The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and soloist Ben Beilman deliver the best Beethoven Violin Concerto that The Ear has ever heard live

October 8, 2015
7 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Many people see the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below) as competitors.

WCO lobby

But that’s not how The Ear sees them.

The Ear sees symphony orchestras and chamber orchestras not as competitors but as complements.

The two can serve as role models for each other. A symphony orchestra can aim to achieve the transparency and clarity of the smaller group; the chamber orchestra can aim to achieve the richness and bigger sound of the larger ensemble.

Almost two weeks ago, that is exactly what the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below) and conductor John DeMain did with the “Leonore” Overture No. 3 by Ludwig van Beethoven, the Clarinet Concerto by Aaron Copland and especially the big, loud and brassy Ethel Merman-like Symphony No. 4 by Peter Ilych Tchaikovsky.

Here is how The Ear heard that performance:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2015/10/01/classical-music-heres-why-the-opening-concert-of-the-madison-symphony-orchestra-proved-a-stunning-success/

John DeMain and MSO from the stage Greg Anderson

So how did the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra do in meeting the challenge?

In a word — superbly.

The WCO did so last Friday night in the Overture Center’s Capitol Theater under its longtime music director Andrew Sewell.

The program started with one of those welcome rarities that Sewell has a knack for unearthing. This time the native New Zealander played the piece “Landfall in Unknown Seas” by Douglas Lilburn (below), whom Sewell described as the Kiwi Copland.

Well, maybe, though The Ear finds Aaron Copland’s music more interesting and emotionally moving than the clearly modern but tonal and accessible music by Lilburn, whose centennial is this year.

douglas lilburn

The piece — written to commemorate the tricentennial of the discovery of New Zealand — was hobbled with one of those puffily pretentious and over-the-top occasional celebratory poems, which was recited by actor James Ridge (below) of American Players Theatre in Spring Green. It treated navigation and discovery as metaphors of something much bigger than the discovery of New Zealand.

All in all, it proved an interesting but not arresting piece, a curiosity worth hearing but not repeating.

 

James Ridge

Then came the rarely played Symphony No. 2 in A minor by Camille Saint-Saens. It is a kind of Late Romantic pastiche that reminds one of the “Classical” Symphony by Sergei Prokofiev. One could hear strains of earlier composers such as Robert Schumann and Felix Mendelssohn in this charming work that once again is worth hearing but maybe not repeating or at least not soon.

To be fair, critic John W. Barker disagreed in his review for Isthmus:

http://www.isthmus.com/arts/stage/wisconsin-chamber-orchestra-opens-2015-season/

In both cases, Sewell (below) and the various sections of the WCO brought not only the kind of transparency or clarity that one expects from the WCO but also a robustness that made the orchestra seem bigger than it looked.

AndrewSewellnew

Yet it was in the second half where the WCO really showed its stuff.

The piece was the formidable Violin Concerto by Ludwig van Beethoven.

The soloist was the 25-year-old Benjamin Beilman (below), making his Madison debut.

Benjamin Beilman close up playing

Together, Beilman and Sewell delivered what is the finest and most exciting live performance of the famous and famously difficult concerto that The Ear has ever heard. It possessed intimacy as well as heroics. (You can hear Itzhak Perlman and Daniel Barenboim conducting the Berlin Philharmonic in the last movement in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

Sewell shaded the piece and brought both chamber orchestra transparency and symphony orchestra heft to the work. He also emphasized Beethoven’s mastery of counterpoint, a legacy from his days as a student of Franz Joseph Haydn. This time the often thorny Beethoven score seemed smoother and more decipherable.

Beilman, for his part, is already a master of the kind of small details that make a huge difference. He is also not afraid to play softly.

Beethoven (below) was a master crafter but not a great melody writer, and often the opening movement can often seem little more than a patchwork of scales and runs, chords and arpeggios.

beethoven BW grim

But not this time. Beilman made this often flat-sounding violin part exciting with the subtleties he brought to it. He found hidden melodies and camouflaged suggestions of a theme, all delivered with a great tone from his modern 2004 violin.

One unusual touch was the cadenzas. Beethoven didn’t write any for the violin. When he transcribed this work for the piano he composed piano cadenzas. And those were the basis of what Beilman, the top winner of the Montreal International Violin Competition and the recipient of an Avery Fisher Career Grant, used for his exciting cadenzas.

Tempi mattered too. This long, dense concerto moved right along, and when it was done, the performance drew an immediate standing ovation from the audience of 900 or so.

And here’s the thing: At no point did the chamber orchestra seem to lack the horsepower needed to drive this big and iconic piece of music. Sewell and Beilman were well matched in projecting a big, rich sound and intense interpretation that engaged and excited you from beginning to end.

The audience even drew two encores from Beilman, both solo pieces by Johann Sebastian Bach (below), the ultimate test of a violinist. One was the songful slow movement from the Solo Sonata in C Major; the other was the lively Gavotte from the Solo Partita in E Major that almost seems a mirror image of the last movement of the Beethoven concerto.(ATTENTION ALL SOLOISTS: Please announce your encores!)

Bach1

The first Bach movement, by the way, was also the piece that Beilman played at the wedding this summer where his sister married Joe Morris, the gifted principal clarinet of the Madison Symphony Orchestra who so stood out in the Copland concerto two weeks ago.

Plus, Beilman’s parents and grandparents hail from Madison.

So young Benjamin Beilman has roots in and ties to Madison.

Could that mean he will return soon?

The Ear sure hopes so.

 


Classical music: Madison Opera’s “Opera in the Park” again hits all the right notes – outdoors.

July 24, 2012
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Madison Opera started “Opera in the Park” 11 years ago to advertise, and build audiences for, its regular winter season.

(The next season, by the way, includes Verdi’s “A Masked Ball,” Mozart’s “Don Giovanni and Handel‘s “Acis and Galatea,” the company’s first Handel opera and first baroque opera, perhaps opening the door to Gluck, Vivaldi and of course more Handel. For more about next season and for the Madison Opera blog, go to www.madisonopera.org.)

But along the way, something happened.

The event has morphed into a more or less independent concert that has taken on a life of its own. And what a life it is, now a highpoint of the increasingly busy summer classical music season in Madison. (The photo below is by James Gill.)

Consider that, despite the threat of rain and heat, a record-setting almost 14,500 people turned out Saturday to the hilly, amphitheater-like Garner Park, on Madison’s far west side, to hear this year’s edition of the annual event. (The photo below is by James Gill.)

They weren’t disappointed. Far from it. Over two hours, they consistently cheered and at the end gave a standing ovation – and even seemed disappointed when an encore wasn’t forthcoming.

The public isn’t always right. But this time it was.

I started to put check marks next to items on my program when I felt the selections were outstanding. Before long I realized that there were just too many checks to single each one out for comment.

So let me hit some highlights.

Who isn’t grateful to hear the Madison Opera Chorus and Madison Symphony Orchestra players in the rarely performed and Puccini-like Prelude and “Hymn to the Sun” from Mascagni’s “Iris” — think “Turandot” or “Madame Butterfly” — or Verdi’s boisterous and infectious “Anvil Chorus” from “Il Trovatore”?

Who could fail to be charmed by mezzo Emily Pons and bass Matt Boehler and the perfect physicality of their suitably seductive duet of “La Ci darem La Mano” between Zerlina and Don Juan from Mozart’s “Don Giovanni”?

Who could resist soprano Caitlyn Lynch (below, in a photo by James Gill) in those fabulously ethereal high notes that float high above the mundane world in her dream aria “Chi Il Bel Sogno di Dretta” from Puccini’s “Rondine”?

Who would not be impressed by tenor Russell Thomas (below, in a photo by James Gill) in “La Donna e mobile” from Verdi’s “Rigoletto”? He is the Ethel Merman of tenors, possessing a big – make that huge – and beautiful voice. True, he lacks some subtlety and his stage manner is a bit stiff, as was Luciano Pavarotti ‘s. But the crowd loved him and sensed they were hearing The Real Deal when it comes to grand talent for grand opera. This man is going places far beyond the loud echoes he created in the vastness of the park.

There were tender moments too. Madison Opera’s congenial general director Kathryn Smith paid tribute to the company’s co-founder Roland Johnson, who died recently and then the crowd waved light sticks to the lovely and calming Barcarolle from Offenbach’s “Tales of Hoffman.”

Here is a link to a video of that tribute:

http://www.peterpatau.com/

Matt Boehler also turned in two other great moments where he matched voice and stage manner: As Leporello (below in a photo by James Gill), the servant who recites the list of 2,067 conquests by Don Juan – showing that even more than the seductions the immorality is in the cataloguing, the writing down and depersonalizing of the love-making and the love-object. And then he easily switched gears and got into character in the Gilbert and Sullivan tongue-twisting patter song “”Modern Major General.”

The Hollywood sampling of four selections was based on love – the word and the concept – and to The Ear it did not intrude too much on the more serious opera works. It fact, the songs — especially “Be My Love” and “Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man” helped set the mood in the cool and clear night. Who doesn’t like a little romance with their beauty?

And then everyone seemed spellbound and moved by the concert’s finale, the large cast (below, in a photo by James Gill) singing “Let Our Garden Grow” from Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide.” Lenny knew about rough days and difficult lives. It’s hard to argue with either the music or the lyrics in his take on Voltaire’s famously metaphorical line “We must cultivate our garden.”

If operatic music is the garden, the Madison Opera certainly cultivated it with great results on Saturday night.

Of course, much of this should come as no surprise.

Some audiences love the “Best Of” format. True, real opera fans crave the drama and plots, the costumes and sets. But many of us go for the music — and that is what we got.

This year’s crop of top-notch artists — there wasn’t a weak or unpleasant voice among them — showed no lack of pedigree. When introductions were made for the various singers, names like The Met, Covent Garden, the Santa Fe Opera, the Lyric Opera of Chicago, the San Francisco Opera and the New York Philharmonic got tossed about.

How lucky Madison is to get to hear so many of these voices before the world at large does. Choose right and choose early, it seems, and you can afford the best talent before it becomes famous and unaffordable. So the standing ovation (below) was well deserved.

Guest conductor especially deserves to be singled out for high praise. Gary Thor Wedow (below, in a photo by James Gill), who substituted for the Madison Opera’s artistic director and usual conductor John DeMain, has long experience at various opera companies and now teaches conducting at the prestigious Juilliard School of Music in New York City. And you could tell he loves what he does: As he conducted without a baton and with complete mastery, you could see him mouthing the words to just about everyone’s part. This is an expert.

Were there flaws or imperfections, dissatisfactions or mistakes? Sure.

It would have been welcome to hear at least a sample from next season’s Handel opera instead of a different one.

Probably the biggest problem was the sound system, especially depending on where you were sitting. Overall, it still seems to need some refining for clarity and balance.

But sound problems seem endemic to stadium-like concerts. Those same problems also plagued the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra’s Concerts on the Square for a decade or more. You begin to think that amplification in big outdoors spaces simply can’t ever be perfect because every ear wants something different out of it.

Nonetheless, the talent came through and the beauty survived, especially on what turned out to be such a perfect evening, who could ask for anything more?

Well, opera is an art and so there are many points of view about it. So here are so other critics’ takes on this year’s Opera in the Park.

Here is freelancer Rena Archwamety’s review for 77 Square, the Capital Times and The Wisconsin State Journal:

http://host.madison.com/entertainment/arts_and_theatre/reviews/opera-in-the-park-serenades-and-seduces-with-songs-of/article_60dbced8-5d8b-5b74-95fb-26815f34b69b.html

And here is John W. Barker’s review for Isthmus:

http://www.thedailypage.com/daily/article.php?article=37316&sid=41aee9bd30f1129a320857dbc5cf9790

What did you think of Opera in the Park 2012? What did you enjoy and what did you find to be the highlights? Be a critic. Leave a comment. And I will leave you with an oh-so-difficult but oh-so-beautiful song we heard live at Opera in the Park 2012.


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