By Jacob Stockinger
The Madison Opera will stage Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s The Magic Flute this Friday night, April 21 at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon, April 23, at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall. (Production photos are courtesy of the Arizona Opera, from which the Madison Opera got its sets and costumes.)
Here are an introduction and some details, courtesy of the Madison Opera:
Written in the last year of his life, Mozart’s opera is part fairy tale, part adventure story, and is filled with enchantment.
Set in a fairy-tale world of day and night, the opera follows Prince Tamino and the bird-catcher Papageno as they embark on a mission to rescue Pamina, the daughter of the Queen of the Night. Pamina had been kidnapped by Sarastro, the leader of a religious order. But it turns out that exactly who is “good” and who is “evil” is not always what it appears.
Along the way to happily-ever-after, Pamina, Tamino and Papageno face many challenges, but are assisted by a magic flute, magic bells, a trio of guiding spirits and their own clear-eyed sense of right and wrong.
“The Magic Flute has been beloved around the world since its 1791 premiere,” says Kathryn Smith (below in a photo by James Gill), Madison Opera’s general director. “It has been called a fairy tale for both adults and children, with a story that works on many levels, all set to Mozart’s glorious music. I’m so delighted to be sharing it again with Madison, with an incredible cast, director and conductor.”
The opera runs about 2 hours and 45 minutes with one intermission.
Tickets are $18 to $130.
“The Magic Flute” will be sung in German with English supertitles.
For more about the production and cast, go to:
And also go to:
Dan Rigazzi, who has been on the directing staff at the Metropolitan Opera for 10 years, makes his Madison Opera debut with this beautiful production that incorporates some steampunk elements into its fairy-tale setting.
Gary Thor Wedow, a renowned Mozart conductor, makes his mainstage debut with this opera, after having conducted Opera in the Park in 2016 and 2012.
Conductor Wedow (below) recently agreed to do an email Q&A with The Ear:
Could you briefly introduce yourself to readers?
Hello! I’m an American conductor, born in LaPorte, Indiana. A faculty member at The Juilliard School, I spend a lot of time with music of the 18th century — Handel and Mozart and often earlier, like Monteverdi, Purcell and Cavalli. But I conduct everything and grew up in love with the Romantics. I’ve also always done a lot of contemporary music. I love it all.
Mozart’s music sounds so clear and easy or simple, but the reality is quite different, musicians say. What do you strive for and what qualities do you think make for great Mozart playing?
Mozart engages both the brain and the heart. He challenges your intellect with amazing feats of counterpoint, orchestration and structure while tugging at your heart, all the time pulling you along in a deep drama.
Mozart was an Italian melodist with a German contrapuntal, harmonic engine – like an incredible automobile with an Italian slick body and a German motor.
Do you share the view that opera is central to Mozart’s music, even to his solo, chamber and ensemble instrumental music? How so? What is special or unique to Mozart’s operas, and to this opera in particular?
From all accounts, Mozart (below, in his final year) was a huge personality who was full of life and a keen observer of the human condition; his letters are full of astute, often merciless and sometimes loving evaluations of family, colleagues and patrons.
Mozart’s music speaks of the human condition: its passions, loves and hopes— no matter what genre. His music is innately dramatic and primal, going immediately to the most basic and universal human emotions with breathtaking nuance, variety and depth. (You can hear the Overture to “The Magic Flute,” performed by the Metropolitan Opera orchestra under James Levine, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)
Tomorrow: Tricks to conducting Mozart and what to pay special attention to in this production of The Magic Flute.
ALERT: Tonight at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall is a FREE concert of choral music by the UW-Madison group Chorale under its director Bruce Gladstone. Sorry, no word on the program.
By Jacob Stockinger
This afternoon at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall is your last chance to hear twin-sister, Madison-born pianists Christina and Michelle Naughton (below top) perform a Mozart concerto with the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below bottom). Works by Claude Debussy and Dmitri Shostakovich are also on the program conducted by MSO music director John DeMain.
The program has received fine reviews from the critics:
Here is a review written by John W. Barker for Isthmus:
Here is the review by Greg Hettmansberger for his blog “What Greg Says”:
And here is a review written by Jessica Courtier for The Capital Times:
For more information about the concert and program, go to:
NEW MSO POETRY PROGRAM “COUNTERRPOINTS” DEBUTS TODAY
In addition, as a part of its 2016-17 season offerings, the Madison Symphony Orchestra (MSO) will today launch The Counterpoint Readings, a special event series where poets will respond to a selected symphonic piece, culminating in a reading in Overture Center’s Promenade Lounge the weekend the piece is performed. It is scheduled to start after the performance, at around 4:30 p.m. today.
NOTE: There is a $10 admission charge to the poetry reading, which includes a wine and cheese reception. But because notice was given late, the original deadline of Nov. 10 for reservations will be overlooked.
The first reading focuses on Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 by Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich (below), performed by the MSO as part of its “Paired to Perfection” concerts this weekend. (You can hear the famous finale of the Shostakovich symphony performed by Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in the YouTube video at the bottom.)
The Counterpoint Readings debut will happen following today’s performance, beginning at approximately 4:30 p.m. Eight poets will perform original works— world premieres for each artist.
Coordinated by MSO violist and poet Katrin Talbot (below, writing poetry in a photo by Isabel Karp), the series seeks to expand the audience’s musical experience and bring Madison’s poetry into a new light. Another such music-based poetry reading, to take place in the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, is scheduled for March, according to Talbot.
Katrin Talbot shares her vision of the how the power of words can respond to this significant historical composition, “Stalin is trumpeting out Soviet dominance. Yet somehow, he (Shostakovich) overcame it to generate art. Deception to get his voice heard.”
Among the poets slated to appear include MSO bassist August Jirovec, former Wisconsin Poet Laureate Marilyn Taylor, former Madison Poet Laureate Sarah Busse, Richard Merelman, Eve Robillard, Timothy Walsh, Marilyn Annucci and Rita Mae Reese.
Here is a preview: August Jirovec’s inspiration leading up to the reading:
“If there be meaning in this world askew,
let toils and rhyming gripes slide—disappear
your cross of blood drawn in the dirt austere
and lavish canvases of nascent hue
with brilliant visions! Let your whimsy brew
brash, crazen potions inspired by this tier
of music hefted from chests, as time’s spear
pierces the heart that must love art—through you.”
And here is a link to a long interview with Talbot by Lindsay Christians for The Capital Times:
For more information go to:
The Counterpoint Readings, direct link: http://www.madisonsymphony.org/counterpointreadings
Paired to Perfection concerts: http://www.madisonsymphony.org/naughtons
By Jacob Stockinger
The Ear sees Lang Lang — the world’s highest paid classical pianist — and Yundi Li and all the Chinese winners of major competitions, and he reads that there are more piano students in China than in all of Western Europe, North America and South America combined.
But the path to such success wasn’t easy.
In fact it was downright tragic during the Cultural Revolution waged by Chairman Mao Zedong – with dramatic stories and figures that may be worthy of an opera or two. (Below is a poster from the Cultural Revolution.)
Anyway, weekends are a good time for reading longer pieces.
So here is a fine and eye-opening story The Ear liked. It comes from The Guardian newspaper in the UK. It even ponders the question of whether the more cerebral and intellectual Johann Sebastian Bach will soon replace the more dramatic and emotional Ludwig van Beethoven as China’s favorite classical composer.
A REMINDER: Subscribers to the Madison Symphony Orchestra‘s current season that just ended have until May 5 — this Thursday — to renew and save their current seats. New subscribers can receive up to 50 percent off and other discounts are available. For more about the programs of the 2016-17 season and about subscribing, visit:
By Jacob Stockinger
The Ear has received the following notice from the Madison Youth Choirs about three concerts this coming weekend:
On this Saturday, May 7, and Sunday, May 8, 2016, in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center for the Arts, the young singers of Madison Youth Choirs (below, at the winter concert in 2014) will bring to life the musical creations of several groups who have left their homelands throughout history, under a variety of circumstances.
How do we keep our traditions in a place where they may not be tolerated? How do we maintain our identities in the face of great change? How do we preserve our stories and our history for future generations?
We invite you to ponder these questions with us as we explore the rich choral work of the African-American, Indian, Cuban, Arabic, Irish, Jewish and additional musical traditions as well as several works based on the biblical diaspora as told in Psalm 137.
At the Saturday evening performance, MYC will also present the Carrel Pray Music Educator of the Year Award to Dan Krunnfusz (below), former artistic director and conductor of the Madison Boychoir and a longtime choral and general music teacher in Madison and Baraboo public schools.
Saturday, May 7, 2016, 7 p.m.: Boychoirs
Sunday, May 8, 2016, 3:30 p.m. Girl choirs; 7:30 p.m. High School Ensembles
Tickets are $15 for adults, $10 for students ages 8-18. Children 7 and under receive free admission but a physical ticket is required for entry. AUDIENCE MEMBERS WILL NEED A SEPARATE TICKET FOR EACH CONCERT.
Tickets are available through Overture Center Box Office, and may be acquired in person at 201 State Street, Madison; via phone at (608) 258 – 4141; or online at http://www.overturecenter.org/events/sounds-like-home-music-in-diaspora
This project is generously supported by American Girl’s Fund for Children, BMO Harris Bank, the Green Bay Packers Foundation, the Kenneth A. Lattman Foundation, the Madison Community Foundation, the Madison Gas and Electric Foundation, the Pleasant T. Rowland Foundation, and Dane Arts with additional funding from the Endres Mfg. Company Foundation. This project is also supported in part by a grant from the Wisconsin Arts Board with funds from the State of Wisconsin and the National Endowment for the Arts.
About the Madison Youth Choirs (MYC, see below in a photo by Jon Harlow on its tour to an international festival in Scotland in 2014): Recognized as an innovator in youth choral music education, Madison Youth Choirs (MYC) welcomes singers of all ability levels, annually serving more than 1,000 young people, ages 7-18, through a wide variety of choral programs in our community.
Cultivating a comprehensive music education philosophy that inspires self-confidence, personal responsibility, and a spirit of inquiry leading students to become “expert noticers,” MYC creates accessible, meaningful opportunities for youth to thrive in the arts and beyond.
Here is the repertoire of the MYC 2016 Spring Concert Series “Sounds Like Home: Music in Diaspora”
Saturday, May 7, 2016, Capitol Theater, Overture Center for the Arts
7 p.m. Concert (Featuring MYC Boychoirs)
Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child…Traditional spiritual, arr. Burleigh
Hashivenu…Traditional Hebrew, arr. Rao
Rolling Down to Rio…Edward German
The Minstrel Boy…Traditional Irish, arr. Benjamin Britten
Super Flumina Babylonis…Giacomo Carissimi
Duke’s Place…Duke Ellington, arr. Swiggum/Ross
As by the Streams of Babylon…Thomas Campion
A Miner’s Life…Traditional Irish, arr. Houston
Combined Boychoirs (below, in a photo by Joanie Crump)
The Riflemen of Bennington…Traditional, arr. Swiggum
Sunday, May 8, 2016, Capitol Theater, Overture Center for the Arts
3:30 p.m. Concert (Featuring MYC Girlchoirs, below in a photo by Karen Brown)
Beidh Aonach Amarach…Traditional Irish, arr. Dwyer
Ani Ma’amin…Traditional Hebrew, arr. Caldwell/Ivory
Gospel Train…Traditional spiritual, arr. Shirley McRae
Alhamdoulillah…Traditional Arabic, arr. Laura Hawley
Folksong arrangements (2, 3, 4)…Gideon Klein
Hope is the Thing with Feathers…Marye Helms
Wild Mountain Thyme…Traditional Irish, arr. Jay Broeker
Stadt und Land in stille Ruh…Traditional German canon
Mi’kmaq Honor Song….arr. Lydia Adams
Thou Shalt Bring Them In…..G.F. Handel
Iraqi Peace Song…..Lori Tennenhouse
Bring Me Little Water, Silvy…..credited to Leadbelly, arr. Moira Smiley
Capriccio, Cantilena, and Cantabile
Across the Water (world premiere)… UW-Madison alumnus Scott Gendel (below)
7:30 p.m. Concert (Featuring High School Ensembles)
We Are…Ysaye Barnwell
Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child…Traditional spiritual
Jai Bhavani…arr. Ethan Sperry
Hej, Igazitsad…Lajos Bardos
An Wasserflüssen Babylon…Michael Praetorius
Uz mne kone vyvadeji (from folksong arrangements)…Gideon Klein
Son de Camaguey…Traditional Cuban, arr. Stephen Hatfield
Loch Lomond…Traditional Scottish air, arr. Ralph Vaughan Williams
In a Neighborhood in Los Angeles (from Alarcón Madrigals)…Roger Bourland
Barchuri Le’an Tisa…Gideon Klein
Kafal Sviri…Traditional Bulgarian, arr. Liondev
Cantabile and Ragazzi
O, What a Beautiful City…Traditional spiritual, arr. Shawn Kirchner
By Jacob Stockinger
There are many great violinists playing today. But arguably the most important and innovative is 36-year-old Hilary Hahn (below), the thoughtful virtuoso who returns to perform a MUST-HEAR recital in Shannon Hall of the Wisconsin Union Theater at 7:30 p.m. this coming Sunday night.
The last two recitals there by Hahn were two of the most memorable live chamber music performances The Ear has ever heard.
Tickets are $27.50 to $50.50. UW-Madison students are $10.
Here is a link to information about tickets, the program and audio samples:
During her 20-year career, Hahn – who often mixes the old and new both in live performances and on recordings — has consistently turned in astounding performances of the violin repertoire, including classics. Those works include concertos and sonatas by Johann Sebastian Bach, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, Felix Mendelssohn, Niccolo Paganini, Johannes Brahms, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Charles Ives, Jean Sibelius, Edward Elgar, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Samuel Barber, Igor Stravinsky, Arnold Schoenberg, Sergei Prokofiev, Dmitri Shostakovich, Leonard Bernstein and others.
But she also frequently commissions and adds new works to the repertoire, including a concerto by Edgar Meyer and a Pulitzer Prize-winning concerto by Jennifer Higdon, who teaches composition at the Curtis Institute of music where Hahn studied. Plus, she is a talented and charming “postcard” blogger and interviewer.
Both sides of Hilary Hahn’s artistry – the classic and the contemporary — will be on display during her Madison recital. The very busy Hahn (below, in a photo by Peter Miller) recently agreed to do an email Q&A with The Ear:
You have long been known as an innovative artist. What are your new and upcoming projects, including recordings and commissions?
I’m in the middle of a 14-month-long artist residency at the Vienna Konzerthaus. It’s my first such experience, so I feel like a kid in a candy store, getting to try out ideas sequentially that I would otherwise have to stretch over several years.
I’m excited to include among my residency performing as soloist with five different orchestras in the same hall, as well as giving a recital there and developing local initiatives to bring the community and classical music even closer together. Next year, I will be in residence in Seattle and Lyon. It’s been fun seeing what residency activities I want to carry over and what I can add that is specific to each city.
As far as commissions go, over this season and next, I’m world-premiering and touring a significant new contribution to the solo violin repertoire, Six Partitas by Antón García Abril (below), written for me.
That is a meaningful project for me, because I sensed that Mr. García Abril would write a fantastic set of pieces if I could convince him to take on the assignment. He decided to do it and the music turned out to be more wonderful and inspiring to play than I could have imagined. It feels like those phrases breathe with me and the notes fit in my hands.
In addition, I am in the process of wrapping up the original trajectory of my project, In 27 Pieces: the Hilary Hahn Encores. After some concerts on this upcoming tour, as encores, my recital partner Cory Smythe and I will be giving world premieres of the Honorable Mentions from my Encores contest.
Finally, in the fall, the complete edition of the sheet music for all 27 original works will be published as a single edition, with my fingerings, bowings and performance notes.
Is there an underlying unity or purpose to your program of works by Mozart, Bach, García Abril, Copland and Davidson?
I hope the listeners will find their own versions of unity and purpose in the program. The pieces weren’t assembled randomly, but then again, everyone listens differently.
García Abril’s Six Partitas, of which I will play No. 1, entitled “Heart,” are solo polyphonic works. The violin alone carries multiple melodic lines, as well as providing its own harmonies. Johann Sebastian Bach (below top) wrote his polyphonic Six Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin in 1720. I felt it was important to carry forward this particular type of composition into the present day, so I commissioned Mr. García Abril (below bottom, in a photo by Julio Ficha) to create this set of works. (You can hear Hilary Hahn interview Anton Garcia Abril in a YouTube video at the bottom.)
His writing for violin is compelling, fluid, emotional, clever and expressively rich in a way that I felt needed to be explored further. Especially as this is the premiere tour of his Partita No. 1, I wanted to juxtapose the new work with one of Bach’s, namely the Third Sonata with its complex and multifaceted fugue.
As for the duo pieces on the program, the compositional styles — though they span 250 years — have a certain openness in common: the writing is not densely layered, leaving lots of room for imagination.
What about the works by Mozart and Copland?
Mozart’s set of sonatas for keyboard and violin is one of the most extensive for this instrumentation, and since I was a student, I’ve been adding at least one to my repertoire annually. It’s wonderful to explore such a prolific composer’s work over a long stretch of time. This particular sonata vacillates among stormy drama, lyricism and playfulness.
The piece by Aaron Copland (below) is gorgeous, revealing. In this sonata, Copland’s musical language is clearly recognizable, but the texture is more sparse than in his famous larger-ensemble works, making it boldly direct and engrossing to listen to.
And the music by Tina Davidson?
The work by Tina Davidson (below) follows on the tonality of the Copland, but the composer’s treatment of the music goes in an entirely different direction. “Blue Curve of the Earth” was written in Wyoming during an artist residency, and was inspired by a photo of the edge of the Earth from space. The music is dreamy yet dimensional, angular yet lush. “Blue Curve of the Earth” is from the Encores project.
What would you like the public to know about composers Antón García Abril and Tina Davidson and their violin music or music in general?
I like to picture where pieces were written; the surroundings can add another dimension to the music. Environment influences the creative process. The studio is the private stage. Antón works in a studio outside of Madrid that his son, the architect by the same name, designed for him. Tina is based out of a refashioned church in Pennsylvania, with vaulted ceilings and a garden.
Both write beautifully for voice. Since violin can be a lyrical instrument and is tonally varied, capable of both sustaining and articulating, the ability to write expressively for voice transfers to the violin. Also, I have the impression that both composers start from a strong conceptual point with their works. When I play their music, the big line is the first thing that jumps out at me; the myriad fine details support the gestures.
If you play an encore or two, will they be from the ones you commissioned a couple of years ago and won a Grammy for?
That’s the plan! I feel very close to those pieces. Great encores exist from previous centuries, too; I never rule out the classics.
Why did you commission 27 short encores?
I began to notice that new encore pieces were not being showcased as much as other types of contemporary works. Shorter pieces remain a crucial part of every violinist’s education and repertoire, and I believed that potential new favorites should be encouraged and performed as well.
How successful have they been with the public and with other artists?
The public embraced the project. The music contained within the Encores is varied and imaginative. Each composer had a different concept of what an encore can add to today’s musical landscape.
I think every listener can find at least one work that is particularly poignant. I want the audience to discover these pieces for themselves. It is thrilling to listen to music that you have never heard before and, uninfluenced by other people’s opinions, be free to feel your own response.
This project is something I’ve been working on for a long time; I would estimate that my direct involvement in all of the different parts will wind up having a 15-year arc. What I have learned on musical and creative levels from working with the composers will stay with me for my whole career, and the logistical lessons from organizing such a big project will influence my future work.
Most importantly, I hope the Encores themselves will continue in the active repertoire beyond my lifetime. That will be up to other performers, of course.
You have played here several times, both concertos and solo recitals. Is there anything you would like to say about performing in Madison and about Madison audiences?
I really enjoy Madison itself. It’s in a beautiful part of the country. I’ll never forget the first time I visited, in the winter, when the city was covered by snow and one of the sidewalks featured a table topped by a tower of knit hats and sweaters. As for the Madison audience, their curiosity and involvement are energizing.
Is there anything else you would like to say?
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 for 12 years hosted an early music show every other Sunday morning on WORT FM 89.9 FM. He serves on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison. He also took the performance photos, some at the First Congregational United Church of Christ and some at the Capitol Lakes Retirement Center.
By John W. Barker
Last Friday night, the chamber music ensemble Con Vivo (Music With Life) gave its winter concert at the First Congregational United Church of Christ.
It was a large program of nine relatively short pieces, designed to allow eight members of the group to show off their skills in solos, in duets and in trio pairings.
Participants were: Robert Taylor, clarinet; Cynthia Cameron-Fix, bassoon; Olga Pomolova and Kathryn Taylor, violins; Janse Vincent, viola; Derek Handley, cello; Dan Lyons, piano; and Don DeBruin, organ.
The opening and closing items—Mikhail Glinka’s Trio pathétique and Felix Mendelssohn’s Konzertstück No. 2, combined clarinet and bassoon with piano (below).
A corresponding combination of clarinet, viola and piano (below) was mustered for two of Max Bruch’s Eight Pieces, Op. 83.
In string groupings, two violins (below) played one of Georg Philipp Telemann’s Canonic Sonatas (you can hear an example in a YouTube video at the bottom), and, with piano added, Three Duets by Dmitri Shostakovich.
Violin and viola rendered the Little Suite for Autumn by Peter Schickele (the real person behind “P.D.Q. Bach”).
Franz Danzi’s Duet, Op. 9., No. 1, called for viola and cello (below), while George Crumb’s Sonata was for solo cello.
And, for good measure, there was a duet by Clifford Demarest for piano and organ.
The program was certainly varied. It ranged from deeply diluted pseudo-Copland (Schickele) and unabashedly entertaining trivia (Shostakovich) through Telemann’s contrapuntal wit and Danzi’s artful string contrasts (though too deeply caught up in the viola’s upper register), to the varied colors of winds and piano.
Surely the most striking piece was Crumb’s sonata, a tough work that is not easy listening but provocatively interesting, and was dazzlingly played by Handley.
Rather a throwaway, though, was the Demarest duet, in which the powerful organ sound all but totally overwhelmed the piano.
As it happened, this group gave the same program (less the Demarest) at the Grand Hall of the Capitol Lakes Retirement Center the evening before.
I found it a good opportunity to compare the contributions of differing acoustics to chamber music listening. For such experience, I like to sit very close to the players, and I could do this at the Thursday performance, and in a modestly sized hall with fine acoustics for music.
But the First Congregational Church is a long, deep hall, and I sat about halfway back in it. Its reverberations can add a nice bloom to projected sound, but also some blur.
This was certainly the case where the two wind instruments tended to meld. And when the viola was at the piano, at the back of the chancel, it almost disappeared at times, while other two-string combinations were not always crystal clear.
I have had growing concerns about First Congo as a venue for chamber music, and I should think the Con Vivo folks must think about this. And listeners should, also. Clearly, where you sit for intimate music-making has its effects.
For all that, I enjoyed the group’s program in each setting, and renewed my admiration for their artistry and enterprise.
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 for 12 years hosted an early music show every other Sunday morning on WORT-FM 89.9 FM. He serves on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.
By John W. Barker
Happily avoiding all the holiday falderal this month, the Middleton Community Orchestra (below) gave Ludwig Beethoven a slightly delayed birthday tribute in the form of an unusual concert program on last Friday night that drew a full house.
Led by the bold and enterprising conductor Steve Kurr (below center), the orchestra plunged straightway into no less than Beethoven’s epochal Symphony No. 3, the “Eroica.”
NOTE: For more background, here is a link to The Ear’s interview with Steve Kurr about this program:
The 50-minute long “Eroica” is a work that transformed the symphonic genre, and it continues to challenge performers. Provocative sounds, passages of complex counterpoint and assertions of tonal power—all these call for a disciplined and confident performance.
Kurr brought that off handsomely, to his and his players’ great credit. I had the feeling that he asked of these players more than they had first thought they could give, and he drew it out of them, to their obvious pride and satisfaction.
To be sure, there were some occasional smudges here and there, but the ensemble standards were otherwise consistently high. I am always interested to hear, in an orchestra that does not have overwhelming strings, the more balanced audibility of the winds, especially the woodwinds.
Here it was the brass (complete with four horns) that offered particular heroics. At times Kurr perhaps allowed them too much freedom when only filling out chords; but where they deserved prominence they sounded magnificent—notably in the scherzo’s trio section. In all, the overall mix really brought out the daring use by Beethoven (below) of pungent dissonances and harmonic shocks.
Kurr took the opening movement at a particularly brisk speed, while the second movement, the profound funeral march, was paced much more slowly than most conductors would take it — but to truly eloquent effect. (You can hear the astonishing Funeral March movement performed by the Vienna Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein in a YouTube video at the bottom.)
I found the symphony’s finale sometimes was given a rather foursquare quality, but the enthusiasm maintained momentum.
It was a difficult act to follow. But the choice of the other item on the program was a brilliant one, bringing us a remarkable Beethoven work that is rarely ever heard in concerts.
How often can an orchestra afford to assemble a brilliant pianist, six vocal soloists and a chorus — all for one 25-minute work? But those are the demands of Beethoven’s “Choral Fantasy,” a product of a time when concerts often brought together a whole circus of performers.
In a special way, this novelty made a perfect pairing with the “Eroica.” In the two works, we catch Beethoven in his two great instances of self-borrowing to the end of evolving perfection.
The finale of the “Eroica” was the fourth and final destination for a set of variations on a contradance tune. In its turn, the Fantasy, after opening with an improvisatory exercise for the pianist, turns into a concerto-like set of variations on a tune, which is finally taken up by solo vocalists and then the chorus.
The brilliant and versatile Thomas Kasdorf (below), a familiar soloist around these parts who was raised in Middleton and studied at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music — was the energetic pianist.
Six young singers were the solo battery, and a corporal’s guard from the Madison Symphony Chorus (below top and bottom) provided the brief but telling final justification for calling this a “Choral Fantasy.”
(The singers, below but not in order, were sopranos Allison Vollinger and Kirsten Larson; alto Jessica Lee Kasinski; tenor Richard Statz; baritone Gavon Waid; and bass Robert Dindorff.)
The orchestra played its role with gusto, and it’s wonderful how, by the end, it almost sounds as if we are moving into the Ninth Symphony.
This was an exhilarating concert, and a wonderful achievement for all involved.
By Jacob Stockinger
Here is a special posting, a review written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker, who also took performance photos. 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 for 12 years hosted an early music show every other Sunday morning on WORT FM 89.9 FM. He serves on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.
By John W. Barker
On Saturday night, in Mills Hall on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, Mikko Rankin Utevsky led his Madison Area Youth Chamber Orchestra (MAYCO) in the first of this year’s two summer concerts. More than ever, it showed Utevsky in new degrees of bravery and enterprise.
The program was organized around the idea of the Baroque concerto grosso, in various later transformations.
To begin, there was one of the “Morning, Noon, and Night” trilogy of Haydn’s symphonies, No. 6 in D, Le Matin. Haydn used the first of his symphonies composed for his new Esterhazy employer to show off the solo skills of his players.
The young MAYCO counterparts did themselves proud in both ensemble and solo playing, with particular flair displayed by first violinist Valerie Clare Sanders (below) in her virtuosic solos. And Utevsky’s care in have his string players totally avoid vibrato gave a good demonstration of 18th-century instrumental sound.
The second work, by recent UW-Madison School of Music graduate in composition, Jonathan Posthuma (below), more explicitly recreated the old configuration in his Concerto Grosso No. 1 in E minor.
It presents indeed the proper concertino of two violins and cello, against a ripieno string orchestra. In place of the traditional continuo, however, Posthuma brought in four percussionists and a pianist. The percussionists are members of the local ensemble Clocks in Motion (below), currently making a name for itself as an avant-garde group.
The idea was fascinating, but in two of the three movements the results were confusing. In the first, the string orchestra was overwhelmed by floods of color worthy of a Busby Berkeley Hollywood spectacular, while the second movement was a long procession of pops and moans. All color and hardly any real musical ideas.
The third movement, on the other hand, was a lusty fugue, given forth at first by only the strings, with the percussionists then integrated into a quite well-balanced texture. This is stated as the first in what will be a full set of 12 concertos, to make up a typical Baroque dozen.
It will be interesting to see how such a project unfolds. But one must credit Utevsky (below) for giving this first venture its world premiere performance.
Another premiere followed the intermission. Utevsky was able to secure from the contemporary British composer Cecilia McDowall (below) the rights to the first American performance of her piece for chamber orchestra, Rain, Steam, and Speed, inspired by J.M.W. Turner’s powerful painting of the same title, with its subtitle of The Great Western Railway.
Less literally conceived than Arthur Honegger’s famous railroad evocation, Pacific 231, this piece is an effort to suggest the kaleidoscopic contents of the painting, in what might be called a British neo-Impressionist style. A challenging work for the orchestra, which they brought off very effectively.
Finally came not a concerto grosso, but a Romantic solo concerto, the one for Cello and Orchestra by Robert Schumann. Not as often heard as it should be, it is a handsome and enjoyable work.
The soloist was Parry Karp (below), of the UW-Madison School of Music faculty, of the Pro Arte Quartet, and of so much else. He approached the piece not in bravura pretentiousness but with a kind of affectionate warmth that suited it admirably, while also allowing Utevsky the chance to give his players experience in collegial ensemble interaction with a soloist.
What these gifted young players of high school and college ages are able to do is really amazing. Utevsky grows better and better in giving them — and himself — marvellous training opportunity. Watch for the second concert, with music by Ernest Bloch, George Frideric Handel and Haydn (the famed “Surprise” Symphony) with piano soloist Jason Kutz, at 7:30 pm. on Friday, August 21, location to be announced.
You can find more information here: http://www.mayco.org
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 for 12 years hosted an early music show every other Sunday morning on WORT FM 89.9 FM. He serves on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.
By John W. Barker
This weekend, the Madison Symphony Orchestra will bring us that giant among symphonies, Beethoven’s Ninth. We now take that work so for granted as a musical summit by itself that we lose sight of its enormous impact on composers of the rest of the 19th century.
The introduction of solo and choral voices into an orchestral symphony score was radical, and inspired many responses. One was the efforts of Hector Berlioz to infuse the elements of opera into a symphonically structured work, resulting in that masterpiece, his “dramatic symphony” Romeo et Juliette. Richard Wagner, by contrast, built an entire career of casting operas in symphonic terms. The culmination of the “choral symphony” came with three of the symphonies by Gustav Mahler (Nos. 2, 3 and 8).
But an earlier response was brought to us last Saturday night by the UW-Madison Choral Union and Symphony Orchestra (below). This was Felix Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 2, known as the Lobgesang or “Hymn of Praise.” It was composed in 1840, a mere 16 years after Beethoven’s Ninth was premiered.
Mendelssohn (below) did not simplistically imitate the prototype, but adapted its idea to his own purposes. In place of three elaborate and individual movements, the work’s No. 1, called “sinfonia,” is a set of three successive orchestral sections that flow with limited breaks one after the other, for a total of 15-20 minutes. Then follows a series of nine numbers constituting a cantata for soloists and chorus, running close to 60 minutes.
It sets either Scriptural or devotional texts pertaining to faith in and celebration of the Almighty, with thematic references made to material in the preliminary “sinfonia.” This “choral finale” alone is in the line of sacred choral works, many on Psalm texts, that the composer wrote recurrently.
This cantata may lack the etherial daring of Beethoven’s choral finale, but it is far more idiomatically vocal and choral than what late Beethoven had come to. With its inclusion of Lutheran chorale elements and fugal counterpoint, it is in a class with Mendelssohn’s glorious oratorio Elijah. (Below is a photo of the performance by Margaret Barker.)
Because of the extra-orchestral resources the work calls for, it is not often performed, so that it has not become as familiar, and therefore as well-loved, as the composer’s popular Symphonies 3, 4, and 5, the so-called “Scottish,” “Italian” and “Reformation” symphonies. Some might find No. 2 less than top-drawer Mendelssohn, but it is certainly high-quality Mendelssohn, and readily rewards the hearing. (You can hear an excerpt featuring Claudio Abbado conducting the Berlin Philharmonic in a YouTube video at the bottom.)
This was the sole work on this Choral Union program. With the absence of regular conductor Beverly Taylor, who is on sabbatical this semester, the podium was assumed by the splendid James Smith (below), who seemed altogether comfortable drawing magnificent sounds from the large chorus, while working his usual wonders with his student orchestra.
There are parts for three soloists. The main soprano was Elizabeth Hagedorn (below top, left), whose wide vibrato and squally high range represented for me the one disappointment of this performance. The reliable Mimmi Fulmer (below top, center) was drawn in only for a two-soprano duet: I wish she had been given the top assignment. Thomas Leighton (below bottom) is not the most lyrical of tenors, but he conveyed honestly the spiritual searching of his solos.
Here, then, was the Choral Union at its best. It offered stirring choral singing, while giving us an opportunity to experience an unfairly neglected but wonderful score.