The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Acclaimed native son Kenneth Woods returns this weekend to conduct the Madison Symphony Orchestra. He talks to The Ear about what Madison meant to him and his international career

March 2, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

This weekend, native Madisonian Kenneth Woods (below) returns from his home in the UK to conduct three performances of the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

The concerts feature two MSO debuts: the prize-winning young Canadian violinist Blake Pouliot performing Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor; and the acclaimed guest conductor, Kenneth Woods, leading the orchestra for the MSO premiere of Haydn’s Symphony No. 96, “Miracle” plus Richard Strauss’ tone poem Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life).

Performances will be held in Overture Hall on Friday night, March 6, at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday night, March 7, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday afternoon, March 8, at 2:30 p.m.

Single tickets are $19-$95 each and are on sale now, along with discounted tickets, at: https://madisonsymphony.org/event/the-miracle/; through the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street; or by calling the Box Office at (608) 258-4141. Fees apply to online and phone sales.

You can view program notes for this concert online at http://bit.ly/msomar2020programnotes

A Prelude Discussion by Randal Swiggum will take place one hour before each concert.

Guest conductor Kenneth Woods is a busy and versatile musician. He is the Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra and the artistic director of both the Colorado MahlerFest and the Elgar Festival in England. (You can hear Woods conducting Carl Maria von Weber’s “Oberon” Overture in the YouTube video at the bottom.) 

Woods has won accolades for rediscovering and recording the music of the Austrian-British composer Hans Gàl. Woods, who has played guitar in a rock band, is also a professional cellist who solos with orchestras and plays chamber music. He writes a respected blog. And he currently plays and records in the Briggs Piano Trio for Avie Records.

For much more information about Kenneth Woods, including his blog “A View From the Podium,” go to: https://kennethwoods.net/blog1/

Woods recently spoke via email to The Ear about what Madison has meant to him and to his international career.

How did living in Madison play a role in your decision to become a professional musician?

Madison offered me a chance to hear music at an early age. I was taken to watch a rehearsal of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestra as a very young kid, maybe three or four years old. That made a huge impression on me, especially seeing the rehearsal process. Later, my parents took us to all the UW Symphony Orchestra concerts for years.

There’s really no reason not to take young kids to concerts! For me, a love of live music led to a love of recorded music, listening to records at home, and from there, to an interest in playing music as a kid.

We were lucky to have a very strong music program in the Madison public schools when I was growing up here. The orchestras at Memorial High School played some really impressive repertoire under Tom Buchhauser (below top, in a photo by Jon Harlow). The UW Summer Music Clinic made being a musician social – it was a great immersion with one’s peers.

Most important, however, was probably the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO). Playing under Jim Smith (below bottom) was the most fantastic education in orchestral playing one could hope for. He and Tom are a big part of why I became a conductor.

Madison in those days wasn’t a super-pressurized scene, like one might encounter around the big pre-college programs in New York or LA. But what I might have missed in terms of conservatory-level instrumentalists in every corridor, one made up in terms of feeling like you could find your own path. By the time I was in high school, I pretty much knew music was that path.

How did your experiences in Madison help prepare you for that career?

I learned so much about rehearsing from Jim Smith. In his first year, we worked on Dvorak’s 8th Symphony pretty much all year. Every week, he opened our ears to new facets of the music. I’ve never forgotten that.

I went off to Indiana University to do my Bachelor’s degree, but returned to Madison for a Master’s, when I studied cello with UW-Madison professor Parry Karp (below top).

Those were wonderful years for me. I learned an enormous amount from Parry as both a cello teacher and chamber music coach (and especially as a person).

I played in fantastic chamber groups, did lots of wacky new music and had solo opportunities. UW Symphony Orchestra conductor David Becker (below bottom) even gave me my first meaningful chance to rehearse an orchestra when he had me take a couple of rehearsals on the Copland Clarinet Concerto.

And I played in both the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra. I came away from that time with both new skills and new confidence.

What does returning to your hometown to conduct the Madison Symphony Orchestra mean to you?

It’s both very exciting and a little surreal. Under the leadership of John DeMain (below top, in a photo by Greg Anderson), the MSO (below bottom, in a photo by Peter Rodgers) has come so far since the time I was in it. And the new hall is such a treasure for all of Wisconsin – it’s practically a different orchestra.

I still have many friends and former mentors in the orchestra and it’s going to be wonderful to see them all and make music together again after so long.

But it’s more than a homecoming. It’s a chance to celebrate where we’ve all been and what we’ve all done the last 20 years or so. My musical life has mostly been in the UK for a long time, so to re-connect with my musical roots here is rather magical.

What are your major current and upcoming projects?

The English Symphony Orchestra (below) represents the biggest chunk of my musical life. This year we’re celebrating Beethoven’s 250th birthday and the orchestra’s 40th anniversary.

The ESO has a special commitment to new and unknown music, and right now we’re in the midst of something called the 21st Century Symphony Project, which involves commissioning, premiering and recording nine new symphonies by diverse composers. It’s one of the most ambitious commissioning projects I’ve ever heard of, let alone been involved in.

I’m also excited about this year’s Colorado MahlerFest in Boulder, where we’re focusing on Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 “Resurrection” this May, which will crown a week of music exploring themes of color and visual art with music by Wagner, Messiaen and British composer Philip Sawyers.

Is the MSO program special to you?

I must say that it was incredibly generous of John DeMain to offer me such a fantastic program. Not every music director is gentleman enough to let a guest have Ein Heldenleben.

What would you like the public to know about your approach to music and about the specific works by Haydn, Mendelssohn and Richard Strauss?

Haydn’s music is maybe the richest discovery of my adult life. I didn’t get it as a kid, largely because most performances I heard were so dull.

His music is so varied, and his personality so complex, one mustn’t try to reduce him down to a simplistic figure. The late symphonies, of which this is one of the finest, are inexhaustible sources of wisdom, beauty, humor and sanity.

The Mendelssohn is really an astonishing piece. I’ve probably conducted it as much as any piece of music, with so many different soloists, all of whom had hugely different temperaments, personalities, sounds and approaches.

I’ve played it with some of the greatest violinists in the world and with young students. Somehow, whoever is playing, it always leaves me, and the audience, smiling. I’m pretty sure we can continue that streak with Blake Pouliot (below, in a photo by Jeff Fasano).

The Strauss is a rich, personal, wise, funny and moving work. It’s always a challenge, particularly bringing out all the astonishing detail in the score, but it’s also a real joy to perform. If the Mendelssohn always leaves me smiling, the Strauss always leaves me smiling with a tear in my eye.

 


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Classical music: You be the critic. Was there a specific piece or an entire concert of holiday music that you especially liked – or disliked — this year?

December 26, 2018
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IF YOU LIKE A CERTAIN BLOG POST, PLEASE SPREAD THE WORD. FORWARD A LINK TO IT OR, SHARE or TAG IT (not just “Like” it) ON FACEBOOK. Performers can use the extra exposure to draw potential audience members to an event.

By Jacob Stockinger

Well, Hanukkah, the winter solstice and Christmas are over and we’ve just about made it through another holiday time, with Kwanzaa and New Year’s still to come.

Holiday music, especially choral music, is undeniably popular during holiday season.

Year after year, the Madison Symphony Orchestra’s Christmas program (below is a photo by Peter Rodgers)  – which uses local and ethnically diverse talent and well as imported guest vocal artists — usually comes close to selling out three performances in Overture Hall.

And year after year for a decade, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and Festival Choir plus guest soloists (below) sell out their one performance of “Messiah” at the Blackhawk Church in Middleton.

Plus, there are lots of other holiday events – including the Madison Bach Musicians with Baroque chamber music favorites and the Madison Choral Project with spoken word narration and new music as well as programs of traditional carols and hymns– that drew good crowds or even full houses.

There are so many holiday music events, in fact, that it can often be hard to choose.

So here is what The Ear is asking: You be the critic.

Please tell us if there was a particular piece of music you especially enjoyed – say, Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” or George Frideric Handel’s “Messiah” or violin concertos by Arcangelo Corelli – music you really liked or disliked?

For next year, what do you recommend that people should keep an eye and ear out for, including programs on Wisconsin Public Radio and Wisconsin Public Television as well as on other TV and radio stations?

Similarly, was there a specific program or event – an entire program or concert – that surprised you for better or worse?

Given the limited time that most people have during the holidays, what holiday concerts should people plan on attending or avoid next year?

Often the public trusts other audience members more than they trust professional critics.

So here is a chance for you to be a critic and to direct the public’s attention as well as to thank certain performers and groups for what you see as the Best Holiday Music of 2018.

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: Today is the start of Fall. Here is autumnal music by Richard Strauss. Plus, UW-Madison soprano Jeanette Thompson makes her FREE debut tonight at 7 p.m. in Mills Hall.

September 22, 2017
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ALERT: UW-Madison faculty soprano Jeanette Thompson gives her FREE debut recital tonight at 7 p.m.  in Mills Hall. Guest performers are pianist Thomas Kasdorf and faculty colleague baritone Paul Rowe.

Thompson has put together a concert of some of her favorite love songs, though not always typical of love songs:  some of them are about a love that is lost, some of them are about a love desired, and some of them are about a love for God.

These songs include excerpts from Gustav Mahler’s Rückert Lieder and Johannes Brahms’ Volksbuchlieder. In addition to Rückert, they include some of her favorite poets like Charles Baudelaire and Eduard Möricke. She will perform songs by Cole Porter and George Gershwin, and will be joined by baritone Paul Rowe to sing two of the most beautiful “Porgy and Bess” love duets ever written.

Thompson (below) will conclude the concert with some of her favorite spirituals, including her mother’s favorite song, “His Eye is on the Sparrow.“

By Jacob Stockinger

Today is the autumnal equinox, which arrives at 3:02 p.m. CDT. It marks when the day has an equal amount of daylight and night.

It also means that today is the first official day of Fall.

And despite the hot weather right now, Fall is often a great time to start returning to indoor activities.

That makes it a good time for listening to classical music.

There are the usual candidates such as Antonio Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” and its modern counterpart “Four Seasons of Buenos Aires” by tango master Astor Piazzolla.

If you want to hear other season-appropriate music, YouTube, Spotify, Classical-music.com and other websites have generous compilations. Just Google “classical music for autumn.”

But today The Ear want to feature just one selection to celebrate the season. It is soprano Jessye Norman singing “September” from “Four Last Songs” by Richard Strauss.

What is you favorite music to greet autumn with?

Use the COMMENT section to let us know, along with a link to a video performance if possible.


Classical music: Listen to live “eclipse music” during today’s solar eclipse

August 21, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

Today is the day a lot of people have been waiting for for a long time.

The United States will experience a solar eclipse (below).

By now you’ve heard enough about not looking directly at the sun because of the severe damage you risk doing to your eyes.

But indirectly you can watch and also hear it unfold from about 11:15 a.m. CDT for three hours. And you can see it and hear about through any number of media, including television, radio and the Internet. Just Google it and take your choice.

What you may not know is that the entire eclipse in the U.S, will be accompanied by the famed and always adventurous Kronos Quartet (below top) playing an ingenious score – which uses the energy from the sun during the eclipse to create notes  — written especially for this occasion by the contemporary San Francisco composer Wayne Grim (below bottom) especially for this occasion.

You can hear a sample of Grim’s music for another scientific project at the Exploratorium in the YouTube video at the bottom.

Here are links to the stories on National Public Radio (NPR) and the web, which feature a link to the live-streamed performance from the Exploratorium in San Francisco:

http://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2017/08/18/544417454/kronos-quartet-plays-a-duet-with-t-the-sun-the-moon-and-a-string-quartet-kronos

https://www.space.com/37845-kronos-quartet-serenades-total-solar-eclipse.html

And for good measure, here is a link to a story about the first photograph ever taken of a solar eclipse – the one that appears above. The daguerreotype dates from July 28, 1851 and was taken by Johann Julius Friedrich Berkowski.

https://www.forbes.com/sites/kionasmith/2017/08/20/behold-the-first-photograph-of-a-solar-eclipse/


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