By Jacob Stockinger
Here is the official announcement of the 2017-18 season by the Madison Symphony Orchestra:
The 2017-18 season of the Madison Symphony Orchestra (MSO, below, in a photo by Greg Anderson) presents nine programs that invite audiences to “listen with all your heart” and “feel the emotion, power and majesty” of great classical music.
Subscriptions are available now, and single tickets for all concerts go on sale to the public Saturday, Aug. 12, 2017.
For more information about tickets and ticket prices plus discounts for new subscribers and renewing subscribers, go to:
MSO music director John DeMain, who will be marking his 24th season with the MSO, has created an exciting season that features favorites combined with firsts.
Says DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad): “I must point out two monumental firsts: the MSO debut of the great violinist Gil Shaham, renowned and sought after the world over, whose appearance Madison has waited for for many years; and the Madison premiere of the Glagolitic Mass by Czech composer Leos Janacek, a gargantuan work for chorus and orchestra with a prominent role for our “Colossal Klais,” the Overture Concert Organ.”
Performances are in Overture Hall of the Overture Center at 7:30 p.m. on Fridays; 8 p.m. on Saturdays; and 2:30 p.m. on Sundays.
The 2017-2018 subscription series concerts begin on Sept. 15, 16 and 17 with “Orchestral Brilliance”—proudly presenting the Madison Symphony Orchestra performing the Johann Sebastian Bach/Leopold Stokowski version of the organ Toccata and Fugue in D minor; Felix Mendelssohn’s Reformation Symphony and Hector Berlioz’s “Harold in Italy” with MSO principal viola Christopher Dozoryst (below, in a photo by Katrin Talbot) as soloist. (You can hear Leopold Stokowski conduct his own transcription of the work by Bach, which was used in Walt Disney’s film “Fantasia,” in the YouTube video at the bottom.)
“From the New World” on Oct. 20, 21 and 22 features the return of beloved pianist Olga Kern (below), a gold medalist in the Van Cliburn competition, performing Samuel Barber’s Piano Concerto, and the MSO performing Antonin Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 “From the New World” and Maurice Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite.
On Nov. 17, 18, and 19 “Troubadour: Two Faces of the Classical Guitar” features sensational guitar virtuoso Sharon Isbin (below) playing two works, one by American composer Chris Brubeck, and the other by the Spaniard Joaquin Rodrigo, with the MSO performing two Suites—Manuel DeFalla’s The Three-Cornered Hat and Aaron Copland’s Billy the Kid.
The cherished kickoff to the holiday season, “A Madison Symphony Christmas,” returns on the first weekend in December — the 1, 2, and 3. Guest artists Emily Pogorelc, soprano, and Eric Barry, tenor, join John DeMain, the MSO, the Madison Symphony Chorus (below), Madison Youth Choirs and Mount Zion Gospel Choir on stage for the family-friendly celebration.
The MSO season subscription continues in 2018 with the long awaited appearance of violinist Gil Shaham (below) with the MSO—“Gil Shaham Plays Tchaikovsky” on Jan. 19, 20 and 21. This program features works by three of the most popular Russian composers of all time— Sergei Prokofiev’s The Love for Three Oranges Suite, Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 3 and Peter Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto.
“Richly Romantic” concerts take place on Feb. 16, 17 and 18 when one of MSO’s favorite cellists, Alban Gerhardt (below), returns performing the lyrical William Walton’s Cello Concerto, and the MSO presents Johannes Brahms’ Symphony No. 1 and Gioachino Rossini’s Overture to Semiramide.
Spring arrives April 13, 14, and 15 with “String Fever” featuring Robert Schumann’s Symphony No. 1, Spring, Benjamin Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem and Grammy Award-winning violinist Augustin Hadelich (below) performing the Antonin Dvorak’s Violin Concerto.
The season finale, “Mass Appeal,” takes place on May 4, 5 and 6. Star of NPR’s From the Top, pianist Christopher O’Riley (below), will open the program with Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 22. The MSO premiere of the monumental Glagolitic Mass by Czech composer Leos Janacek features the Overture Concert Organ and the Madison Symphony Chorus, along with soloists Rebecca Wilson, soprano, Julie Miller, mezzo-Soprano, Roger Honeywell, tenor, and Benjamin Sieverding, bass.
The MSO’s 17-18 season includes the popular multimedia production of Beyond the Score®, “Edward Elgar: Enigma Variations,” featuring live actors and visuals in the first half, with the entire work performed in the second half. Joining the orchestra are American Players Theatre actors James Ridge (below), Colleen Madden and Brian Mani, along with Wisconsin Public Radio’s Norman Gilliland of Wisconsin Public Radio as the Narrator. This single performance takes place on Sunday, March 18, 2018*.
NOTE: *Advance tickets for Beyond the Score® are available only to MSO 17-18 season subscribers prior to single tickets going on sale to the general public on Saturday, Aug. 12, 2017. Beyond the Score® is a production of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Gerard McBurney, Creative Director for Beyond the Beyond the Score®
ABOUT THE MADISON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
The Madison Symphony Orchestra celebrates its 92nd season in 2017-2018 and its 24th season under the leadership of music director John DeMain.
The MSO has grown to be one of America’s leading regional orchestras, providing Madison and south central Wisconsin with cultural and educational opportunities to interact with great masterworks and top-tier guest artists from around the world.
Find more information at madisonsymphony.org
By Jacob Stockinger
Ludwig van Beethoven’s popular Symphony No. 6 “Pastorale” anchors the Madison Symphony Orchestra (MSO) concerts under the baton of music director John DeMain on this coming Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
Norwegian violinist Henning Kraggerud returns to perform a violin concerto and some of his own original compositions.
The concerts will open with “In the South” by Sir Edward Elgar, a work that was inspired by the countryside and music he experienced during an Italian holiday.
Kraggerud will perform the dramatic and lyrical Violin Concerto No. 1 by Max Bruch (below), followed by his own Three Postludes from his composition “Equinox.”
The program will conclude with Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6, “the Pastorale,” which is a tribute to country life, as you can see and hear in the popular YouTube video, with almost 3 million hits, that is at the bottom.
The concerts are in Overture Hall of the Overture Center, 201 State Street, on Friday at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday at 8 p.m.; and Sunday at 2:30 p.m.
While escaping a drab English winter, Elgar (below), inspired by the Italian Riviera and his realization of the human cost of war, wrote “In the South” – an overture that begins and ends in a stormy mood, while encompassing wistful music for clarinets and strings.
Austrian violin virtuoso Joseph Joachim (below) put Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1 in the same league as the violin concertos of Beethoven, Brahms and Mendelssohn, calling the Bruch composition the “richest, most seductive” of the four composers. The main musical theme eventually becomes the foundation for a flashy and exhilarating ending.
Kraggerud’s “Equinox” is a set of 24 postludes for solo violin and orchestra in all major and minor keys, with a concluding 25th movement, based on a narration titled “24 Keys to a World Before it Slips Away” by Norwegian novelist Jostein Gaarder.
The Three Postludes, each short character pieces expressing an emotion, will transport audiences around the globe, capturing in a witty way a bit of the flavor of the protagonist’s various stops on his imaginary journey.
Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 was inspired by his love for the countryside around Vienna. In it he reflects upon humanity’s role in the quiet spaces of nature. According to Beethoven (below), the Pastorale is meant to transport the listener to lush, restful, nature scenes that are “more an expression of feeling than painting.” Popularized through the Disney-animated classic film “Fantasia,” the Pastorale Symphony delights audiences of all ages.
One hour before each performance, Tyrone Greive (below, in a photo by Kathy Esposito), former MSO Concertmaster and retired professor of violin at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, will lead a 30-minute Prelude Discussion in Overture Hall to enhance concertgoers’ understanding and listening experience.
For more background on the music, please visit the Program Notes at: madisonsymphony.org/kraggerud.
Single Tickets are $16 to $87 each, available at madisonsymphony.org/kraggerud, 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 percent by calling the MSO office at (608) 257-3734. For more information visit, madisonsymphony.org/groups
Club 201, MSO’s organization for young professionals, has continued to fulfill its mission for the past 11 years as the premier organization promoting classical music and networking opportunities to the young professionals’ community in Madison.
For a $35 ticket, young professionals will enjoy world-class seating in Overture Hall, an exclusive after-party in the Promenade Lounge, one drink ticket and a cash bar. Conductor John DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad), as well as musicians from the symphony, will be attending to mingle with Madison’s young professionals.
The deadline to purchase tickets is this Thursday, Oct. 20. Tickets can be purchased for this event, as well as the other events throughout the 2016-17 season by visiting the Club 201 page on the MSO’s website at http://www.madisonsymphony.org/club201.
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 $12 or $15 tickets. More information is at: madisonsymphony.org/studentrush. Students can receive 20 percent savings on seats in select areas of the hall on advance ticket purchases.
Seniors age 62 and up receive 20 percent 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 October concerts is provided by: Steinhauer Charitable Trust, Rosemarie Blancke, Cyrena and Lee Pondrom, and UW Health & Unity Health Insurance. Additional funding is provided by: DeWitt Ross & Stevens S.C., Audrey and Philip Dybdahl, and the Wisconsin Arts Board with funds from the State of Wisconsin and the National Endowment for the Arts.
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.
No big-name imported guest soloists were to be booked.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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!
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:
By Jessica Courtier for The Capital Times:
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:
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.
By Jacob Stockinger
The Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO) will wind up their 50th anniversary season when they present the final concert series of the season — the Eugenie Mayer Bolz Family Spring Concerts — on this Saturday, May 21, and Sunday, May 22.
The concert series will be held in Mills Concert Hall in the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus in the George Mosse Humanities Building, 455 North Park Street, in Madison.
WYSO concerts generally run about an hour and a half in length, providing a great orchestral concert opportunity for families.
Tickets are available at the door, $10 for adults and $5 for young people 18 and under.
Almost 400 young musicians will display their talents to the community during four concerts.
The concert series will drop its downbeat at 1:30 p.m. on Saturday, May 21, when Sinfonietta (below), under the baton of Mark Leiser, takes the stage. The group will perform the Poet and Peasant Overture by Franz von Suppe; the Suite for String Orchestra on Old English Songs by Ritter George; the Adagio from Symphony No. 2 by Sergei Rachmaninoff; As Summer Was Just Beginning (Song for James Dean) by Daehn; and Final Quest composed by Chisam.
Following Sinfonietta, Christine Mata-Eckel will lead the Concert Orchestra (below) on stage to perform Kallalanta by William Harbinson, Peter Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet and finally Jacob’s Fantasia on the Alleluia Hymn.
The Harp Ensemble (below), under the direction of Karen Beth Atz, will also perform at this concert. It will be performing Courante CLXXXIII by Michael Praetorius and Toward the Sun by Izmaylov.
For the 4 p.m. concert on Saturday, May 21, Vicki Jenks will direct the Percussion Ensemble (below) as it gets the concert started. It will perform Dark Flight by Campbell and their annual performance of Londonderry Air (“Danny Boy”) in honor of graduating seniors.
Following Percussion Ensemble, the Philharmonia Orchestra (bel0w), under the direction of Michelle Kaebisch, will take the stage. It will perform the final movement of Jean Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2 and Espana by Emmanuel Chabrier.
The orchestra will also perform two concertos featuring the Philharmonia Orchestra Concerto Competition Winners. Pianist Antonio Wu (below top) will perform Felix Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto and violinist Monona Suzuki (below bottom) will perform the Carmen Fantasy for Solo Violin by Pablo de Sarasate.
On Sunday, May 22, at 2 p.m. WYSO’s Brass Choirs (below) under the direction of Brett Keating will start the show performing works by George Frideric Handel, Olson, Heinrich Schutz and more.
Following Brass Choirs, Youth Orchestra (below) with WYSO music director James Smith will perform four concertos along with Franz Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2.
Violinist Thea Valmadrid (below top) will perform Tzigane for Solo Violin by Maurice Ravel; violinist Aurora Greane (below second) will play the first movement of the Violin Concerto by Tchaikovsky; pianist Audrianna Wu (below third) will perform the final movement of the Piano Concerto by Edvard Greig; and cellist Tatiana Tandias (below bottom) will perform the first movement of the Cello Concerto by Sir Edward Elgar.
These concerts are generously supported by the Eugenie Mayer Bolz Family, along with funds from Dane County, the Endres Mfg. Company Foundation, The Evjue Foundation, Inc., charitable arm of The Capital Times, W. Jerome Frautschi Foundation and Pleasant T. Rowland Foundation. This project is also supported in part by additional funds from the Wisconsin Arts Board, the State of Wisconsin, and the National Endowment for the Arts.
ALERT: Tonight’s recital by pianist Marco Grieco at Farley’s House of Pianos has been CANCELLED due to visa problems.
By Jacob Stockinger
What else can you do except admire the quiet courage and persistence to keep going?
It is exactly what the 20th-century French poet Paul Eduard described as “Le dur désir de durer,” or the hard desire to endure.
Perhaps that is one of the enduring appeals and rewards of great art – to help all of us, artists and audiences alike, get through difficult times, to bear the unbearable.
Last summer, you may recall, the Karp family lost pianist patriarch Howard Karp, a wonderful talent and personality who died suddenly of heart failure at 84 while on vacation in Colorado.
Karp (below, in a photo by Katrin Talbot) had been a longtime piano teacher and beloved performer at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music. He also was a devoted first-rate chamber music partner who performed frequently with the other members of his family.
Here is a link to the blog post about that death that drew so many readers and reader comments:
You can also use the blog’s search engine to see several posts about the memorial held for Howard Karp.
Now the remaining family members – apart from the three granddaughters who have participated in previous concerts – will take to the stage of Mills Hall this Saturday night at 8 p.m. to continue the longtime Karp tradition of performing.
He will be joined by his pianist mother Frances, and his brother Christopher, a gifted pianist and violinist (one-time concertmaster of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra) who is also a medical officer with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Here is the program:
Second Suite for Solo Cello, Op. 80 (1967) by Benjamin Britten (below)
Scherzo: Allegro molto
Sonata in F Major for Piano and Violin, Op. 24 “Spring” (1801-2) by Ludwig van Beethoven; transcribed for Piano and Cello by Parry Karp
Adagio molto expressivo
Scherzo: Allegro molto
Rondo: Allegro ma non troppo
With pianist Frances Karp (below bottom, on left beside the late Howard Karp, and below bottom playing with Parry Karp, Pro Arte violinist and Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra concertmaster Suzanne Beia, and daughter-in-law violist Katrin Talbot, who also plays with the Madison Symphony Orchestra)
Sonata for Solo Cello (1955) by George Crumb (below)
Fantasia: Andante espressivo e con molto rubato
Tema pastorale con variazioni
Toccata: Largo e drammatico-Allegro vivace
Sonata in G Major for Piano and Violin, Op. 96 (1812) by Ludwig van Beethoven; transcribed for Piano and Cello by Parry Karp. (At bottom in a YouTube video with a performance by violinist Isabelle Faust and pianist Alexander Melnikov of the appealing first moment of the original version of Beethoven’s Violin Sonata, Op. 96. The work is one of The Ear’s all-time favorites.)
with pianist Christopher Karp (below top and bottom, playing with his brother Parry)
By Jacob Stockinger
As loyal blog readers already know, The Ear has been using the FIFA World Cup (below) competition in soccer — or football, as the rest of the globe knows the sport – as a fine occasion to explore and to hear the music of Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos.
After all, the World Cup has taken place since June 12 in some dozen stadiums (below) throughout Brazil. And today’s championship match between Argentina and Germany will take place in Rio de Janiero.
And after hearing the music of Villa-Lobos performed by the Cello Choir at the National Summer Cello Institute (below) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music, The Ear is more convinced than ever that this great but neglected 20th-century composer deserves a wider hearing and more live performances.
Villa-Lobos (below) attempted an ambitious and ingenious task: To reconcile and incorporate the music of Johann Sebastian Bach and concert hall music in general with the folk songs and folk dances of his native Brazil. Before Astor Piazzolla and his “new tangos,” there was Villa-Lobos and his Bachianas Brasileiras and Choros.
Here are links to the previous installments:
This is the link to the Cello Choir concert of the annual National Summer Cello Institute that is held each summer at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music and that inspired my Villa-Lobos video postings from YouTube.
And here are the links to the first two installments that feature the Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5 and No 1, which both deserve repeated hearings:
And here is the third installment that featured Brazilian pianist Nelson Freire performing the chorale prelude-type opening of the Bachianas Brasilerias No. 3 for solo piano:
Villa-Lobos was championed by none other than the great pianist Arthur Rubinstein, who performed his suite “Prole do bebe”:
And his well-known piece “The Little Train From the Caipira,” from “Bachianas Brasileiras” No. 2, which Walt Disney was attracted to for possible use in a second “Fantasia” film and which imitates the sounds of a rural choo-choo, as played by a youth orchestra in Great Britain:
Now here is a link to Installment No. 4: A beautiful movement from one of his 17 string quartets — this one is No. 5 and is available on YouTube. It once again shows the lyrical songfulness and folk music vigor of Villa-Lobos. It is even more beautiful than the perfect soccer kick or dribble, pass or goal, and it is more long-lasting:
By Jacob Stockinger
The concert is at 7:30 p.m. on this Saturday, May 31, in the acoustically resonant Grace Episcopal Church, West Washington Avenue at Carroll Street on the Capitol Square, downtown Madison.
The soloists include violinist Leanne League and organist Mark Brampton Smith.
Admission is $15, $10 for students.
One of the best-loved choral composers, Ralph Vaughan Williams was renowned not only for his compositions, but also for his friendship and advocacy on behalf of countless other musicians.
The concert features some of Vaughan Williams’ best-known works including, “Serenade to Music,” Mass in G Minor, and the powerful anthem, “Lord, Thou Hast Been Our Refuge.”
Vaughan Williams shared a passion for collecting folksongs with his close friend Gustav Holst, whose heartfelt setting of “I Love My Love” will be heard alongside several of Vaughan Williams’ own folksong arrangements.
Works by Herbert Howells and Vaughan Williams’ students Imogen Holst and Elizabeth Maconchy will demonstrate Vaughan Williams’ influence on succeeding generations.
Finally, selections from the motets and anthems of Thomas Tallis exemplify Vaughan Williams’ debt to his English predecessors, notably Tallis’ “Third Mode Psalm Tune,” the inspiration for Vaughan Williams’ “Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis.”
Joining the WCC in this performance are violinist Leanne League, associate concertmaster of both the Madison Symphony and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra; and organist Mark Brampton Smith.
Advance tickets are available for $15 from http://www.wisconsinchamberchoir.org, via Brown Paper Tickets, or at Willy Street Coop (East and West locations) and Orange Tree Imports. Student tickets are $10.
Founded in 1998, the Madison-based Wisconsin Chamber Choir has established a reputation for excellence in the performance of oratorios by Johann Sebastian Bach, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Franz Joseph Haydn; of a cappella masterworks from various centuries; and of world-premieres. Dr. Robert Gehrenbeck, who teaches and directs choral activities at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, is the Wisconsin Chamber Choir’s Artistic Director.
Gehrenbeck recently agreed to an email Q&A about the upcoming concer.
Yesterday, Part 1 appeared. Here is a link to Part 1:
Today’s post features the second and last part of the Q&A.
What are your favorite works –- choral or otherwise — by Vaughan Williams, ones you would recommend to those listeners who don’t know him?
Many discussions of Vaughan Williams’ body of works start with his visionary orchestral work, the “Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis” from 1910. The “theme” of this work is a choral psalm tune in the Phrygian mode by Tallis (below) that Vaughan Williams discovered while working as music editor for the 1906 “English Hymnal.” (The WCC’s concert includes this Tallis work in its original form, using words from the English Hymnal.)
Not only did Vaughan Williams borrow Tallis’ melody, but, more importantly, his harmony, which is full of jarring cross relations, such as E-minor juxtaposed with E-major. Throughout his “Fantasia” — and throughout his career —Vaughan Williams exploited and extended this harmony based on what I like to call “consonances in unusual relation” (that’s a quote from the Grove Dictionary article on an obscure English composer named Alan Bush).
Unlike his contemporaries who developed increasingly chromatic music around the same time, Vaughan Williams stuck with simple triads but subjected them to various sorts of modern treatments, especially by juxtaposing seemingly unrelated chords, as in the 1910 Fantasia.
Finally, the form of this piece is not, as one might expect, a theme and variations scheme, but rather a free, rhapsodic meditation on the ethos of Tallis’ tune, somewhat in the style of an Elizabethan keyboard fantasia by William Byrd.
So it is that in this work, we have the characteristics of Vaughan Williams’ mature style in a nutshell — a melody-based form that develops freely, rather than predictably, whose harmonic language is based on new, modally inspired ways of using common chords.
The overall effect is mysterious, awe-inspiring, and revelatory. The young Herbert Howells (below) was so awestruck by the premiere performance that he spent the rest of the night pacing the streets of Gloucester, trying to digest what he had heard.
As I mentioned above, Vaughan Williams wrote nine symphonies, and several of these are favorites of mine, particularly the first, sixth, and ninth. His first symphony is a choral-orchestral masterpiece (following the examples of Ludwig van Beethoven, Felix Mendelssohn and Gustav Mahler). It’s called “A Sea Symphony,” with a libretto based on the poetry of Walt Whitman (below).
Completed the year before the Tallis “Fantasia,” this score gives voice to the muscular, optimistic humanism of Whitman’s poetry in triadic eruptions that stir the soul. I don’t claim to know all of Vaughan Williams’ music by any means, but, like many others, I am also a fan of his sixth symphony, composed in the aftermath of World War II and premiered in 1948, soon becoming the most popular English symphony of all time. The change in Vaughan Williams’ style during the 40-year period between his first and sixth symphonies is startling.
The sixth provides a good rebuttal to those who claim that Vaughan Williams remained a reactionary, rather than a modern composer. It’s full of dissonance and gnawing ostinatos that create an atmosphere of unease and dislocation, which seemed to fit the post-Hiroshima age — including our own times — extremely well.
The long final movement is marked “pianissimo, senza expressivo” (very quietly, without expression) throughout, eventually dissolving into a weird undulation between two unrelated triads, E-flat major and E-minor. Such a concluding movement is exactly the opposite of what traditional symphonic form leads listeners to expect. It’s one of the most eerie moments in the entire symphonic repertoire.
I’m afraid I’ll have to save a discussion of other orchestral works for another day, but I do want to mention a few additional favorite choral works: the war-time oratorio “Dona Nobis Pacem” (another Whitman libretto), the rarely heard oratorio “Sancta civitas” (libretto from the Book of Revelation), and the late “Three Shakespeare Songs” for unaccompanied choir. Several other favorite works of mine are on the WCC’s concert, so I’ll discuss them next.
What would you like the public to know about the specific composers and works on the program, and why you chose them?
We are looking forward to performing what I think is Vaughan Williams’ most inspired setting of William Shakespeare, his “Serenade to Music,” composed in 1938. Vaughan Williams adapted his libretto from Lorenzo’s meditation on the power of music to mediate between human passion and the harmony of the spheres in “The Merchant of Venice,” Act V
“How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank!
Here will we sit and let the sounds of music
Creep in our ears: Soft stillness and the night
Become the touches of sweet harmony….
Thus begins Vaughan Williams’ one-movement nocturne featuring some of his most lovely melodies, exquisite modulations, and ethereal scoring. The original version was for 16 solo singers and orchestra, so we will alternate between multiple soloists from the choir with the full chorus singing the tutti passages. Our fabulous organist, Mark Brampton Smith (below top), is responsible for most of the orchestration, Leanne League, who is the associate concertmaster of the Madison Symphony Orchestra and Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and a violinist with the Ancora String Quartet, is joining us to perform the original solo violin part. (You can hear “The Serenade to Music” in a YouTube video at the bottom.)
The remainder of our program draws on the rich a cappella repertoire of Vaughan Williams and several of his followers.
We’re doing two movements from his incredible Mass in G minor, which he wrote in 1921 in response to the revival of the sacred music of Byrd and Tallis at Westminster Cathedral. We’ll precede that work with an actual motet by Tallis, “Mihi autem nimis.”
In addition to the Serenade, the second half of our program features folk song settings by both Vaughan Williams and his closest friend, Gustav Holst (below), including Holst’s justifiably famous “I Love My Love,” based on a Dorian-mode tune. This piece is one of the absolute masterpieces in the genre of choral folksong arrangements.
From Vaughan Williams’ numerous additional “friends” (composers who were all literally good friends of his) we have chosen Herbert Howells, Gustav Holst’s daughter Imogen Holst (below top) and Elizabeth Maconchy (below bottom). Howells is represented by the “Jubilate” movement from his “Collegium Regale Service,” a set of Anglican canticles he composed in 1945 for King’s College in Cambridge.
The flowing melodies, modally flavored harmonies and Howells’ expert control of pacing in this work are all reminders of Vaughan Williams’ influence. Imogen Holst (below) was the only child of Gustav and Isobel Holst, and an important composer, conductor, writer, and organizer of musical festivals in her own right. Her teachers included both Howells and Vaughan Williams, and she became closely associated with Benjamin Britten during her later years.
We will perform Holst’s “Hymne to Christ,” a luminous setting of a poem by John Donne.
Finally, Elizabeth Maconchy was another of Vaughan Williams’ students and a classmate of Imogen Holst. Maconchy (below) is best known for her chamber music, but also composed operas and a significant body of choral music. We have chosen two movements from a 1979 work called “Creatures,” settings of poems written for children about various animals and their foibles.
The music of “Cat’s Funeral” is an example of the English predilection for “consonances in unusual relation” that I mentioned earlier. The string of unexpected, descending minor triads that opens this movement creates a mood of exaggerated pathos perfectly matched to the poem. The other movement is “The Hen and the Carp,” a humorous dialogue that doubles as social commentary.
What are the current plans and future projects including programs for next season, for the Wisconsin Chamber Choir?
We are very excited about our upcoming season. On December 19, 2014 we will present “Wolcum Yole,” a Christmas-themed concert featuring Benjamin Britten’s “Ceremony of Carols,” and on April 18 and 19, 2015, we will perform Brahms’ “German” Requiem with full orchestra. Also featured on the April concerts will be the world premiere of a piece we have commissioned from English composer Giles Swayne, called “Our Orphan Souls.” Swayne has chosen an excerpt from chapter 114 of Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick” as his text, and his piece will be scored for two soloists and choir with alto saxophone, harp, double bass and percussion.
Swayne (below, in a photo by Alice Williamson) plans to begin writing this piece next month, and I’m eagerly anticipating receiving the completed score in the fall. An interesting connection to our current season is that Swayne’s first composition teacher was Elizabeth Maconchy, who was his mother’s cousin.
By Jacob Stockinger
As regular readers of this blog know, I am a big fan of pianist Yuja Wang (below). I like her and I like the way she plays – not just the alluring or controversial way she dresses.
No wonder, I say, that at 25 she is in constant demand on the concert circuit and has already been nominated for two Grammys out of the first three CDs she did for Deutsche Grammophon. She is the Real Deal. Just use this blog’s search engine to check out interviews and other posts about her.
Now comes her fourth CD, “Fantasia,” which was released last week.
Just looking at the promising title of this concept album gave me fantasies.
Well, I thought, now we will get to hear Wang is some really great repertoire: maybe a fantasy by Mozart; maybe Schumann’s great Fantasy in C Major or his fabulous “Fantasy Pieces”; maybe one of Beethoven’s two Fantasy Sonatas, Op. 27, including the ‘Moonlight”; maybe Schubert’s “Wanderer” Fantasy; maybe Chopin’s Fantasy in F Minor or Polonaise-Fantasy; maybe Brahms’ set of Op. 116 Fantasies.
This really is about Fantasia, not fantasy. There is little great music on this CD, which is why I am so disappointed. It is made up of largely encore-like pieces.
True, a very few are terrific works, like Chopin’s Waltz in C-sharp minor, Liszt’s transcription of Schubert’s song “Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel” and the Sgambati transcription of Gluck’s “Dance of the Blessed Spirits.”
But, really, who needs a piano transcription of the Paul Dukas’ “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice? It only makes this CD’s title more reminiscent of the Walt Disney cartoon movie “Fantasia” than of the mystical and expansive genre that evolved out of the more formally structured sonata.
Wang plays as sexy as she looks. Her wondrous keyboard skills are evident in abundance. In her four Rachmaninoff pieces (three Etudes Tableaux and an Elegie), she goes go from calm and quiet to thunderously loud in practically no time.
Her single Scarlatti Sonata in G Major, K. 455, shows a wonderful sense of articulation, line and clarity, despite its fast tempo.
And the five early Chopin-like Scriabin preludes and poem, which she used to open her Carnegie Hall debut, show a masterly fluidness and lyricism as well as a refreshing transparency.
Every aspect of her astounding virtuoso technique is in evidence, as is her musicianship.
But why do we get the Bizet-Horowitz “Carmen” Variations, Saint-Saens’ “Danse Macabre” a la Horowitz and a transcription of Strauss’ “Tritsch-Tratsch” Polka? But do we really need another Horowitz (bel0w)?
Junk food and empty calories may be fun. But they are a terrible thing on which to waste such a major new talent. And this kind of repertoire just plays into the perception of Wang as a beautiful and well-dressed light-weight,more glitz and glamor than substance — which is NOT the case.
This is definitely NOT a CD The Ear will want to put on and listen through, though I occasionally might want to hear a piece or two at a time.
So I am still waiting for the concept album that her consummate skills – and her fans – deserve. I say Let Yuja be Yuja.
In short, The Ear gives this CD an A-plus for pianism and a D-minus for music.
Let’s hope the DG guys in Artists and Repertoire department let Wang do something more substantial in her next outing, though my bets are on the Prokofiev Third Concerto – coupled to a Prokofiev Sonata – which she recently performed and which is perfectly suited to her, as recent reviews proved again:
We’ll see what lies in the future.
In the meantime, stick to her first three CDs – etudes and themes and variations by Ligeti and Brahms plus big sonatas by Chopin and Liszt and concertos by Rachmaninoff — and you won’t go wrong.
What do you think of Yuja Wang and her other recordings?
What do you think of this latest recording?
The Ear wants to hear.