The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Pianist Stephen Hough returns to solo with the Madison Symphony Orchestra this weekend in a program of “firsts” that includes music by Barber and Saint-Saens as well as Tchaikovsky’s famous “Pathétique” Symphony

February 13, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

This coming weekend, the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below) offers one of the best must-hear programs of the season – or so thinks The Ear.

MSO-HALL

Pianist Stephen Hough (below, in a photo by Sim Canetty-Clarke) returns for his fourth appearance with the Madison Symphony Orchestra (MSO), led by music director and conductor John DeMain.

stephen-hough-20167-formal-cr-sim-canetty-clarke

The concert will open with Samuel Barber’s Second Essay, a dramatic piece written in the midst of World War II, followed by a performance of the exotic Saint-Saëns Piano Concerto No. 5 (“Egyptian”) featuring soloist Stephen Hough, who won major awards for his recordings of the complete works for piano and orchestra by Saint-Saëns. The concert will close with a performance of Tchaikovsky’s emotional Symphony No. 6 (“Pathétique”).

The concerts are Friday, Feb. 17, at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, Feb. 18, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Feb. 19, at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall of the Overture Center, 201 State Street. (Ticket information is below.)

Samuel Barber (below) was one of the new generation of mid-20th century American composers with contemporaries Howard Hanson, Aaron Copland, David Diamond and, later, Leonard Bernstein.

His Second Essay was written in 1942, in the middle of the Second World War. Barber once wrote: “Although it has no program, one perhaps hears that it was written in a war-time.” This will be the first time this piece is performed by the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

barber 1

The Piano Concerto No. 5 (“Egyptian”) by Camille Saint-Saëns (below) was composed while he was on a winter vacation in the Egyptian temple city of Luxor, in 1895-96. The location of this piece is important because it helped give the piece its nickname, and also influenced the sound of the score. This will be the first time this piece is performed by the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

camille saint-saens younger

Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (below) wrote his final piece between February and August 1893. The Symphony No. 6 (Pathétique) was then performed in Oct. 1893 and was conducted by Tchaikovsky himself. Nine days later he was dead.

Tchaikovsky’s late symphonies are autobiographical, and the sixth being “the best, and certainly the most open-hearted,” according to Tchaikovsky himself. Seeing that he was a troubled man, dealing with a dark depression, Symphony No. 6 (Pathétique) is filled with poignancy and deep sorrow, as you can hear in the finale in the YouTube video at the bottom.

Tchaikovsky 1

One hour before each performance, Randal Swiggum (below), artistic director of the Elgin Youth Symphony Orchestra Artistic Director and the newly appointed Interim Music Director of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras, will lead a 30-minute Prelude Discussion in Overture Hall to enhance concertgoers’ understanding and listening experience.

Randall Swiggum

For more background on the music, read the program notes by MSO trombonist and UW-Whitewater professor Michael Allsen (below, in a photo by Katrin Talbot) at: http://www.allsenmusic.com/NOTES/1617/5.Feb17.html

J. Michael Allsen Katrin Talbot

Single Tickets are $16 to $87 each, and are available at madisonsymphony.org/hough and through the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street or by calling the Box Office at (608) 258-4141.

Groups of 15 or more can save 25% by calling the MSO office at (608) 257-3734. For more information visit, madisonsymphony.org/groups

Student rush tickets can be purchased in person on the day of the concert at the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street. Students must show a valid student ID and can receive up to two $12 or $15 tickets. More information is at: madisonsymphony.org/studentrush. Students can receive 20% savings on seats in select areas of the hall on advance ticket purchases.

Seniors age 62 and up receive 20% savings on advance and day-of-concert ticket purchases in select areas of the hall.

Discounted seats are subject to availability, and discounts may not be combined.

Find more information at madisonsymphony.org

John DeMain and MSO from the stage Greg Anderson

Major funding for the February concerts is provided by: Irving and Dorothy Levy Family Foundation, Inc., Stephen Morton, and BMO Wealth Management. Additional funding is provided by: Boardman & Clark LLP, Forte Research Systems & Nimblify, James and Joan Johnston, and the Wisconsin Arts Board with funds from the State of Wisconsin and the National Endowment for the Arts.


Classical music: University Opera will stage three performances of “Transformations” this Friday night, Sunday afternoon and next Tuesday night.

March 8, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

Take children’s fairy tales – such as “Sleeping Beauty” (below) — and recast them through adult reinterpretations. You can get some pretty weird and dark and humorous results.

Henry Meynel Rheam painting Sleeping Beauty

That is not only the formula for Stephen Sondheim’s popular Broadway musical and later Hollywood movie “Into the Woods.”

It also worked for the Pulitzer Prize-winning American poet Anne Sexton, who grew depressed and killed herself at age 45. Her versions then became an opera.

anne sexton

The music, described as tonal and accessible, is by Conrad Susa (below), who taught at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. The contemporary opera has been popular and widely staged.

Conrad Susa

This weekend and early next week, University Opera – the opera program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music – will give three performances in Music Hall of the work on Friday night at 7:30 p.m., Sunday afternoon at 3 p.m. (NOT 3:30 as first posted here mistakenly) and Tuesday night at 7:30 p.m. (NOTE: An ad on Wisconsin Public Radio erroneously lists the performance times on Friday and Tuesday nights as 7 p.m. and 7 p.m., respectively.)

Admission is $25, $20 for seniors and $10 for students.

Members of the cast even posted an invitation video on YouTube:

For more information, visit the A Tempo blog of the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music, which features remarks from interim opera director David Ronis (below, in a photo by Luke Delalio), who is based in New York City, and details about the pre-concert discussion on Friday night from 6 to 7 p.m. (There will also be talk back sessions after each performance.):

https://uwmadisonschoolofmusic.wordpress.com/2016/02/29/university-opera-presents-spring-show-transformations/

David Ronis color CR Luke DeLalio

The music director is graduate student in conducting Kyle Knox (below), who recently conducted Mark Adamo’s “Little Women” for the Madison Opera and who conducts ensembles at the UW-Madison and the Middleton Community Orchestra.

Kyle Knox 2

For even more background, visit:

http://www.music.wisc.edu/2016/02/12/university-opera-presents-transformations/

Here is a sample, a YouTube video of the “Hansel and Gretel” section of “Transformations”:


Classical music: A major reassessment of Rachmaninoff is under way. Plus, French composer and conductor Pierre Boulez has died at 90 and the Unitarian Society’s FREE Friday Noon Musicales start again this week

January 7, 2016
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ALERT: The influential and controversial French avant-garde composer and conductor Pierre Boulez had died at 90. The Ear will feature more about him this weekend. Stay tuned.

ALERT: The FREE Friday Noon Musicales at the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed First Unitarian Society of Madison‘s Meeting House, 900 University Bay Drive, start up again this Friday after a break for the holidays. The concert takes place from 12:15 to 1 p.m. and features bassoonist Juliana Mesa-Jarmillo and pianist Rayna Slavova in music by Gustav Schreck, Eugene Bordeau, Gabriel Pierne and Antonio Torriani.

By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear can remember when Sergei Rachmaninoff (below, 1873-1943) was treated as something of a joke by serious classical musicians – especially by the 12-toners and atonalists, who were more into R&D music (research and development) than into offering pleasure and emotional connection.

Rachmaninoff

The academic musicians, and some prominent music critics too, thought that the Russian composer’s music was too Romantic — meaning too accessible, too shallow and even cheap. They just didn’t consider Rachmaninoff a major 20th-century composer or artist.

But time is proving them wrong.

And how!!!

Surely The Rachmaninoff Deniers would like such popularity, durability and enthusiasm for their own music.

Haha.

Not likely.

Because Rachmaninoff had real genius linked to real heart.

So surely The Ear is not the only listener who finds so much of Rachmaninoff’s music -– especially his preludes, concertos, etudes and variations — irresistible and even moving.

Rachmaninoffold

Last fall saw Rachmaninoff’s appealing final work, the Symphonic Dances, performed by both the Madison Symphony Orchestra, under John DeMain, and the UW-Madison Symphony Orchestra, under James Smith.

And pianist Joyce Yang played the momentous Sonata No. 2 in B-flat Minor at her recital in the Wisconsin Union Theater.

This year’s Grammy nominations also include a whole CD of Rachmaninoff’s solo and concerto variations, including the wonderful tuneful and ingenious Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.

Last year also saw “Preludes,” (below, in a photo by Tina Fineberg for The New York Times) ) a successful play about the young Rachmaninoff — or Rachmaninov — climbing out of a deep depression with the help of therapist and hypnotist Dr. Nikolai Dahl, who helped him compose again and become world-famous with his Piano Concerto No. 2.

Rac and Rachmaninoff Tina Fineberg NYT

Just this fall and winter, the New York Philharmonic with music director and conductor Alan Gilbert and pianist Daniil Trifonov (below), performed a retrospective featuring the complete cycle of Rachmaninoff piano concertos.

danill trifonov 1

trifonov rachmaninov

And here are some very perceptive and respectful remarks by conductor Marin Alsop (below) about Rachmaninoff’s life and work and about the less frequently played Symphony No. 3 in A minor that she will discuss and conduct.

Marin Alsop big

It comes from an interview with Scott Simon on Weekend Edition for NPR or National Public Radio. The Ear found her remarks about Rachmaninoff’s life in Beverly Hills and his effect on other exiled European musicians working in Hollywood to be especially perceptive.

Indeed, you may recall that Rachmaninoff was offered a lucrative chance to write a movie score and refused. So the moviemakers hired the British composer Richard Addinsell to write a piece that sounded like Rachmaninoff. The result was the Warsaw Concerto and the result does indeed sound a lot like Rachmaninoff.

Alsop, you may recall, was a student of Leonard Bernstein and is now the music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the Sao Paulo State Symphony Orchestra in Brazil.

Here is a link to the NPR story, which has audio samples of the Symphony No. 3, that also features a written essay by Marin Alsop about Rachmaninoff:

http://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2015/12/28/461281186/rachmaninoff-an-american-without-assimilation

I like a Rachmaninoff tune. How about you?

So here is a YouTube performance, made in 1920, of Rachmaninoff himself playing my favorite Rachmaninoff piece — the wistful Prelude in G Major, Op 32, No. 5:

 


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