith (below top), and the Middleton High School Choir (below bottom). The program includes the Concert Waltz No. 2 by Alexander Glazunov, the “Rococo” Variations by Peter Tchaikovsky and the Intermezzo and Women’s Dance by Sergei Rachmaninoff.

The July 25 concert features the up-and-coming guitarist Colin Davin (below) in a programs of Spanish and Hispanic music including Joaquin Rodrigo’s “Concierto de Aranjuez,” Alberto Ginastera’s “Estancia: Four Dances,” and Roberto Sierra’s “Fandango.”

Finally, on Aug. 1, baritone Jubilant Sykes (below) is featured in a program that includes: the “Norwegian Rhapsody No. 1” by Johan Halvorsen; Aaron Copland’s “Old American Songs,” including “Simple Gifts” and “I Bought Me a Cat” as well as two spirituals, “Were You There?” and “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child”;  the Interlude from the symphonic ode, “La Nuit et l’Amour” (Night and Love), from the cantata “Ludus pro Patria,” by the French composer Augusta Holmes; and the Symphony No. 9 “From the New World” by Antonin Dvorak.

Of course other programs include pops and rock music, plus patriotic music for the Fourth of July concert — only fitting for the occasion.

But The Ear still thinks the classical fare is generous and noteworthy.

Of course, loud chitchat, eating and other neighborly noise could interfere with your ability to listen closely to the music.

But Andrew Sewell and the WCO still deserve a big shout out!

Bravo, all!


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