The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Madison native and virtuoso trumpeter Ansel Norris has made it to the final round of the 16th International Tchaikovsky Competition. You can hear him perform live on Thursday morning or in replay

June 26, 2019
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A REMINDER and CORRECTION: American pianist Kenneth Broberg, who performed last season in Madison on the Salon Piano Series at Farley’s House of Pianos, will be the last finalist – not the second-to-last – in the final concerto round of the 16th International Tchaikovsky Competition. The pianist from China that was to play after him played yesterday instead.

Broberg will play the “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini” by Sergei Rachmaninoff and the Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor, Op. 23, by Tchaikovsky. You can watch his performance live  still on Thursday morning at 11:45 a.m. by going to https://tch16.medici.tv/en/ and clicking on PIANO LIVE or REPLAY after the performance.

By Jacob Stockinger

This news came to The Ear late or he would have passed along more information much earlier.

Ansel Norris (below), a 26-year-old Madison native and virtuoso trumpeter, has made it as one of the nine finalists — the contest started with 47 contestants in trombone, French horn, trumpet and tuba — in the first-ever Brass Competition at the 16th International Tchaikovsky Competition.

You can hear Norris perform live on Thursday morning at 7:45 a.m. via live-streaming or afterwards via replay. Just go to https://tch16.medici.tv/en/

Then click on BRASS and choose WATCH or REPLAY.

You can also listen to his earlier performances.

Here is a link to his performance in the first round, when he played a concerto by Franz Joseph Haydn plus works by Allen Vizzutti and Georges Enescu:

https://tch16.medici.tv/en/replay/first-round-with-ansel-norris/

And here is a link to his performance in the semi-final round, where he played concertos by Johann Friedrich Fasch and Vladimir Peskin — you can hear a much younger Norris play the first movement with piano in the YouTube video at the bottom —  as well as a solo competition piece by Théo Charlier:

https://tch16.medici.tv/en/replay/semi-final-with-ansel-norris/#filter?instrument=brass

His performance in the finals, with an orchestra in St. Petersburg instead of Moscow, will take place on Thursday, June 27, at 7:45 a.m.

He will play Lensky’s aria “Where, Where Have You Gone?” from the opera “Eugene Onegin” by Tchaikovsky and the Trumpet Concerto by Rodion Shchedrin. Playing opera arias and art songs on the trumpet is a Norris specialty.

Norris, a graduate of Northwestern University who was also a member of the well-known New World Symphony in Miami, studied with John Aley, University of Wisconsin-Madison Emeritus Professor and Principal Trumpet of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, and played for many years in the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras.

Norris is the son of Katherine Esposito, the concert manager and publicity coordinator at the UW-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music.

Here is a link to the more complete and current biography posted by the Tchaikovsky Competition:

https://tch16.medici.tv/en/competitors/ansel-norris/


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Classical music: The Madison Symphony Orchestra opens its new season with superb playing, hypnotizing space photos by NASA and close to three full houses

September 28, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

Several years ago, artistic director and conductor John DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad) decided to use the season-opening concerts of the Madison Symphony Orchestra to spotlight the symphony and its first-chair players as soloists.

John DeMain full face by Prasad

No big-name imported guest soloists were to be booked.

In addition, this year Maestro DeMain chose to open the season with a multimedia show that combined Jumbotron-like space images from NASA (below is Jupiter) with Gustav Holst’s “The Planets.” 

nasa-jupiter2

Such multimedia events increasingly seem to work as a way to build audiences and boost attendance by new people and young people. After all, a music director has to sell tickets and fill seats as well as wave a baton.

And it seems that, on both counts, DeMain’s strategy proved  spectacularly successful.

All sections of the orchestra (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson) — strings, brass, winds, percussion — played with energy, precision and subtlety. The MSO proved a very tight ensemble. Each year, you can hear how the MSO improves and grows increasingly impressive after 23 years of DeMain’s direction.

John DeMain and MSO from the stage Greg Anderson

The public seemed to agree. It came very close to filling the 2,200-seat Overture Hall for all three performances with more than 6,100 audience members, according to Peter Rodgers, the new marketing director for the MSO. Especially noteworthy, he said, was the number of children, students and young people who attended.

In fact, so many students showed up for student rush tickets on Friday night that the performance was delayed by around 10 minutes – because of long lines at the box office, NOT because of the new security measures at the Overture Center, which Rodgers said worked smoothly and quickly.

But not everything was ideal, at least not for The Ear.

On the first half, the playing largely outweighed the music.

True,  the Romanian Rhapsody No. 1 by a very young George Enescu (below) received a sizzling and infectious performance. With its catchy folk tunes, dance rhythms and Gypsy harmonies, the fun work proved an irresistible opener – much like a starting with an encore, which is rather like eating a rich and tasty dessert before tackling the more nutritious but less snazzy main course.

The music itself is captivating and frequently played – although this was its surprising premiere performance by the MSO. Little wonder the Enescu got a rousing standing ovation. Still, it is hardly great music.

george enescu

Then came the Chaconne for violin and orchestra by the American composer John Corigliano (below), who based the work on his Oscar-winning film score for “The Red Violin.”

John Corigliano

Concertmaster Naha Greenholtz (below) impressed The Ear and most others with her mastery of what appeared to be a very difficult score. The ovation was for her, not for the music.

Naha Greenholtz playing CR Greg Anderson

That music also has some fine moments. But overall it seems a dull and tedious work, an exercise in virtuosity with some of the same flaws you find in certain overblown piano etudes by Franz Liszt. Once again the playing trumped the music.

Then came The Big Event: Gustav Holst’s “The Planets” coupled with clear, high-definition photos of the planets taken by NASA that were projected on a huge screen above the orchestra. Saturn’s rings, Jupiter’s and Venus’ clouds and Mars’ landscape (below) have never looked so impressive.

nasa-mars2

The orchestra again struck one with its exotic and “spacey” sound effects and with what must have been the difficulty of timing simultaneously the music and the images.

Yet ultimately Holst’s work became a sound track — music accompanying images rather than images accompanying the music. The Ear heard several listeners compare the admittedly impressive result to the movies “Fantasia” and “2001: A Space Odyssey.” That says something.

At some moments the sound and images really matched and reinforced each other, especially in the dramatic opening section, “Mars, the Bringer of War.” Holst’s score also succeeds nicely with “Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity” and to a lesser degree with “Venus, the Bringer of Peace.”

But overall “The Planets” reminds The Ear of colorful and dramatic  programmatic showpieces such as Ottorino Respighi‘s “The Pines of Rome” and “The Fountains of Rome.” (Earth, curiously, is not included in “The Planets.” Makes you wonder: What would Earth bring?) Enjoyable music, to be sure, but not profound fare.

The Ear’s extensive library of CDs has none of the three works on the program. And it will probably remain that way.

While Holst’s work does have great moments, it grows long, repetitive and finally uninteresting as it ends not with a bang but with an underwhelming whimper – which was beautifully enhanced by the atmospheric singing of the MSO Women’s Chorus. There are just too many planets!

Listen to the YouTube video at the bottom, played by James Levine conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and you will see: Mars rules!

nasa-mars

Add it all up and despite three standing ovations, in the end The Ear found the concert less than fully satisfying. The music, however likable and appealing, was not, for the most part,  great music. Moreover, it was mostly trumped first by the performances and then by the visuals.

So on a personal note, here is The Ear’s request to the MSO, which scored an undeniably brilliant success with this program: Keep the same all-orchestra and first-chair format for season-openers and use multimedia shows whenever appropriate. But please also include at least one really first-rate piece of music with more substance.

Is that asking for too much?

Is The Ear alone and unfair in his assessment? 

Other critics had their own takes and some strongly disagree with The Ear.

Here is a link to three other reviews:

By John W. Barker (below) for Isthmus:

http://isthmus.com/music/beautiful-music-distracting-backdrop/

John-Barker

By Jessica Courtier for The Capital Times:

http://host.madison.com/ct/entertainment/music/concert-review-mso-takes-audience-on-a-stunning-trip-to/article_6dd45c4d-c11b-5c77-ae54-35a3e731b1cb.html

And by Greg Hettmansberger (below), who writes for WISC-TV Channel 3 and his Classically Speaking blog for Madison Magazine, and on his own blog, What Greg Says:

https://whatgregsays.wordpress.com/tag/john-corigliano/

greg hettmansberger mug

What did you think of the music, the performances and the visual show?

How well did they mix?

What did you like most and least?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: The Madison Symphony Orchestra opens its new season this weekend with music by Holst and photographs by NASA in “The Planets: An HD Odyssey”

September 21, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement from the Madison Symphony Orchestra:

The Madison Symphony Orchestra (MSO, below), with Music Director John DeMain conducting, opens its 91st season – and its 23rd season under Maestro DeMain — with three works by 20th-century composers.

John DeMain and MSO from the stage Greg Anderson

Science, music and stunning visuals come together with Gustav Holst’s The Planets accompanied by a spectacular, high-definition film featuring NASA imagery. (Below is a photo of Jupiter, “The Bringer of Jollity” to Holst. The musical depiction of Jupiter — performed by James Levine conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra — is in the YouTube video at the bottom.

nasa-jupiter2

MSO’s Concertmaster Naha Greenholtz is featured in the Chaconne, a dramatic theme by John Corigliano, from The Red Violin film. The concert begins with George Enescu’s Romanian Rhapsody No. 1.

The concerts are in Overture Hall on this Friday., Sept. 23, at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, Sept. 24, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Sept. 25, at 2:30 p.m.

A national hero in his homeland, Enescu rarely included hints of his Romanian heritage in his music, except when he composed the Romanian Rhapsodies as a teenager. Romanian Rhapsody No. 1 captures a series of Romanian folk songs, including melodies of increasingly wild Gypsy dances. This is MSO’s first performance of this work.

In the Chaconne, American composer John Corigliano (below) draws the audience in with a foreboding and haunting signature tune, which he wrote for the powerful film about music, The Red Violin. His film score for the movie earned him an Academy Award in 1999 for his original music. This will be the first time MSO has performed this Oscar-winning work, and features MSO Concertmaster Naha Greenholtz.

John Corigliano

Greenholtz (below) has captivated audiences as Concertmaster of the MSO and the Quad City Symphony Orchestra. A Canadian violinist, Greenholtz was born in Kyoto, Japan, where she began her violin studies at age three.

Since her solo debut at 14, she continues to perform internationally, most notably with: the Oregon Symphony, Calgary Philharmonic, National Ballet of Canada, Omaha Symphony, and Memphis Symphony.

Naha Greenholtz [playing

The Planets is known as Holst’s most popular work. The musical movements were inspired by characteristics connected with astrology’s seven planets. For instance, ominous sounding Mars, the Bringer of War, is followed by the calmly flowing Venus, the Bringer of Peace. (Below top is Mars and below bottom is Venus.)

nasa-mars

nasa-venus-2

The performances will be accompanied by a high-definition film projecting celestial images above the main stage.

According to New York Times senior critic Anthony Tommasini, the film shows “photographs from rovers and satellites, radar images and computer-generated graphics … combining to give the audience the impression of circling individual planets and sometimes flying over their awesomely barren landscapes.” (Below is a close-up of the surface of Mars.)

nasa-mars2

The Madison Symphony Women’s Chorus (below top, in a photo by Greg Anderson), under the direction of Beverly Taylor, will be part of the final movement of The Planets, and the Overture Concert Organ (below bottom) is featured at several moments in the piece.

MSO Chorus from left CR Greg Anderson

overture organ

This is the first time MSO’s performance of The Planets will be accompanied by the high-definition film.

One hour before each performance, Randal Swiggum, the artistic director of the Elgin Youth Symphony Orchestra Artistic, will lead a 30-minute Prelude Discussion in Overture Hall to enhance concertgoers’ understanding and listening experience.

For more background on the music, please view the Program Notes at: http://www.allsenmusic.com/NOTES/1617/1.Sep16.html or madisonsymphony.org/planets.

Before all of the concerts and at intermission, Friends of University of Wisconsin–Madison Astronomy will have an interactive display in the lobby concertgoers can experience.

The Symphony recommends that concert attendees arrive early for each performance to make sure they have time to pass through Overture Center’s security stations, and so they can experience the pre-concert talk and the astronomy exhibit (free for all ticket-holders).

Single Tickets are $16 to $87 each and are on sale now at madisonsymphony.org/planets, 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 Box Center 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.

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.     

Major funding for the September concerts is provided by: NBC15, Diane Ballweg, Capitol Lakes, Friends of University of Wisconsin–Madison Astronomy, The Gialamas Company, Inc., and Nicholas and Elaine Mischler. Additional funding is provided by: Analucia and Mark Allie, for their beloved “Doc” Richard Greiner; Judith and Nick Topitzes, and the Wisconsin Arts Board with funds from the State of Wisconsin and the National Endowment for the Arts.


Classical music: The Willy Street Chamber Players excel again – this time in music by Franz Schubert, Arnold Schoenberg and UW-Madison composer Laura Schwendinger

July 19, 2016
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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.

John-Barker

By John W. Barker

The Willy Street Chamber Players (below) gave the second concert of their 2016 season on Friday night at Immanuel Lutheran Church, 1021 Spright Street, on Madison’s near east side.

Willy Street Chamber Players group color

The program might have been called the “three Sch-es” in view of the alphabetical incipits of the three composers involved.

The first item was titled The Violinists in My Life, composed in 2011 by Laura Schwendinger (below), the American composer currently on the faculty of the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music.

The Belgian violin virtuoso and composer Eugène Ysaÿe set an example with his set of six Sonatas, Op. 27, for solo violin, each one a tribute to a great musician with whom he had worked. So Schwendinger composed five pieces for violin and piano, each one a kind of character piece about violinists with whom she has had fruitful contact.

Laura Schwendinger 2

The style can be sharp and abrupt, but there is a clear individuality to each piece, evoking the different personalities. The first of the five is dedicated to UW-Madison alumna Eleanor Bartsch (below), one of our Willys, and she played the whole set, deeply engaged in it, with pianist Thomas Kasdorf, also a graduate of the UW-Madison.

Eleanor Bartsch

Kasdorf (below) joined another of the group’s violinists, Paran Amirinazari, who also graduated from the UW-Madison, in a rarely heard late work by Franz Schubert, the Fantasie in C Major (D.934).(You can hear it played by violinist Benjamin Beilman, who has performed with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Schubert’s compositions for violin and piano are rarely heard in concerts these days, but this one has particular interest in that its latter portion is another of the composers set of variations on one of his own songs—in this case, the beautiful Sei mir gegrüsst. The total piece has a lot of lively passage work, which Amarinazari played with a mix of flair and affection.

thomas kasdorf 2:jpg

The crowning work was that extraordinary string sextet by Arnold Schoenberg (below), Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night). Composed in 1899 at the beginning of the composer’s career, it catches him still emerging from Late Romantic sensibilities, a good way before his radical move into the 12-tone idiom he created.

Arnold Schoenberg 1936

The score is just a trifle longish for the musical content, but its gorgeous chromatic richness is irresistible. It was inspired by a poem of Richard Dehmel, and both the original German text and an English translation were supplied to the audience, an interesting touch.

Above all, however, the performance was glowing, avoiding too much sentimental lushness, but conveying the emotionally charged writing with beautiful balance.

A clever touch, too, was the sitting pattern chosen, with the two violas facing the two violins and the two cellos in the rear—allowing the recurrent interaction between the first violin and first viola to emerge more clearly.

In sum, this was another wonderful session of first-class music-making by this remarkable assemblage of young talent.

NOTE: A program of music by Ludwig vanBeethoven, Philip Glass and Dmitri Shostakovich will be given next Friday at Immanuel Lutheran, but at NOON; and then that evening (at 8:30 p.m.) the group will participate in a special performance of George Crumb’s “Black Angels” — with an accompanying video — at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art in the Overture Center.

The final Friday evening concert will be back at Immanuel Lutheran, at 6 p.m. on Friday, July 29, with music by Baroque composer Arcangelo Corelli (Concerto Grosso), Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Clarinet Quintet), and George Enescu (Octet).


Classical music: Next Friday night starts the second season of the acclaimed Willy Street Chamber Players. This afternoon you can hear Norwegian music performed live at the Chazen Museum of Art

July 3, 2016
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ALERT: The Ear reminds you that TODAY is the monthly “Sunday Live From the Chazen” chamber music concert. The program today features UW-Madison soprano Mimmi Fulmer, violinist Tyrone Greive  (retired concertmaster of the Madison Symphony Orchestra) and pianist Michael Keller in music by Edvard Grieg and other Norwegian composers, including songs and sonatas. The live concert starts at 12:30 p.m. in Brittingham Gallery 3. Admission is FREE. You can also stream it live by using this link:

http://www.chazen.wisc.edu/about/news/in-the-news/sunday-afternoon-live-july-3-with-mimmi-fulmer-michael-keller-and-tyrone-gr

By Jacob Stockinger

Probably the premiere musical event of 2015 was the summer debut of the new group the Willy Street Chamber Players (below).

Willy Street Chamber Players 2016 outdoors

The critics and audiences agreed: The programs and performances were simply outstanding. Many of the players perform with the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, there Middleton Community Orchestra, the Madison Bach Musicians and other acclaimed local groups.

Now the second season of five concerts – including one noontime lunch concert — will begin on this coming Friday night, July 8, at 6 p.m. at Immanuel Lutheran Church, 1021 Spaight Street, on Madison’s near east side.

immanuel lutheran church ext

Immanuel Lutheran interior

The first program features regular members and guest violinist Suzanne Beia (below).

Beia plays second violin in the Pro Arte Quartet at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music, and also serves at concertmaster of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and assistant concertmaster of the Madison Symphony Orchestra. In addition, she performs in the Rhapsodie Quartet of the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

suzanne beia

The program includes the lovely “Souvenir of Florence” (1892) by Peter Tchaikovsky and the haunting Entr’acte for String Quartet (2011) by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Caroline Shaw (below, in a  photo by Dashon Burton). You can hear the Entr’acte in the YouTube video at the bottom. (The Ear hopes one day the group will do Shaw’s “By and By” with strings and a vocalist.)

Caroline Shaw CR DASHON-BURTON

It’s too bad that the fourth annual Handel Aria Competition is on the same night. You would hope that such conflicts could be avoided in the summer.

Theoretically you can make it to both concerts since the aria competition starts at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall. But it will probably be a hectic scurry from one to the other.

Here is a link to more information about the Handel Aria Competition:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2016/07/01/classical-music-handel-aria-competition-announces-2016-finalists-to-sing-next-thursday-night/

In any case, here is the schedule of the entire second season of the Willy Street Chamber Players.

It is varied and impressive, especially in how it combines old masterpieces with modern and contemporary works. It features pieces by Philip Glass, Arnold Schoenberg, UW-Madison composer Laura Schwendinger, George Crumb, Dmitri Shostakovich, Franz Schubert, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, Arcangelo Corelli and Georges Enescu :

http://www.willystreetchamberplayers.org/events1.html

A season subscription is $50. Individual concerts are $15 except for the Black Angels video art concert, which is $20.


Classical music Q&A: The Annals of Accompanying, Part 2 of 2. The Ear talks with baritone Paul Rowe and pianist Martha Fischer, both of the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music, about the challenges of accompanying in their joint FREE performance this Wednesday night of Hugo Wolf’s complete “Italian Songbook.”

March 25, 2014
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By Jacob Stockinger

Baritone Paul Rowe and pianist Martha Fischer have been performing songs and song cycles together for almost two decades at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music.

Some performances, like Schubert’s “Winterreise,” have even been published and recorded in book-and-CD format that features moody song-related, black-and-white photographs by the Madison-based photographer and violist Katrin Talbot.

Winterreise UW Press

Fischer, who teaches Collaborative Piano at the UW-Madison, has also accompanied countless instrumentalists.

This Wednesday night, March 26, Rowe and Fischer will give a FREE performance of Hugo Wolf’s complete “Italian Songbook” at 7:3 p.m. in Mills Hall on the UW-Madison campus.

To The Ear, it seemed like the perfect occasion to explore the complexities of accompanying and musical collaboration. The two musicians (below with UW alumna Julia Foster, who teaches voice at Rollins College and who will join in the singing) generously agreed to respond to the same questions. Those questions and their answers have been featured yesterday and today on this blog.

Here is a link to yesterday’s posting of Part 1:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2014/03/24/classical-music-qa-the-annals-of-accompanying-part-1-of-2-the-ear-talks-with-baritone-paul-rowe-and-pianist-martha-fischer-both-of-the-university-of-wisconsin-madison-school-of-music-about-t/

 

Paul Rowe, Martha Fischer and Julia Foster 2

What qualities make for a great accompanist or collaborator?

PAUL ROWE: The first requirement is to be a great pianist and musician. Then, I think, especially if one is going to work with singers, the pianist needs to be interested in the poetry and the smaller format of the song. It is very important to have a working relationship where the leading role is constantly switching back and forth. To be able to exchange ideas and interpretations is also crucial to a rewarding working arrangement.

MARTHA FISCHER: Great artist-accompanists are able to both be supremely flexible and yet maintain a true artistic profile. Great accompanists bring a point of view to the table and play their parts with the same artistic integrity that one would bring to any solo work. They are able to meld with their partners to create a single artistic statement.  And they usually need to be nice people!

accompanying singer and piano

What are the most rewarding and most challenging parts of working together? Technical matters? Psychological and emotional aspects? How does each of you affect the other one? Does a collaboration develop and deepen over time and as you get to know each other in other collaborative projects?

PR: Martha and I have done many performances together of a variety of different types of music. We have, from the first, been able to hear and see things in similar ways. In many cases, we don’t need much rehearsal at all.

The most challenging thing has been finding time to work on things in a relaxed way, when we have time to discuss the pieces and the best ways to present them. Often, we are both running from lessons or meetings and trying to squeeze in some quality time.

It helps that we share a great love for this repertoire. We even team taught a special literature class a couple of years ago which was lots of fun to share our feelings and knowledge of the music with a group of students.

MF: For me, encountering the vast and amazing art song repertoire is, in itself, the most rewarding part of collaborating with singers.  And then when you are able to create this music with a sympathetic partner who already shares your values, it is one of the greatest experiences a pianist can have.

The challenges these days are mostly logistic — not enough time to practice and prepare on your own as well as together. Paul and I have been working together now for about 17 years. I knew when I first played for him that we were a good musical partnership. We rarely have musical disagreements — we are both flexible and open to each other’s ideas and we both listen to each other — musically and verbally.

And yes, our artistic collaborations (below, in Schubert’s “Winterreise” at the First Unitarian Society of Madison), like many others that I have enjoyed over the years, do develop and deepen over time, just like any important relationship in life. You come to trust one another and we definitely have a special connection.

Winterreise applause

Is it easier to do some kinds of music (vocal versus instrumental) or composers and styles (Baroque versus Romantic or Modern) than others? Which ones?

PR: We have had the easiest time with the famous works of Franz Schubert, Robert Schumann, Johannes Brahms, Gustav Mahler and Hugo Wolf. Some of the more rewarding performances have been of the works of some lesser-known composers or of works by famous people that are not heard as often. Some example are the William Blake songs of Benjamin Britten, the Francois Villon songs of Claude Debussy, some works of Francis Poulenc and Georges Enescu, Ivor Gurney and even Louis Coerne, Louis Spohr, Franz Schreker and Carl Loewe.

MF: There are different challenges in vocal and instrumental accompanying.  In vocal accompanying, you have to deal with and understand the words, poetry, languages, diction and style as well as the technical challenges presented.  The pieces tend to be shorter, but in recital that presents a challenge in itself because each new song is its own universe and there is often no time to gradually arrive there. You will find the same technical and musical challenges that you find in the solo piano repertoire.  Debussy is Debussy.  Brahms is Brahms.

Instrumental music is generally closer to solo piano music in that you don’t have the issues listed above (texts, languages, etc.) and you often have the challenge of playing longer forms such as sonatas — of planning and pacing a performance over a longer trajectory. But again, the challenges depend quite a bit on the composer and the piece and each experience is unique.

piano and violin accompanying

What would you each like to say about what has gone into your upcoming performance of Hugo Wolf’s “Italian Song Book”? What are the challenges for each you in relating to each other and best serving the music?

PR: I think we have had a great time getting to know these songs. The level of detail on which Hugo Wolf (below, in a photograph from 1902) works is astonishing. The quick transitions from humorous to serious moods, the sarcastic, snide commentary that is sometimes explicit and sometimes obscure, the quick dynamic and tempo changes as well as the sometime dicey harmonies are what make these songs such a delight.

The technical demands on both singers and pianist are extreme but they are never random. The “Italienisches Liederbuch” is probably the most entertaining and demanding of all the Wolf collections. Luckily for us, it is also the most rewarding for performers and audience.

Hugo Wolf 1902 photo

MF:  Wolf’s “Italian Songbook” encompasses every aspect of human relationships and emotion. It is so incredibly rich on every level. Pianistically, the intense chromaticism presents its own problems –- it is hard to keep track of what key you are in and which accidentals carry through the measure — and there are very, very wide stretches in both hands that have to be either placed between the hands or played as rolled chords.

Most of the songs are quite short (2-3 pages each) and go by so fast that it can be like an emotional roller coaster. Of course, that’s the fun of it as well. There is a lot of humor and reverence and love in these songs, and they certainly are some of the best that the German Lied, or art song, has to offer. It is a privilege beyond words for me to play these pieces with both Julia and Paul, and it has been a complete joy to do so.

What else would you like to say or add from your specific point of view?

PR: I realize that this is a very specialized repertoire that may be intimidating to many concertgoers. Even the title is somewhat confusing. Why are these Italian songs in German? How can this music be relevant for a modern audience? I would encourage anyone who does not know the music of Hugo Wolf to give this music a chance. There is so much beauty, humor and variety that it is worth the time and effort to experience it. (At bottom is a Hugo Wolf sampler in a YouTube video that includes a dozen songs from the “Italian Songbook” sung by baritone Hermann Prey and accompanied by pianist Daniel Barenboim.) 

MF: For the listeners who might come to hear the “Italian Songbook,” I would urge them to really pay attention to the piano parts. Just about every nuance of emotion in the text is presented in the piano writing through tiny harmonic shifts and stunning, sometimes sudden dynamic changes.

Also, I’m playing every piece on the program -– a total of 46 songs — where Paul and Julia get to share the stage (equally divided between them).  It’s a bigger job for me than anyone else!  And … lucky me!

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