The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: This weekend the Madison Symphony Orchestra, with guest conductor Carl St. Clair and trumpet virtuoso Tina Thing Helseth, performs music by Beethoven, Hummel and Richard Strauss

March 8, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

This weekend the Madison Symphony Orchestra (MSO) features Tine Thing Helseth (below), the Norwegian virtuoso trumpet soloist, for a special performance of Johann Nepomuk Hummel’s Trumpet Concerto.

Conductor Carl St. Clair (below) returns for a third visit as guest conductor with the MSO to lead a pair of early 19th-century works with 112 musicians performing the largest of Richard Strauss’s symphonic tone poems. (MSO music director and conductor John DeMain is conducting a production of Puccini’s opera “Turandot” in Virginia.)

The program begins with the Egmont Overture by Ludwig van Beethoven, followed by the MSO’s premiere performance of the Trumpet Concerto by Johann Nepomuk Hummel, featuring HelsethThe concert ends with a nod to the awesome splendor of the Bavarian Alps, “An Alpine Symphony,” by Richard Strauss.

The concerts are this weekend on Friday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall, 201 State Street. See below for ticket information.

Beethoven (below top) composed his Egmont Overture in 1810. Both Beethoven himself, and playwright Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (below bottom) upheld the ideals of human dignity and freedom in their works.

Their personal relationship stemmed from Beethoven’s incidental music for a new production of Goethe’s play Egmont in 1810. This play about a nobleman’s betrayal by the Spanish monarchy, is beautifully paired with Beethoven’s music. As Goethe called it, Egmont Overture is a “Symphony of Victory.” (You can hear the dramatic “Egmont” Overture, performed by the Vienna Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Another friend of Beethoven’s, was Johann Nepomuk Hummel (below). Even though they were rivals, their respect for each other’s talent kept the relationship afloat.

Hummel’s Trumpet Concerto is a frisky fanfare with “playful dancelike” episodes laced throughout. This is the first time Hummel’s Trumpet Concerto will be performed by the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

Richard Strauss (below top) composed his Eine Alpensinfonie (“An Alpine Symphony”) from 1911-15. The final score used materials from some of his unfinished works, including an Artist’s Tragedy and The Alps.

Though there are many influences for this piece, the main is Strauss’s love for the Bavarian Alps. In his diary he wrote: “I shall call my alpine symphony: Der Antichrist, since it represents: moral purification through one’s own strength, liberation through work, worship of eternal, magnificent nature.” Antichrist is a reference to an essay by philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (below bottom), and though the title was dropped for its publication, the work still carries many of Nietzsche’s ideals.

One hour before each performance, Michael Allsen (below, in a photo by Katrin Talbot), the author of MSO program notes and an MSO trombonist as well as a UW-Whitewater Professor of Music, 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: http://www.allsenmusic.com/NOTES/1617/6.Mar17.html.

Single Tickets are $16 to $87 each, available at madisonsymphony.org/helseth and through the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street or call the Box Office at (608) 258-4141.

Groups of 15 or more can save 25% by calling the MSO office at (608) 257-3734. For more information, visit madisonsymphony.org/groups.

Club 201, MSO’s organization for young professionals, has continued to fulfill its mission for the past 11 years as the premiere organization promoting classical music and networking opportunities to the young professionals’ community in Madison. Tickets are $35 each and include world-class seating in Overture Hall, an exclusive after-party to be held in the Promenade Lounge, one drink ticket and a cash bar.

The conductor as well as musicians from the symphony may also be in attendance to mingle with Madison’s young professionals during the after-party.

The deadline to purchase tickets is Thursday, March 9, pending availability. 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 Center 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% savings on seats in select areas of the hall on advance ticket purchases.

Seniors age 62 and up receive 20% savings on advance and day-of-concert ticket purchases in select areas of the hall.

Discounted seats are subject to availability, and discounts may not be combined.

Major funding for the March concerts is provided by: The Madison Concourse Hotel & Governor’s Club, An Anonymous Friend, and Madison Gas & Electric Foundation, Inc. Additional funding is provided by: Audrey Dybdahl, Family and Friends, in loving memory of Philip G. Dybdahl, John A. Johnson Foundation, a component fund of the Madison Community Foundation, Madison Veterinary Specialists, Gary and Lynn Mecklenburg, and the Wisconsin Arts Board with funds from the State of Wisconsin and the National Endowment for the Arts.


Classical music: Pianist Adam Neiman defines what makes for great Chopin playing. He performs an all-Chopin recital this Sunday afternoon at Farley’s House of Pianos.

February 21, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

What makes for great Chopin playing?

It is an especially germane question since the critically acclaimed pianist Adam Neiman (below) will perform an all-Chopin recital this coming Sunday at 4 p.m. at Farley’s House of Pianos, 6522 Seybold Road, on Madison’s far west side near West Towne Mall.

Tickets are $45. For more information, go to:

http://salonpianoseries.org/concerts.html

Neiman –pronounced KNEE-man — has appeared here as a soloist with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and recorded piano concertos by Mozart with the WCO. He is a critically acclaimed prize-winning pianist with a major concertizing and recording career. He also teaches at Roosevelt University in Chicago and is a member of the Trio Solisti, a piano trio that has been hailed as the successor to the famous Beaux Arts Trio.

Here is a link to Neiman’s website with information about him and his recordings, including upcoming releases of Beethoven, Liszt and Rachmaninoff:

http://www.adamneiman.com

Adam Neiman also recently did an email Q&A interview with The Ear:

adam-neiman-2017

There are some exceptional players of Beethoven and other German composers who sound completely out of their element in Chopin. What qualities do you think make for great Chopin playing and what makes Chopin difficult to interpret?

Chopin’s music incorporates a narrative language and an emphasis on very “first person” points-of-view; in other words, it is highly personalized, expressing emotion from the perspective of the individual, including nationalistic sentiments. Often, Germanic music aims for “objective” viewpoints, with extremely stringent instructions by the composer.

For players who struggle with the open-ended idiomatic flavor in Chopin’s music, the lack of objective instruction by the composer can make it difficult for them to know what to do. (You can hear Adam Neiman discussing much more about Chopin’s personality and artistic achievement in the YouTube video at the bottom)

To play Chopin (below) at a very high level requires imagination and freedom, as well as a poetic and introspective musical tendency. The fluidity of rubato, the contrapuntal interaction between the hands and the frequent use of widely spread textures requires a nimble master of the instrument, one with the ability to emphasize the piano’s specific virtuosic abilities.

In addition, Chopin’s music is centered around a bel canto operatic style of melody, whereas Germanic melody tends to be more motivic in nature, and therefore developmental.

A composer like Beethoven will emphasize motivic metamorphosis as a means of augmenting a form to create large structures, whereas Chopin will glide from one melodic area to another, using harmonic exploration as the central means of formal expansion.

This compositional difference outlines different strengths in the pianists, as the skill set to play reams of melody lines in succession can often be very different from those skills required to highlight motivic development in a work.

Chopinphoto

Can you place the 24 Preludes that you will be playing within the context of Chopin’s entire body of works. What would you like the public to know about the preludes and how you see them individually and as a group?

The 24 Preludes were composed while Chopin was on holiday in Mallorca, Spain, which proved to be Chopin’s first palpable bout with tuberculosis, the disease that eventually killed him. (Below is an 1849 photo of Chopin on his deathbed.)

Many of these works were written in a fever-state, in haste, and during a stressful time period in which Chopin was not only facing his own mortality, but also dealing with the myriad challenges of integrating with the children of his lover, the French writer Aurora Dudevant who is better known as George Sand.

These Preludes are like snapshots into the mind of the composer at a moment in time, often without regard for cohesion or development. They exist in a timeless place, where the music expresses the extremely personal sentiments roiling through Chopin’s consciousness.

In many ways, these works capture his spirit in the most distilled possible way, giving the player and listener an opportunity to view the mind and heart of Chopin without filter or refinement, hallmarks of his larger works.

Despite the widely varied emotional content of these Preludes, as a set they hold together as a marvelous and surprisingly cogent musical journey. They exemplify the 19th-century “Romantic” ideals of fantasy, freedom, individuality and raw emotion.

Chopin on deathbed photo

You will also perform all four Ballades. How they do they rank within Chopin’s output? What would you like listeners to know about each of the four ballades, about what they share in common and what distinguishes each one? Do you have favorites and why?

If the Preludes represent the pinnacle of Chopin’s ability to express poetic ideals within miniature forms, the Ballades represent the apex of his more grandiose musical philosophy.

The Ballade, as a form, emanates from epic poetry, often portraying a heroic protagonist overcoming seemingly inescapable challenges. Ballades can also be tied to nationalistic notions, and for Chopin, all four Ballades are truly Polish in their expression.

As Chopin’s native Poland was invaded and he was cut off permanently from re-entry, Chopin became an orphan of the world, whose adopted home of France revered and celebrated him without equal.

His musical mission — exemplified by the Ballades, Mazurkas and Polonaises in particular — was to heighten awareness of Poland’s cultural contributions to a European audience totally unaware of the goings-on in the east.

As a result of the immense conflicts suffered by Chopin’s homeland, and in keeping with the deep pride and identification Chopin felt as a Pole, these Ballades express the emotional rollercoaster of a lone Polish hero — perhaps Chopin himself, autobiographically — battling the world.

All four of these works make an enormous impression on the listener. From the despair and anger of the first Ballade, the bi-polar conflicts of the second (below is the opening of the second Ballade in Chopin’s manuscript), the pastoral hopefulness of the third, and the desolate introspection of the fourth, these Ballades speak to the soul and require the most intensely personal voice of the performer.

Adam Neiman 2 2016

They require the possession of immense physical power and emotional maturity, which renders these works as being among Chopin’s most challenging.

I love all four of them equally. They are true masterworks of the highest order.

chopin-ballade-2-autograph

In there anything else you would like to say?

I am deeply honored and extremely delighted to return to Madison to perform this recital. I look forward to seeing many familiar faces, as well as new friends. Thank you!


Classical music: Violinist Henning Kraggerud, who solos with the Madison Symphony Orchestra this weekend, speaks out against perfection and for improvising and composing

October 21, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

Norwegian violinist Henning Kraggerud plays beautifully, even flawlessly, but always expressively.

henning-kraggerud-2016

You can hear that for yourself tonight, Saturday night and Sunday afternoon when he solos in the popular Violin Concerto No. 1 in G Minor by Max Bruch with the Madison Symphony Orchestra under the baton of John DeMain. (The famous Symphony No. 6 “Pastorale” by Ludwig van Beethoven is also on the program.)

Here is a link to more about the MSO concerts:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2016/10/17/classical-music-madison-symphony-orchestra-and-violinist-henning-kraggerud-perform-music-by-beethoven-bruch-elgar-and-kraggerud-this-weekend/

John DeMain and MSO from the stage Greg Anderson

But Kraggerud is also a serious thinker about music and musicians.

He recently appeared in a blog posting. There he praised the use of improvising and composing as ways to explore and expand one’s musicality. And he practices what he preaches: three of his own compositions are on the MSO program this weekend. (You can hear more about his own training in the YouTube interview with Henning Kraggerud at the bottom.) He also improvised Thursday afternoon on The Midday program of Wisconsin Public Radio.

Kraggerud laments the loss of well-rounded musicians who know more about the world than just music.

He puts the use of metronome markings in a subjective perspective by quoting famous composers like Johannes Brahms and Claude Debussy. He believes that expression, rather than precision, should be the ultimate goal.

metronome

And he condemned various practices, including teaching methods, recordings  and competitions, that place technical perfection above personal, subjective interpretation as a goal. He praises the use of informed interpretative freedom from Johann Sebastian Bach onwards.

Henning Kraggerud playing

Here is a link to Kraggerud’s remarks and observations, which take on added interest and relevance due to his appearances in Madison this weekend:

http://www.classical-music.com/blog/problem-perfection?source=techstories.org


Classical music: A new opera takes listeners back to The Bad Old Days of anti-gay America – and reminds us of the bigotry today that camouflages itself as religious freedom

July 2, 2016
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CORRECTION: Yesterday’s post about the fourth annual Handel Aria Competition had a mistake about when it will be held. The correct time is next FRIDAY, July 8, at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall. The Ear regrets the error. General admission is $10. Here is a link with more information:

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

By Jacob Stockinger

Issues pertaining to gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people are much in the news these days.

Of course there were the shootings and mass murder at the Pulse gay bar in Orlando, Florida.

And there were the so-called “bathroom laws” enacted against transgender people and designed to protect “normal” people who ere never really threatened.

In contrast, the military announced that transgender people could serve under the usual conditions and regulations.

Then President Obama declared the Stonewall Inn (below) in Greenwich Village in New York City, a national historical landmark. In 1969 a police raid against the gay bar led to riots that, in turn, sparked the gay liberation movement to secure human rights and civil rights for homosexuals.

stonewall inn

This week saw a U.S. District Judge in Mississippi ruling against so-called “religious freedom” laws that many states have enacted in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court legalizing same-sex marriage a year ago.

Such laws were ruled to discriminate against LGBT people and to unconstitutionally favor certain religions or forms of religion.

A lot of the proponents of such laws seem to have a false nostalgia for the good old days.

Well, maybe they were good for some people. But they were terrible times for many others, including LGBTQ people.

Gregory Spears’ new opera, called “Fellow Travelers” (below is a crucial scene in a photo by Philip Goushong for the Cincinnati Opera) has an interesting take on that historical era with its “Lavender Scare” that parallels the Red Scare of McCathyism.

Fellow Travelers and Lavender Scare CR Philip Groshong for the Cincinnati Opera

Here is a story that aired on NPR or National Public Radio:

http://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2016/06/18/482307467/a-new-opera-illuminates-the-lavender-scare-a-little-explored-era-in-queer-histor


Classical music: Civil rights pioneer Martin Luther King Jr. was the Abraham Lincoln of his age – a Great Emancipator. To celebrate his birthday, here is Aaron Copland’s “A Lincoln Portrait.”

January 18, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

Today we celebrate the birthday of the civil rights pioneer Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

The Ear thinks of him as The Great Emancipator of the modern age.

As the Abraham Lincoln of our age.

Just as Lincoln freed slaves, Martin Luther King Jr. (below) helped free so many members of different social groups from discrimination.

martin luther king 2

Blacks, of course.

But also women.

Latinos.

Asians.

Gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people.

Disabled people.

The poor.

The old and elderly.

So it seems fitting, then, to listen to Aaron Copland’s “A Lincoln Portrait.”

The Ear loves the way that the Gertrude Stein-like repetitions of Lincoln’s own words build into a moving testament of the need for both compassion and democracy – a combination that today’s right-wing freedom-spouting and Constitution-citing bigots might do well to cultivate.

So we can listen about one man and think about the other.

Here is a great version, in a YouTube video at the bottom, with actor Henry Fonda as the narrator. There are other fine versions, including one with Leonard Bernstein conducting and composer Aaron Copland speaking the narration. But this version is the one that most moves The Ear.

And please leave your COMMENTS about this offering or other music appropriate to mark Martin Luther King Jr. Day for others to read.


Classical music: The Madison Opera triumphed in Beethoven’s “Fidelio.”

November 28, 2014
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By Jacob Stockinger

Loyal readers of this blog know very well the name of Mikko Utevsky. The young violist and conductor is a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin School of Music, where he studies with Pro Arte Quartet violist Sally Chisholm and plays in the UW Symphony Orchestra.

Utevsky, who has won awards and impressive reviews for his work in music education since his days at Madison’s East High School, is the founder and conductor of the Madison Area Youth Chamber Orchestra (MAYCO), which will perform its fifth season next summer. He was recently named the new Music Director of a local community orchestra, The Studio Orchestra. The ensemble has a website at (www.disso.org).

You can check out his many honors and projects by typing his name into the search engine on this blog site.

Utevsky offered The Ear a review of last weekend’s production of Ludwig van Beethoven’s opera ‘Fidelio” by the Madison Opera at the Overture Center.

I immediately took him up on the offer. After all, he is a fine and perceptive writer who, you may recall, blogged for this post when he was on tour two summers ago with the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO) tour to Vienna, Prague and Budapest.

Here is the review of “Fidelio” by Mikko Utevsky (below):

Mikko Utevsky with baton

By Mikko Utevsky

The Madison Opera has done it again.

Perhaps it is a mark of Katherine Smith (below, in a photo by James Gill) settling into her tenure as General Director.

Kathryn Smith Fly Rail Vertical Madison Opera

Perhaps it is the Madison Symphony Orchestra’s continual growth and development as a regional orchestra of versatility and repute.

Perhaps it is the luck of discovering singers at the outset of promising careers, whose success has not yet priced them out of the range of smaller companies.

Whatever the reason, last Sunday’s performance in Overture Hall of Ludwig van Beethoven’s only opera, the monumental “Fidelio,” was a true triumph for what can only be regarded as a company going places.

Briefly, “Fidelio” is the story of a woman, Leonore, who disguises herself as a boy — “Fidelio” meaning the “faithful one” — to infiltrate the prison where her husband Florestan is being wrongly held by his political rival, Don Pizarro.

When the King’s minister (Don Fernando sung by Liam Moran) announces a surprise visit, Pizarro (sung by Kelly Markgraf) decides to have Florestan killed to avoid the awkward explanation. At the last moment, Fidelio intercedes, and the arrival of Don Fernando saves the day.

The Madison Symphony Orchestra under artistic director John DeMain (below), in its usual reduced string complement, shone forth from the pit in more than its usual splendor this Sunday, with a firm, centered string sound and particularly powerful playing from the horns.

John DeMain conducting 2

Above it soared a cast of creditable balance, with a veritable jewel in the center: Alexandra LoBianco, in the title role of Leonore/Fidelio.

LoBianco, in her first turn as the titular trouser role of Fidelio/Leonore, was beyond reproach in every way. Her captivating Verdian soprano that seemed equally at home in every moment of the opera, rendered with proper dramatic heft the imposing vocal challenges of the part, including a powerful lower register.

The moment when she steps forward at last to defend her husband from the evil Don Pizarro sent chills down my spine. It is hard to believe she has not sung this before; given how completely the role fit her.

Alexandra LoBianco as Fidelio-Leonore by James Gill

Of the others, Clay Hilley’s (Florestan) powerful tenor sometimes substituted steel for warmth in navigating Beethoven’s punishingly high writing — a forgivable flaw in a role whose characterization leaves little room for luxury. His opening scene (“Gott! Welch Dunkel hier” or “God! How dark it is here!”) at the start of Act II was nevertheless absolutely spellbinding.

Clay Hilley as Florestan CR James Gill

The chorus (below top and at the bottom, conducted by James Levine, in a YouTube video) was superbly prepared by Chorus Master Anthony Cao (below), who has brought the group’s performance level up considerably in recent years. A timid beginning to the famed prisoner chorus “O welche Lust” was quickly surmounted, and more than made up for by the rousing “Heil sei dem Tag” in the second act.

Fidelio prisoners' chorus James Gill

Anthony Cao

Sensitive lighting by Christopher Maravich relieved some of the potential for monotony in a visually subdued staging, which featured sets from Michigan Opera Theater and costumes from the Utah Opera.

Both the sets and the costumes relied mostly on hues of brown. The sky showing above the walls of the prison shifted subtly to reflect the passage of time and the mood of the ensemble, providing as well a glimpse of the freedom held at arm’s length from most of the characters. The darkness of Florestan’s prison at the start of the second act was also evocatively rendered.

Fidelio set James GIll

The scene change from dungeon to daylight before the final scene was distractingly long — could we have had one of the three other overtures Beethoven wrote to this opera to fill the silence? Certainly the orchestra was one of the stars of this production; let them play on!

The staging by director Tara Faircloth (below), in her Madison Opera debut, maintained interest and rewarded careful attention with choice details, though the melodrama and confrontation scenes in the dungeon were rather weak.

Fidelio Tara Faircloth

Neither of these sapped the sheer power of Leonore’s unveiling, or of the 11th-hour trumpet call announcing the arrival of Florestan’s savior (below left, with Don Pizarro below right)  — moments that were absolutely electrifying and worth the price of admission on their own — but they did slow the pace of the act.

Fidelio     left Don Fernando and right is Don PIzarro CR James Gill

Unfortunately, the staging seemed to dodge the political difficulties of the plot, focusing merely on the abstract notion of “freedom” without exploring the implications of Don Fernando’s benevolent proclamations in the final scene.

In the current political climate, I would have hoped for a stronger thesis here — surely Beethoven (below) the revolutionary would have something to say today!

Beethoven big

For the most part, these are quibbles with an overwhelmingly excellent production of which the Madison Opera can be justifiably proud. I left the hall feeling uplifted, and I look forward to the rest of the season.

 


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