The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Why is Beethoven so popular? And why do all-Beethoven concerts work so well? Conductor Andrew Sewell answers these questions even as he prepares to perform the all-Beethoven concert tonight by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra.

May 1, 2015
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By Jacob Stockinger

Tonight at 8 p.m. in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center, conductor Andrew Sewell (below top) will lead the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below bottom) and guest pianist Bryan Wallick, who won the Vladimir Horowitz Prize and is returning to Madison, in an all-Beethoven concert to wrap up this season of the WCO indoors Masterworks programs.

AndrewSewellnew

WCO lobby

The program includes the “Leonore” Overture No. 1, the Piano Concerto No. 5 “Emperor” and the Symphony No. 7.

Tickets are $15-$62. For more information, visit: http://www.wcoconcerts.org/performances/masterworks-v

The Ear asked the guest pianist Bryan Wallick and WCO’s longtime music director and conductor Andrew Sewell to explain why all-Beethoven concerts work so well and why Beethoven remains so popular with the general public. (Coincidentally, the Madison Symphony Orchestra will also close its season with Beethoven, specifically the Symphony No. 9 (“Choral” or “Ode to Joy”) on May 8, 9 and 10.

Wallick’s answers appeared here on Wednesday and offered the perspective of an instrumentalist. Here is a link to his answers:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2015/04/29/classical-music-why-is-beethoven-so-popular-and-why-do-all-beethoven-concerts-works-pianist-bryan-wallick-explains-these-questions-even-as-he-prepares-to-play-the-emperor-concerto/

And here are the answers by conductor Andrew Sewell (below), who kindly responded to an email Q&A:

andrewsewell

Beethoven (below), along with a handful of other composers, including Mozart and Tchaikovsky, is one of the few composers who can make up a single-composer concert that also attracts the public. What accounts for that, do you think?

I think his name is synonymous with classical music. His music defines it — the working out of themes, melody and development — from his overtures, symphonies, concertos, piano sonatas and string quartets.

Beethoven big

What role has Beethoven played in your career? Are there works in particular that you were drawn to as a student or a performing professional?

As a young concertgoer, at the age of 8, I heard his Symphony No. 9 “Choral” and fell in love with the “Ode to Joy.” I was captivated by his life and biography, about his deafness overtaking him, and stories of his inner personal struggles. I remember reading all about his life as a youngster, and I loved playing his music.

As a violinist, I loved getting to know his violin sonatas and symphonies. One of my first significant orchestral experiences at age 16 was playing his “Leonore” Overture No. 3 with the New Zealand Youth Orchestra, and a year later, the Fifth Symphony. Beethoven’s overtures and symphonies are the bread and butter of any orchestra.

Andrew Sewell BW

Beethoven consistently ranks as the general public’s favorite classical composer. Why is that, do you think? The consistently high quality of the music? The diversity of works and forms that his creativity expressed itself in? The sense of overcoming struggle and personal hardship you find in his works?

All of the above. You said it in the wide variety of forms he used –- symphonies, overtures, sonatas, chamber music. The string quartets alone, like Mozart’s Piano Concertos, are a lifetime testament in which we see his development as a composer and inner struggles.

His personal life is intertwined with the complexities of his later works, as he stretched the boundaries of form and development. His Ninth Symphony and the late string quartets testify to this. Overcoming struggle and personal hardship give the music its triumphal drive.

beethoven BW grim

Is there an aspect of Beethoven that you think the public needs to pay more attention to and that you intend to emphasize in your interpretations?

The “Leonore” Overture No. 1 is probably the least played of the four overtures related to his one and only opera, “Fidelio.” Inadvertently he created a new form, known as the Concert Overture, and which Mendelssohn later took up.

This overture, does not include the off-stage trumpet reverie, as in Nos. 2 and 3. For some reason, Beethoven was not satisfied, and continued to refine it in later compositions. What I find intriguing about this overture is the way he transitions from slow to fast sections and back again so seamlessly and how he experimented with a continuous form.

The Symphony No. 7  — below is a page of the work’s manuscript from Beethoven’s almost illegible notebooks — is among his most energetic symphonies. It never lets up and is physically demanding on all sections of the orchestra. One needs stamina for this music. It is also extremely exciting to play and to listen to, hence it is a very popular symphony. (At the bottom,  in a popular YouTube video with almost 8 million hits, you can hear the famous and well-known Allegretto movement from the Symphony No. 7 with an intriguing bar graph score.)

Beethoven Symphony no 7 MS

Is there anything you would like to say or add?

An all-Beethoven program is a great way to end the season, especially when you have pianist Bryan Wallick (below) returning to perform with us. We are most excited to hear and share his performance of the mighty “Emperor” Piano Concerto.

Bryan Wallick mug

 


Classical music: What’s the best classical music of the past 100 years? Take part in the contemporary music poll by radio station Q2 Music -– and help determine the Top 100 musicians and compositions of the past 100 years. Then tune in starting Dec. 27 to hear the results. Plus, this afternoon’s Christmas concert by the Madison Symphony Orchestra is SOLD OUT.

December 7, 2014
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ALERT: This just in: This afternoon’s performance at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall of the Madison Symphony Orchestra‘s Christmas concert, with guest soloist and local groups under the baton of John DeMain (below, in a photo by Bob Rashid) is virtually SOLD OUT. But you can call the Overture Center Box Office (608-258-4141) to determine any availability.

DeMain Santa Bob Rashid

By Jacob Stockinger

Sure, you look at the entirety of classical music history and you can name your favorite composers and favorite works: Johann Sebastian Bach and Ludwig van Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and Ninth Symphony, right?

But there are surprises awaiting you, if you restrict the choices to the past century.

Looking over the past 100 years — starting Jan, 1, 1914 — who would have guessed, for example, that: Music for 18 Musicians (at bottom, in a complete performance in a YouTube video by the acclaimed and Grammy Award-winning new music group eighth blackbird) by contemporary minimalist composer Steve Reich (below, in a photo by Wonge Bergmann) would pull out ahead of George Gershwin, Dmitri Shostakovich, Bela Bartok, Charles Ives, Alban Berg and all others in last year’s Q2 Music poll?

Steve Reich  CR Wonge Bergmann

The Q2 Music poll is done by WQXR in New York City, a radio station that is a member station of NPR, or National Public Radio.

Anyway, the terrific classical music blog “Deceptive Cadence” recently posted a story about the Q2 Music poll.

It included an entry form that will allow readers to pick up to FIVE works and composers as they participate in this year’s poll that dates back to Jan. 1, 1915.

Voting closes on Dec. 20, 2014.

Then, starting on Saturday, Dec. 27, as a way to close out the old year and ring in the new, a marathon countdown will begin and all the works will be played in reverse order of the survey results.

No word if it will be webcast, but The Ear suspects you can easily tune into Q2 Music by going to the website for WQXR.

Here is a link to the NPR story by Anastasia Tsioulcas  and to the poll entry form.

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2014/12/01/366570066/whats-your-top-100-of-the-last-100-years

And here is a link to WQXR where you can find a way to listen (at the top of the page), to sign up for the Q2 Music Newsletter and also see the results of the Q2 polls for 2011, 2012 and 2013 as well as the upcoming 2014. It makes for some interesting reading and listening.

http://www.wqxr.org/#!/story/q2-musics-2014-new-music-countdown/

And here is a link to a Dec. 2 concert, now archived at NPR, in which some of the best new recordings and music from 2014 was performed:

http://www.npr.org/e2014/11/26/366570255/celebrate-some-of-the-years-best-new-releases-with-q2

As for the Q2 Music poll, The Ear hopes someone chooses – make that that many people choose – the gorgeous Violin Concerto by the American composer Samuel Barber, who was less hot and controversial but much more gifted as a composer.

barber 1

But whatever happens, have fun choosing and voting.

Don’t forget to use the COMMENTS section to tell The Ear and his readers what works you entered.

And don’t forget to fill in your date book for some happy listening to new music.


Classical music: Was Beethoven so great that he hurt music?

November 1, 2014
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By Jacob Stockinger

Recently an essay by Alex Ross appeared in The New Yorker magazine.

The subject was Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) and how he changed forever the course of classical music -– not only the composing of it but also the programming and performing of it, even the recording of it on LPs and CDs.

Beethoven big

It was so thoroughly researched and had such a well defined point of view with such unexpected insights, that it formed yet another proof to The Ear of why Alex Ross, who in 2007 won a National Book Critics Circle Award for “The Rest of Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century” has to be considered this nation’s premier music critic.

The gist of the argument by Ross (below) is that Beethoven exerted such a profound influence on Western classical music that he single-handedly changed the course of music history – and not always  for the better especially if you care about living composers and contemporary music. (You might recall that this season both the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra will perform all-Beethoven or mostly-Beethoven concerts, featuring symphonies and piano concertos, toward the end of the current season. They have also done so before, and the result is usually a sell-out. Beethoven’s popularity, it seems, never wanes.)

Alex Ross 2

To accept Ross’ arguments does NOT mean you have to reject or belittle Beethoven. Beethoven remains THE iconic composer of classical music.

But Ross’ essay is certainly eye-opening about the results of the iconic status we have granted to Beethoven since the famous composer’s own lifetime.

And his look back at the effects of Beethoven’s massive and revolutionary Symphony No. 3 “Eroica” – a YouTube video of the “Eroica” Symphony, performed by conductor Leonard Bernstein and the Vienna Philharmonic, is at bottom — and his Fifth Symphony, as well as the late string quartets, yields new appreciation of these works.

But don’t take my word for it.

Read Alex Ross’ essay for yourself and give me your reactions.

Here is a link:

http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/10/20/deus-ex-musica


Classical music: Is there more to say about Beethoven and his music? Acclaimed musicologist Jan Swafford thinks so, and says so in his new biography of The Ludwig.

August 9, 2014
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By Jacob Stockinger

By most polls and surveys, the most popular composer of classical music remains Ludwig van Beethoven (below). The surly, willful and influential musician bridged the Classical and Romantic eras, and his music retains much of its power and universal appeal even today.

All you have to do is mention the names of works in virtually all the various musical genres and forms — solo sonatas, chamber music, symphonic music, concertos, vocal music — that Beethoven mastered and pushed into new realms of expression:

The “Eroica” Symphony.

The Fifth Symphony.

The “Pastoral” Symphony.

The Ninth Symphony with its “Ode to Joy.”

The “Emperor” Concerto for piano.

The “Razumovsky” and “Late” String Quartets.

The “Ghost” and  “Archduke” piano trios, and the “Triple” Concerto.

The “Moonlight,” “Pathetique,” “Tempest,” “Appassionata,” “Waldstein” and “Hammerklavier” piano sonatas.

The “Spring” and “Kreutzer” violin sonatas.

The “Missa Solemnis.”

“Fidelio.”

And on and on.

Such nicknames and so many! Talk about iconic works!

Beethoven big

What more is there to be said about Beethoven?

Well, quite a lot, apparently, according to the acclaimed music historian Jan Swafford (below), who did his undergraduate work at Harvard University and his graduate work at Yale University and who now teaches composition and music history at the New England Conservatory of Music.

Jan Swafford color

Swafford, who has also written biographies of Johannes Brahms and Charles Ives, has just published his 1,000-page biography of Beethoven with the subtitle “Anguish and Triumph.”

It is getting some mixed or qualified reviews. But before you look into that, better check into the pieces that NPR (National Public Radio) did on Swafford and his takes on Beethoven, some of which defy received wisdom and common sense.

Here is a summary of some common perceptions about Beethoven that may -– or may NOT –- be true, according to Swafford. It i s an easy and informative read.

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2014/08/05/337857557/ask-us-anything-about-beethoven

And here is another piece on NPR’s Deceptive Cadence blog that deals with how the powerful Symphony No. 3 “Eroica” reveals Beethoven’s personality. (You can hear the opening, played by the Vienna Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein, in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

http://www.npr.org/2014/08/03/336656578/beethovens-eroica-a-bizarre-revelation-of-personality

Some critics have questioned whether the book (below) is too long, whether it repeats things that are already well known and whether the writing style is accessible to the general public.

But nobody is ignoring it.

Jan Swafford Beethoven cover

Here are two reviews by reputable media outlets.

From The Wall Street Journal:

http://online.wsj.com/articles/book-review-beethoven-anguish-and-triumph-by-jan-swafford-1406927297

From The New York Times:

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/03/books/review/beethoven-by-jan-swafford.html?_r=0

Have you read Jan Swafford’s other work?

What do you think of his music histories and biographies?

Or of his new Beethoven book, if you have read it?

And what is your favorite  work by Beethoven?

The Ear wants to hear.

 


Classical music Q&A: The Madison Area Youth Chamber Orchestra performs tonight even as founder and conductor Mikko Utevsky forges ties to several other local groups to ensure MAYCO’s future after he departs.

July 11, 2014
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear doesn’t normally run two posts on the same event in the same week or close to each other.

But it is a slow week in summer.

More to the point, I got a very intriguing response to my Q&A request from Mikko Utevsky, the founder and conductor of the Madison Area Youth Chamber Orchestra.

You may recall the MAYCO performs tonight at 7:30 p.m. in the new Atrium auditorium of the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive.

The program includes the “Reformation” Symphony by Felix Mendelssohn; the Piano Concerto No. 11 in D Major by Franz Joseph Haydn; and the world premiere of UW-Madison graduate and local composer Olivia Zeuske’s “Experiment No. 1.”

Admission is $7 with donations asked from students.

For more information, here is a link to the other previous post:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2014/07/09/classical-music-the-madison-area-chamber-music-orchestra-mayco-performs-music-of-haydn-and-mendelssohn-plus-a-world-premiere-of-a-work-by-olivia-zeuske-this-friday-night-at-the-first-unitarian-soci/

But in his answers, Utevsky revealed some things that The Ear didn’t know, including the many links he is forging with other local music organizations so that MAYCO can continue when he has graduated and moved on.

Talk about being forward-thinking!

Here is the Q&A from violist-conductor Mikko Utevsky (below) about the Madison Area Youth Chamber Orchestra, which he founded when he was still a student at Madison East High School, before he started attending the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music.

MAYCO Mikko Utevsky by Steve Rankin

Can you briefly introduce yourself and the Madison Area Youth Chamber Orchestra (MAYCO), including its history and makeup?

I am a violist and conductor studying at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music. I founded MAYCO while a student at Madison East High School to provide a free summer opportunity for high school and college students to explore the chamber orchestra repertoire.

Members range in age from 13 to 30, and the specific composition of the ensemble varies from concert to concert based on the demands of the repertoire and individual students’ schedules. We focus on music of the Classical period, chamber works of the 20th century, and new music. We present a premiere each season.

Mikko Utevsky conducts MAYCO Steve Rankin

What are MAYCO’s plans for the near future and further out, including partnerships with other music organizations and concerts, recordings and the like?

MAYCO is in a transitional period right now as we pursue institutional stability. For four years, it has existed more or less as a personal project of mine. But I believe strongly in its value as an educational opportunity, and I want to ensure its continued viability in the future, even after I finish my degree and leave for graduate school.

Luckily for us, Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO) feels the same way. We have entered into a partnership starting this season to make MAYCO available as an official extension of WYSO, allowing us to preserve the institution that we have cultivated for Madison’s music community into the indefinite future.

We are also looking at relationships with programs for younger players (Music Makers and Music Con Brio). We try to introduce them to the world of orchestral playing and give them a taste of what they can accomplish as young musicians here or elsewhere.

We are very fortunate to have the support also of conductor Andrew Sewell and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below), the city’s professional chamber orchestra that is helping its younger counterpart.

As far as program offerings go, the season of two concerts seems to be working for us very well, although a third would not be out of the question. I am particularly excited for a program in the works for next summer about which I can’t say much yet (but when I can, you’ll hear it here first!).

We have been granted a degree of flexibility by the receipt of the UW Arts Enterprise Association’s 2014 New Arts Venture Challenge Grant this spring to support our programming, which will allow us to perform a wider range of music, including more 20th-century works that must be rented.

Our relationship with WYSO is now such that we can receive tax-deductible donations, so if you want to support our work, visit the Support Us page on our website to make a contribution:

http://www.madisonareayouthchamberorchestra.org

WCO lobby

What can you tell us about the program for tonight, Friday, July 11? Does it have a theme or something to tie it together?

This week’s program is somewhat eclectic. The title, “Triumph and Delight,” is a bit nonspecific. Triumph refers to the “Reformation” Symphony by Mendelssohn, which ends with a victorious affirmation of faith and strength, and Delight to the Piano Concerto by Haydn, which is a nimble, playful and joyfully fun piece of music. (You can hear how Mendelssohn uses the Lutheran hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” in the symphony’s finale at the bottom in a YouTube video.)

MAYCO playing

What should listeners know about Olivia Zeuske and her “Experiment No. 1,” of which you will be giving the world premiere?


Olivia (below) is a gifted composer whose work caught my ear some time ago because of its characteristic, piquant sonorities and subtle rhythmic complexities. Her “Experiment No. 1” is a three-movement composition lasting about 20 minutes. This work was begun about a year and a half ago, and will represent her first large-ensemble composition. I am very excited to be presenting its premiere, having watched it take shape over many months.

olivia zeuske 2014

How did you decide to choose Thomas Kasdorf (below) as a piano soloist and the Piano Concerto in D Major by Franz Joseph Haydn?

Thomas was an easy decision. I have heard him on countless recitals and in studios across campus, and most recently worked with him as a vocal coach and accompanist. He is a consummate musician — a sensitive accompanist and assertive soloist in one, with beautiful lyricism and technique to burn (with no need to prove it).

As a collaborative player, he is one of the few who will tackle a segment of the major repertoire renowned for the difficulty of its piano parts; pieces like Sergei Rachmaninov’s Cello Sonata demand a technique like his, and he plays them brilliantly.

The Haydn was Thomas’ choice as much as mine. I originally asked him to play something by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, with an eye towards the operatic lines in many of those concertos, but we couldn’t pick one! There are 27, after all, and all of them are wonderful.

I mentioned the Haydn offhandedly, having heard Emmanuel Ax’s recording recently, and he told me it was a favorite of his. I had already decided to do some Haydn this season, whether a concerto or one of the symphonies, which I love so dearly, so it seemed a natural choice. The piece is delightful — playful, with a touch of the deliberately unrefined “country” sound one often finds in Haydn’s music and a lovely, singing slow movement in between.

thomas kasdorf 2:jpg

The “Reformation” Symphony by Felix Mendelssohn is pretty well-known. But is there something special you would like the public to know about it or about your approach to it?

Mendelssohn’s own relationship with the symphony was somewhat complicated — I actually have a rather substantial historical note on it that will be made available on the orchestra’s website, though not in the printed program.

Mendelssohn (below) poured a lot of energy into it, holding high hopes for a performance at the grand tricentennial celebrations in Berlin of the Augsburg Confession (an important early Lutheran document). But it was not finished in time, and was not well-received when he sought other performances in the years following.

He eventually cooled to the piece, but kept the score around, perhaps moved by a lingering attachment to a work that, later in life, he described as deeply flawed. In any case, it was discovered after his death, and received its second performance and first publication about 20 years later.

In it, Mendelssohn tackles the programmatic ideas of A.B. Marx while also attempting to compose his own 20-year-old’s response to Ludwig van Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony on a historical subject.

It’s a tall order, and one can understand why he felt it fell short (as anything aspiring to three massive demands must inevitably), but the piece is tremendously successful on its own.

The first movement is Beethovenian in scope and power, the scherzo delightful, the slow movement a tragic “Song Without Words,” and the Finale is a pillar of victory and might (again imagined on a Beethovenian level — think of the relationship between the outer movements of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and their journey from tragedy to triumph). I think it holds up well against any of his other popular works, and can be a tremendously powerful piece.

mendelssohn_300

What else would you like to say or add?

Of course, there is another concert this summer – “Summer Magic,” featuring Spring Green soprano Caitlin Ruby Miller — below — who is a 2014 Metropolitan Opera National Council Audition finalist. She will sing one of my favorite pieces, Samuel Barber’s nostalgic deeply moving “Knoxville: Summer of 1915” on texts by James Agee.

That concert will also include the Overture to “The Magic Flute” by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and the Ninth Symphony of Dmitri Shostakovich, and will take place in UW-Madison Music Hall, at the foot of Bascom Hill, on Friday, August 22, at 7:30 p.m.

caitlin ruby miller

 

 


Classical music: Is it au revoir — or adieu? The UW Chamber Orchestra will play a FREE concert this Sunday night, but then will be axed and fall silent next season.

April 29, 2014
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear hears: The UW Chamber Orchestra (below) will NOT exist next school year.

uw chamber orchestra USE

But not before it performs its final concert of the current season -– FREE and open to the public — this coming Sunday night at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall. Under the baton of acclaimed longtime conductor James Smith (below), the chamber orchestra will perform what seems a fitting final program.

Smith_Jim_conduct07_3130

What could be a better farewell than a program that features two homages: One to Francois Couperin (Dance Suite) by Richard Strauss (below top) and one to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart by French composer Jacques Ibert (below bottom). And then comes the true Mozart in a true masterpiece: the Symphony No. 39 in E-Flat Major.

richard strauss

Jacques Ibert

The UW-Madison has not released any specific information yet about the reasons involved in canceling the UW Chamber Orchestra, which, together with the UW Symphony Orchestra, makes up the orchestra program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music.

But from what The Ear hears, the decision has to do with several factors.

Because there are fewer scholarships, there are fewer students coming into the school and therefore entering the performance groups.

There are also fewer students because some major professors who attract a loyal following from afar are retiring. They include tuba player John Stevens, University Opera director William Farlow and pianist Todd Welbourne.

Other full-time faculty are leaving the UW-Madison School of Music (violinist Felicia Moye, below, to McGill University, soprano Julia Faulkner to the Lyric Opera of Chicago school) and have been replaced with one-year appointments (oboist Kostas Tiliakos, singer Elizabeth Hagedorn, violinists Eugene Purdue of Madison and Leslie Shank of the Twin Cities, below, tubist Tom Curry and University Opera director David Ronis from CUNY’s Aaron Copland School of Music in New York City). And short-term instructors simply do not attract as many loyal students, especially those whose talent is on a superior or professional level.

Felicia Moye color

Leslie Shank

Here are some links to stories about the new incoming academic staff from the terrific blog Fanfare:

http://uwmadisonschoolofmusic.wordpress.com/2014/04/22/paq-tour-disanza-award-new-faculty/

Plus, there have been some financial problems, which have also caused the UW-Madison School of Music to scale back the new performing space it is seeking to build, and to substitute one-year appointments for tenure-track professorships.

All in all, the UW-Madison School of Music, which has traditionally enjoyed a fine reputation and a high ranking among public music schools, faces some serious challenges.

The only large instrumental classical ensemble that will continue to exist will be the UW Symphony Orchestra, but all the musicians I have talked to say the two groups offer very different playing experiences.

And The Ear finds it ironic that the smaller-scale chamber orchestras generally seem to be thriving around the country far more than the larger, more ambitious and more expensive symphony orchestras and opera companies, many of which face serious financial challenges. (Below is the famed St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, in which violinist Leslie Shank plays.)

St Paul Chamber Orchestra

I have not heard reactions about axing the UW Chamber Orchestra from staff or students -– perhaps because they have not yet heard the news — but I would welcome hearing some in the COMMENTS sections of this blog. I also think that members of the public and listeners should chime in with their reactions.

To The Ear, the demise of the UW Chamber Orchestra is a sad shame. After all, the question seems to ask itself: How does a major public School of Music maintain its status without providing the experience and repertoire of the smaller orchestra?

We will see.

In the meantime, I suggest that the performance this Sunday night is a MUST-HEAR concert. (Below is the UW Chamber Orchestra rehearsing with conductor James Smith.)

UW Chamber Orchestra rehearsing under James Smith

We really don’t know yet whether this is an au revoir or an adieu -– a temporary good-bye or a permanent farewell, no matter what the initial intent is.

But The Ear knows this much: In almost any organization, it is a lot easier to get rid of something than to revive it or bring it into being. Inertia is a powerful institutional force. So I would like to see a public groundswell or reaction to either keep  the UW Chamber Orchestra active next academic year or to bring back the UW Chamber Orchestra after a one-year sabbatical — if that sabbatical really is necessary.

The Ear has many wonderful memories of the UW Chamber Orchestra, in both solo concerts but also in collaborating with the UW Choral Union (below) and the UW Concert Choir.

UW Choral Union and Chamber orchestra full view 12-2011

Here, at the bottom in a YouTube video is one of those moments: from several years ago, the first movement of Ludwig van Beethoven’s iconic Fifth Symphony:

 

 

 

 

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Classical music: The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra plus the Festival Choir of Madison, the University of Wisconsin-Madison Madrigal Singers and pianist Stewart Goodyear left you wanting more –- which is exactly what a season-closing concert should do.

April 19, 2014
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By Jacob Stockinger

As I have noted in other postings earlier this week, I am doing some badly needed catching up. April has been just a hectic and even crazy month for classical music in the Madison area. And previews generally take precedence over reviews.

For example: A week ago last Friday, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below) closed out its current Masterworks season with the Festival Choir of Madison, the University of Wisconsin-Madison Madrigal singers and Canadian piano soloist and composer Stewart Goodyear.

WCO lobby

The concert left The Ear impressed with all parties and wanting to hear more, perhaps including a one Stewart Goodyear’s Beethoven piano sonata marathons as well as more known and neglected works from the chamber orchestra. And isn’t that exactly what a great season-ending concert should do?

For The Ear,  there were two unqualified masterpieces.

The concert opened with the ‘Ave Verum Corpus” of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, a short but sublime late work for chorus and orchestra. And it was performed sublimely by the WCO and the WCO Chorus, which is made up of the Festival Choir of Madison (below) and the University of Wisconsin-Madison Madrigal Singers. (A popular YouTube video, with over 2 million hits and featuring conductor Leonard Bernstein, is at the bottom.)

festivalchoir

That was followed by the often neglected “Choral Fantasy,” by Ludwig van Beethoven. It is an interesting and engaging piece, a sketch of the famous final “Ode to Joy” movement of the iconic Ninth Symphony and one that features the kind of piano part that makes you realize what an exciting keyboard improviser the young Beethoven (below, in 1804) must have been.

young beethoven etching in 1804

Is the “Choral” Fantasy a masterpiece? Stewart Goodyear thinks so.

I do not. I think it is a good dramatic work, with its own excitement for orchestra, chorus and especially pianist. But it is a work that simply doesn’t stand up to Beethoven’s greatest symphonies, concertos or even sonatas.

But Goodyear was all business and all Beethoven. After all, he performs all 32 piano sonatas in a single-day 10-hour marathon and has recorded them all.

I know from personal experience that Beethoven is hard to play. He always seems to be challenging or even daring the player. But such difficulties do not faze Goodyear (below), who has the power and the chops. He is an impressive player, without doubt.

stewart goodyear playing sideways

Even in his own piano concerto that followed, Goodyear was impressive in his playing. This concerto, which he revised especially for chamber orchestra, seems to play into his personal and technical strengths, which is right in keeping with the great virtuoso tradition that ran from Johann Sebastian Bach and Mozart through Beethoven and Johannes Brahms to Sergei Rachmaninoff and Sergei Prokofiev.

But is the concerto by Goodyear a great concerto? Unfortunately, I think not. It reminds me of the 50 or so big and difficult piano concertos in the Hyperion series of recordings of neglected Romantic Piano Concertos by Ignaz Moscheles and Moritz Moszkowski and the like. All of them were impressive showpieces in their day, composed by and performed by the biggest piano virtuoso names of the day.

Here is a link to the Hyperion series:

http://www.hyperion-records.co.uk/s.asp?s=S_1

And yet in the end, they only require one to two listenings to get the most out them. You soon realize that they are neglected for good reason. They served their purpose in the day, but then couldn’t stand up to history as first-rate.

I felt the same way about Goodyear. It had its moments, especially in the slow movement. In its use of Caribbean rhythm and harmonies, it reminded me of the jazz-like qualities brought to the concert hall by Maurice Ravel, George Gershwin, Darius Milhaud and Heitor Villa-Lobos, maybe even George Gershwin of the “Cuban” Overture. I am glad I heard it, but am not anxious to have repeated hearings.

The concerto was an interesting, impressive and entertaining oddity, but an oddity nonetheless. Goodyear would be wise to keep his day job -– or, should I say, his night job -—as a concert pianist who masterfully plays Beethoven and other major composers, and not to rely on composing as a living.

Stewart Goodyear2

After intermission came the big treat: Beethoven’s mammoth Symphony No. 3, the “Eroica.” Now, I love the overwhelming sound of a big, full orchestra. But there is undeniable value to hearing the transparency and clarity of the work in its chamber music version.

The “Eroica” Symphony just never gets old, and easily stands up to the Fifth, Sixth (Pastoral), Seventh and Ninth symphonies as a candidate for Your Favorite Beethoven Symphony.

The balance and tempi were perfect, especially in the moving and complex Funeral March. The horn played flawlessly as far I could tell. The strings were crisp, not gooey. And sections provided great voicing and counterpoint.

Conductor Andrew Sewell (below) seemed in total command and looked completely satisfied as he proved again what incredible progress the WCO has made during his tenure.

andrewsewell

Sewell has an abiding and well realized interest in unearthing interesting music, both new and old, as you can see from the next season, which will features three pianists in works as diverse as rarely heard two piano concertos by Franz Joseph Haydn, the Suite for Strings by Paul Lewis, the Suite for String Orchestra by Frank Bridge as well as another work by Vittorio Giannini.

Here is a link to the new season. Click on “For more information” to see programs:

http://wcoconcerts.org/performances/masterworks/

And here are links to other reviews so you can compare and draw your own conclusions, especially if you were part of the full house:

Here is a link the review by John W. Barker (below) for Isthmus:

http://www.thedailypage.com/daily/article.php?article=42498

John-Barker

Here is a link to the review by Greg Hettmansberger (below) for Madison Magazine:

http://www.madisonmagazine.com/Blogs/Classically-Speaking/April-2014/Wisconsin-Chamber-Orchestra-Goes-Big-Before-Going-Home/

greg hettmansberger mug

 

 

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