The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Meet Isabelle Demers, who performs an unusual organ recital tonight at 7:30 in Overture Hall

April 17, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement to post:

The Madison Symphony Orchestra (MSO) welcomes the return of organist Isabelle Demers (below) for a recital tonight, Tuesday, Apr. 17 at 7:30 p.m. in Overture Hall of the Overture Center, 201 State St.

Professor of organ and head of the organ program at Baylor University, Isabelle Demers enjoys a very active recital career with performances worldwide from London to Los Angeles and Melbourne to Madison.

Her program entitled The Three B’s includes music by Edward Bairstow, Joseph Bonnet, and Hector Berlioz with Demers’ own transcription of Berlioz’s blistering “Symphonie Fantastique.” She is renowned for her dazzling performances, dynamic style, and universal audience appeal.

Admission for each Overture Concert Organ performance is $20. Tickets can be purchased at madisonsymphony.org/demers, where you can also see Demers’ complete program, or by calling (608) 258-4141, or by going to the Overture Box Office.

Student Rush tickets can be purchased in person on the day of the concert at the Overture Box Office at 201 State Street. Students must show a valid student ID and can receive up to two $10 tickets.

This performance is sponsored by the Skofronick Family Charitable Trust. Support for all Overture Concert Organ programs is provided by the Diane Endres Ballweg Fund. With a gift from Pleasant T. Rowland, the Madison Symphony Orchestra commissioned the Overture Concert Organ (below), which is the backdrop of all MSO concerts.

For more Overture Concert Organ information, visit madisonsymphony.org/organ.

Here is a Q&A that the MSO did with Demers, who has more than two dozen videos on YouTube, including her own transcriptions of sections from “Scheherazade” by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov that is at the bottom:

MSO: Tell us about growing up and how that led you to make the organ a career.

ID: I grew up in Quebec, Canada, and started piano when I was 6. Most of my family works in sciences, but my mother wanted music to be an important part of my education. I entered pre-college at the Montreal Conservatory when I was 11 and really loved it, so it was not a very hard decision to choose music as a career later on.

My mother also suggested that I learn organ when I turned 16; she thought it would be a good instrument for me, while I saw it as a way to pay for my piano lessons. I guess the moral of the story is that one should always listen to their mother.

MSO: What differentiates you from other organists?

ID: I’m much shorter and I have a lovely French-Canadian accent. Seriously, I think I have a different feel for registration because I didn’t grow up with organ music. I listened to lots of orchestral and operatic works as a teenager, and I think that it influences the way I register most works, especially transcriptions.

I also have a more extensive background as a pianist than most other organists, so virtuosic works might come slightly more easily to me. (By the time I stopped playing piano, I had learned almost all the Chopin etudes, for example.)

MSO: What excites you most about playing the organ?

ID: Definitely the wide range of sounds and dynamics at our disposal! Being able to create my own sound world on every instrument I play is a very exciting part of my job. I don’t always play the same works, but even if I did, they often sound completely different when you try them on new instruments. I also like the physical aspect of playing organ; it’s good to get all your limbs moving together, especially when they are all falling on the right keys at the right time!

MSO: What would you say to someone at their first organ concert?

ID: Let yourself be moved by the instrument. Instead of trying to understand every note, listen for the bigger gestures, for the colors, for the larger picture. The organ has the potential to be very exciting and moving, but first one must forget that it is essentially a big machine.

If you don’t like the colors or the music, then hopefully it is possible to see the organist. I always find it fascinating to watch people play, and see how they can manage all the knobs and buttons on the console.

MSO: Other than playing the organ, what are some interests of yours?

ID: I love traveling, reading, spending time outside when it’s cold (which unfortunately doesn’t happen much in Texas) and cooking. I like to make ice cream, which is obviously very popular with the students as well. On my last visit to Madison I was able to try sour cream ice cream, which was delicious! I’ve tried to reproduce the recipe at home, but I think I’ll need some more practice.


Classical music: Pianist Alon Goldstein and the UW’s Pro Arte Quartet perform Scarlatti, Mozart and Brahms this coming Saturday night and Sunday afternoon at Farley’s

March 6, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Acclaimed Israeli pianist Alon Goldstein (below, in a  photo by Cigna Magnoli) returns to Madison this weekend for a Salon Piano Series concert in which he will be joined by University of Wisconsin-Madison’s own Pro Arte Quartet.

There will be two performances: on Saturday, March 10, at 7:30 p.m.; and on Sunday, March 11, at 4 p.m. Both performances are at Farley’s House of Pianos, 6522 Seybold Road, on Madison’s far west side neat West Towne Mall.

Tickets are $45 in advance or $50 at the door, with $10 admission for full-time students. You can buy tickets by calling Farley’s at (608) 271-2626 or going online at www.brownpapertickets.com

An artist’s reception follows each concert and is included in the ticket price.

Goldstein will begin the concert with solo Scarlatti sonatas, one of which he’ll play on a clavichord built by Tim Farley. (A half-hour before each concert, a video about the restoration of the 1908 Chickering concert grand that Goldstein will play on will be screened.)

Then the Pro Arte Quartet (below top, in a photo by Rick Langer) and UW-Madison double bassist David Scholl (below bottom) will join him on stage for Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 in A Major, K. 488, in a chamber music arrangement, and the Brahms Piano Quintet in F Minor, Op. 34. (You can hear the opening movement, with an engaging graphic display of its structure, of the Brahms Quintet, played by pianist Stephen Hough and the Takacs String Quartet, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

According to a press release: “Alon Goldstein is one of the most original and sensitive pianists of his generation, admired for his musical intelligence, dynamic personality, artistic vision and innovative programming.

“He has played with the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Chicago Symphony, the San Francisco, Baltimore, St. Louis, Dallas, Houston, Toronto and Vancouver symphonies as well as the Israel Philharmonic, London Philharmonic, Los Angeles and Radio France Orchestra. He played under the baton of such conductors as Zubin Mehta, Herbert Blomstedt, Vladimir Jurowski, Rafael Frübeck de Burgos, Peter Oundjian, Yoel Levi, Yoav Talmi, Leon Fleisher and others.

The New York Times’ senior music critic Anthony Tommasini wrote of Goldstein’s performance: “Here was a beautifully balanced approach to the score, refined yet impetuous, noble yet spirited.” The Philadelphia Inquirer stated “Such performances take a kind of courage so seldom heard these days you want to hear him at every possible opportunity.”

About the Salon Piano Series

Now in its fifth season, Salon Piano Series was founded by Tim and Renée Farley to continue the tradition of intimate salon concerts at Farley’s House of Pianos.

The setting replicates that experienced by audiences throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, and offers audiences the chance to hear artists whose inspiring performances are enhanced by the setting and the fine pianos.

Concerts take place at Farley’s House of Pianos and feature historic pianos restored in the Farley’s workshop. For more information, go to: www.SalonPianoSeries.org


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Classical music: Tucson celebrates the Leonard Bernstein centennial. Why not Madison?

February 17, 2018
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Editor’s note: Larry Wells, better known as The Opera Guy who writes for this blog, recently spent time in Tucson, Arizona, where he attended many events celebrating the Leonard Bernstein centennial.

Tucson isn’t alone. This fall has seen many similar celebrations, including those in New York City, San Francisco, Chicago, Washington, D.C. and Milwaukee. But curiously there has been little in Madison.

Perhaps that will change next season. At least this week will see a FREE concert by the UW-Madison Wind Ensemble this Wednesday night, Feb. 21, in Mills Hall. The mixed program with other composers features “Profanation” from Bernstein’s Symphony No. 1.

Here is a link with more information and the program:

https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/wind-ensemble-2/

And here are observations about the Tucson celebration:

By Larry Wells

I recently spent a few weeks in Tucson. Part of that time happily coincided with the annual Tucson Desert Song Festival which this year commemorated the 100th anniversary of the birth of Leonard Bernstein (below, in a photo by Jack Mitchell).

I was able to attend 13 of the performances and was struck by the consistently intelligent programming, large audiences, and high performance standards.

Many of the events were held at the Fred Fox School of Music at the University of Arizona. Some of these involved talented student and faculty singers performing Bernstein’s Broadway songs as well as his more serious vocal works. The venue also hosted outstanding recitals by Metropolitan Opera veterans Jennifer Johnson Cano (below top) and Lisette Oropesa (below bottom).

One of the highlights was a recital by dual pianists Steven Bleier (below top, on right) and Michael Barrett (below top, on left), founders of the New York Festival of Song. Their program included Bernstein’s final song cycle “Arias and Barcarolles” featuring the very talented Joshua Jeremiah (below middle) and Rebecca Jo Loeb (below bottom).

The Tucson Symphony Orchestra (below), under the direction of its new conductor José Luis Gomez,  filled the cavernous Tucson Music Hall for two performances of Bernstein’s underperformed Symphony No. 3 “Kaddish.” Joined by the symphony’s outstanding chorus, the Tucson Arizona Boys Chorus, and soprano Kelley Nassief this monumental work was electrifying. The many percussionists were given a good aerobic workout, and the audience seemed hypnotized.

The only flaw was the narration rewritten and delivered by Bernstein’s daughter Jamie. The original narration by the composer is a monologue between a man and his god. Ms. Bernstein’s narration changed the tone to that of a daughter speaking about her father.

For someone familiar with the work, I felt somewhat cheated that I was not hearing the work as it had been composed. Still it was a total delight to hear a live performance of a work that should be heard far more often than it is.

The Tucson Symphony Orchestra offered a second program which featured a sparkling performance of Bernstein’s opera “Trouble in Tahiti” with the widely-praised, and rightly so, mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke (below in a photo by Dario Acosta).

Ballet Tucson offered a somewhat strange program featuring Bernstein songs beautifully performed by Cadie Jordan (below top) and David Margulis (below bottom, in a photo by Kristin Hoebermann). Sometimes they were accompanied by dancers and sometimes not.

Then, after a number of these songs, a recording came on of portions of the suite from Bernstein’s score for the film “On the Waterfront” with dancers performing a sort of “Romeo and Juliet” narrative. It didn’t seem to make any cohesive sense, but it was fun to watch and the quality of the music never faltered.

Two other large events were the Arizona Opera’s “Candide” and Tucson’s resident chorus True Concord’s MASS.

I attended the premiere of “Candide” (below) which was also performed in the vast Tucson Music Hall. I had only seen it performed once before, and that was the charming, witty, and intimate Harold Prince version. The Tucson version was one of the overlong operatic versions that featured additional musical numbers, which was a good thing, but wordy spoken dialogue that was unfortunately under-amplified. Therefore, unless someone was very familiar with the work, the production was a long string of seemingly unrelated musical numbers linked by incomprehensible spoken dialogue.

The dialogues themselves are very witty, but since they were not accompanied by supertitles as was the singing, the performance was seriously flawed. Still the singing was excellent, with special praise for Katrina Galka’s Cunegonde, and the staging was colorful and often amusing. Hopefully the sound issues were rectified for the following four performances. (You can hear the famous Overture to “Candide”– conducted by the composer —  in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

MASS (poster with scenes is below) was performed in what is termed as the ‘Chamber Version.’ I was apprehensive that somehow the musical content would be diminished, but my worries turned out to be unfounded and the performance was uniformly dynamic and engaging. True Concord is an outstanding choral group, and its leader Eric Holtan led a thoroughly engaging and moving performance of this monumental work. I was so taken by the first performance that I attended the second as well. Both performances filled the huge Centennial Hall.

Besides the orchestra and chorus the work features a celebrant, in this case the appropriately named Jubilant Sykes, an ensemble of vocal soloists, a boys chorus and dancers. The choreographers decided to add an additional layer of complexity to an already complex work by having some of the dancers portray Rose, Jacqueline and Caroline Kennedy as well as what I think was supposed to be the spirit of JFK. This was not part of the original work, and I felt it was superfluous to an already multifaceted work. But the audience loved it all, and it turns out that Madison is not the only city that seems to give everything a standing ovation.

The takeaway moment of the festival occurred during a discussion involving composer Dan Asia, the festival director and conductor George Hanson, and Jamie Bernstein. When asked how younger audiences can be lured into concert halls, all three of them immediately concurred that the answer is to program 20th-century music. They claim that any time 20th-century music is programmed, ticket sales increase. My experience at this festival was that large venues were consistently filled with audiences of all ages.

This is something for Madison to think about.


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Classical music: The St. Lawrence String Quartet will perform works by Haydn and the Midwest premiere of the String Quartet No. 2 by John Adams this Friday night at the Wisconsin Union Theater. Plus, this Tuesday night UW-Madison alumnus and violist Elias Goldstein will perform a FREE concert of the famous Caprices by Paganini

February 1, 2016
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ALERT: University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music 2011 alumnus and violist Elias Goldstein is on his way to Carnegie Hall in New York City to perform all the virtuosic 24 Caprices originally for solo violin by Niccolo Paganini. But first he will perform them here in a FREE concert that also includes other works with pianist Thomas Kasdorf, another UW-Madison alumnus, on Tuesday night at 7 p.m. in Morphy Recital Hall. (Sorry, no word on the rest of the program.) Goldstein will also give a FREE and PUBLIC master class on Wednesday at 2:25 p.m. in Morphy Hall.

For more information, go to:

http://www.music.wisc.edu/event/goldstein_paganini/

By Jacob Stockinger

How does a contemporary American composer channel classic composers from more than 200 years ago?

You can find out by going to hear the St. Lawrence String Quartet (SLSQ, below). The critically acclaimed string quartet will perform this Friday night at 8 pm, in Shannon Hall at the Wisconsin Union Theater.

St.Lawrence String Quartet 2016 2 BIG USE

Tickets are $27.50 to $42.50.

For more information, including reviews and video samplings, visit:

http://uniontheater.wisc.edu/Season15-16/st-lawrence-string-quartet.html

The program features two quartets by Franz Joseph Haydn, including the popular and famed “Emperor” Quartet and the earlier “Joke” Quartet as well as the Midwest premiere of John Adams; String Quartet No. 2.

NPR, or National Public Radio, recently featured an interview with Adams discussing Beethoven:

http://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2015/11/10/450560466/john-adams-mines-beethovens-mind

But Christopher Costanza, the cellist of the St. Lawrence String Quartet, recently gave an enlightening Q&A from the quartet’s point of view to The Ear:

christopher costanza playing cello

Can you briefly bring the public up to date since your last appearance in Madison, when you performed “The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind” by Osvaldo Golijov? Major residencies and tours? Major commissions? Major performing and recording projects?

The St. Lawrence String Quartet has been busy with a wide range of projects in the years since our last appearance in Madison.

We’ve had a personnel change – our newest quartet member is Owen Dalby, our second violinist, who joined us in the spring of last year.

We happily continue as Artists-in Residence at Stanford University, where we are involved in a great number of activities, including teaching, performing, and collaborations with a wide range of schools and departments on campus.

And our international touring schedule remains very active, with concerts throughout North America and Europe; our most recent European tour, in late summer of 2015, included concerts in Scotland, Germany, Romania, Hungary and Switzerland, and we will tour Europe twice in 2016.

We’ve performed several pieces commissioned for us, including works by such composers as Osvaldo Golijov, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, Samuel Adams, Jonathan Berger, James Matheson and George Tsontakis.

Of particular significance, John Adams has composed three works for us, two string quartets and a quartet concerto, “Absolute Jest,” which was written for the SLSQ, the San Francisco Symphony and the SF Symphony’s music director Michael Tilson Thomas.

We’ve performed “Absolute Jest” on several national and international tours with the San Francisco Symphony, as well as with the London Symphony, the Toronto Symphony, and the New World Symphony. Our recording of the work with the San Francisco Symphony and Michael Tilson Thomas was released this past summer.

We’ve recently embarked on a recording project of the Opus 20 quartets of Haydn, and other recording projects are in development.

john adams absolute jest

Why did you choose to perform two Haydn string quartets to open and close the program, instead of a work by Beethoven, given the Beethoven influences in the String Quartet No. 2 by John Adams?

We often perform programs that begin and end with a Haydn quartet, with a contemporary work (or works) in between. This showcases the great variety and brilliance of Haydn’s gigantic contribution to the quartet repertoire.

It also provides an interesting contrast between the earliest works for quartet and current compositional offerings, stressing the fact that Haydn (below) essentially invented the string quartet and paving the way for other composers to explore creativity in their compositions for quartet.

In truth, we do often program Beethoven (below) with the Second String Quartet by Adams. For this program, I think the Adams/Haydn juxtaposition will be a meaningful comment on the evolution of quartet writing, from the early years to works of the present.

Beethoven big

As an exercise in compare and contrast programming, what would you like the public to know about the “Joke” and “Emperor” Quartets by Haydn? About Haydn’s music in general?

Haydn’s “Joke” Quartet, from his Op. 33 set, is, as you might guess, filled with humor and wit. The quartet is actually quite straightforward structurally, filled with robust and positive energy and simple, appealing melodies. It’s a compact work, inviting and charming.

The “Emperor” Quartet, from the Op. 76 set, comes from a later period of Haydn’s compositions, and it is a work of considerable length and weight. This quartet shows a natural link to Beethoven in its duration, dynamic contrast, emotional range, and overall musical substance. (You can hear Haydn’s “Emperor” Quartet performed, analyzed and discussed by the St. Lawrence Quartet in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

Of significant note, the “Emperor” is named thusly for the second movement, a theme and variations based on the tune Haydn (below) originally wrote for the Emperor Francis of Austria as a sort of national anthem.

Haydn

What should readers know about the String Quartet No. 2 by John Adams (below)? How is it similar to or different from his other works that the public knows such as “Nixon in China,” “The Death of Klinghoffer,” “Doctor Atomic” “Harmonielehre” and “On the Transmigration of Souls”? Will this performance be the Midwest premiere? Will you record the quartet?

John Adams’s Second String Quartet is very strongly based on two motivic ideas from Beethoven’s Op. 110 piano sonata, as well as a variation from Beethoven’s “Diabelli” Variations.

The Beethoven elements are clearly presented in clever and skilled ways, and I think many of them will be evident to the astute listener. Most importantly, John is brilliant in his transformation of the Beethoven quotes, and the piece is very clearly an Adams piece, characterized by driving rhythms, great energy, and a true sense of musical intent and balance.

To get a sense of the piece prior to hearing it, I suggest listening to “Absolute Jest” (our recent recording) – another of John’s pieces inspired by Beethoven and filled with late Beethoven quotes – and the Op. 110 Piano Sonata by Beethoven.

We’ve performed the Second Quartet on several occasions since we premiered it at Stanford University about a year ago, but I do think our Madison performance will be a Midwest premiere. We are currently considering the possibility of recording the work, but specific plans have not yet been made.

john adams with pencil

What else would you like to say?

We’re thrilled to be returning to Madison after a gap of several years. It’s very exciting to be bringing a program of music by two of our favorite composers, Joseph Haydn and John Adams, and we think contrasting the two will be interesting and enlightening to all.


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