The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The UW Schubertiade last Sunday afternoon explored the influence of Beethoven on Schubert with insight and beauty

February 2, 2020
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ALERT: In early editions of my last post, I mistakenly said that the UW Choral Union and the UW Symphony Orchestra will perform the Verdi Requiem on May 25 and 26. The correct dates are APRIL 25 and 26. The Ear regrets the error.

By Jacob Stockinger

One of the most informative and enjoyable events of the Beethoven Year – 2020 is the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth – came early.

It took place last Sunday afternoon in the Collins Recital Hall of the new Hamel Music Center at the UW-Madison.

It was the seventh annual Schubertiade, and its theme was “Schubert and Beethoven: Influences and Homages.” A classic contrast-and-compare examination of two musical giants who lived and worked in Vienna in the early 19th century, the concert took place for almost three hours before a packed house. (Schubert is below top, Beethoven below middle, and the sold-out audience below bottom)

The annual event is organized by co-founders and co-directors UW piano professor Martha Fisher and her pianist husband Bill Lutes (below, greeting the crowd), who also perform frequently, especially as outstandingly sensitive and subtle accompanists.

They make the event, with audience members sitting onstage, look easy and informal. But it takes a lot of hard work.

The two sure know how to choose talent. As usual, all the singers and instrumentalists – UW alumni and faculty members (below) — proved very capable. The concert cohered with consistency.

Nonetheless, The Ear heard highlights worth singling out.

Baritone Michael Roemer (below) sang exceptionally in “An die ferne Geliebte” (To the Distant Beloved) by Beethoven (1770-1827). His voice brought to mind the young Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in the inviting tone and direct delivery of the first song cycle ever composed. It was also the one that inspired the younger Schubert (1797-1828) to compose his own song cycles, and you could hear why.

Soprano Jamie Rose Guarrine (below right), accompanied by Bill Lutes and cellist Karl Knapp (below center), brought warmth, ease and confidence to the lyrical beauty of “Auf dem Strom” (On the River).

Tenor Daniel O’Dea (below) showed how Schubert’s setting of Friedrich Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” – the same Romantic poem made famous in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony “Choral” – ended up much more lighthearted than the more familiar, serious and intense symphonic version.

Martha Fischer and Bill Lutes, who also sang as well as narrated and accompanied, showed complete blending and tightness in Schubert’s first published composition: “Eight Variations on a French Song.” It was for piano, four-hands – a sociable genre that Schubert favored and wrote a lot of.

Soprano Jennifer D’Agostino (below) sang Schubert’s song “Elysium” in which it is unclear whether it is a pastiche or a parody of Beethoven, who remained a mentor until Schubert died at 31. Could that ambiguity point to Schubert’s maturing sense of himself and his own art as compared to Beethoven’s?

One year after Beethoven’s death – Schubert was a pallbearer — Schubert put on his only formal public concert of his own work. That was when he premiered his Piano Trio No. 2, the bravura last movement of which was played by Bill Lutes with cellist Parry Karp and first violinist David Perry (below), of the UW’s Pro Arte Quartet.

Then all four members of the Pro Arte Quartet (below) – with violist Sally Chisholm and second violinist Suzanne Beia – played the last two movements of Beethoven’s late String Quartet in C-sharp Minor, Op. 131, the work that Schubert requested to hear performed as he lay on his death bed in his brother’s Vienna apartment.

Of course there were other moments that pleased and instructed. There was a set of four songs – one coupling sung by mezzo-soprano Allisanne Apple (below) — in which the same texts were set to music by both Beethoven and Schubert.

We got to hear Beethoven’s final song, “Abendlied unterm gestirnten Himmel” (Evening Song Beneath the Starry Firmament).

Then there was the heart-wrenching “Nachthymne” (Hymn to the Night) by Schubert, again beautifully performed by Jamie Rose Guarrine. (You can hear “Hymn to the Night,” sung by Elly Ameling, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

So in the end, what were the big lessons, the takeaways from this year’s Schubertiade?

One lesson is that for all his more familiar symphonies and concertos, his string quartets and piano trios, his piano sonatas and his sonatas for cello and violin, Beethoven was also a much more accomplished song composer than the public generally knows.

But for The Ear, the biggest lesson of all is that despite Beethoven’s deep influence, Schubert retained his own special voice, a voice full of unforgettable melodies and harmonies, of lyricism and empathy.

And using a mentor to find, refine and retain one’s own identity is the highest homage any student can pay to a teacher.

 


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Classical music: Concerts of Beethoven, Brahms and Bernstein by the UW Choral Union on this Friday night and of Beethoven, Copland and Nielsen by the UW Symphony Orchestra on this Saturday night help finish off the first semester

December 8, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

The end of the first semester is at hand. And this weekend two very appealing concerts will help finish off the first half of the new concert season at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music.

FRIDAY

At 8 p.m. on this Friday night in Mills Hall, the UW Choral Union and the UW-Madison Chamber Orchestra (below) will perform, for one performance only, three rarely heard works.

UW Choral Union and UW Symphony 11-2013

The orchestra and the campus-community chorus will be conducted by Beverly Taylor (below), the director of choral activities at the UW-Madison.

Beverly Taylor MSO portrait COLOR USE

The program of works that are relatively rare on programs includes the Mass in C Major by Ludwig van Beethoven, “Nänie: Song of Lamentation”  by Johannes Brahms (heard conducted by Claudio Abbado in the YouTube video below) and the “Chichester Psalms” by Leonard Bernstein.

Admission is $15 for adults; $8 for students.

Here are some notes about the works written by conductor Beverly Taylor:

“The Choral Union will present a 3 B’s concert, which includes masterpieces of three different types.

“The Bernstein “Chichester Psalms,” written in the 1960’s for a cathedral in Britain, is a setting of three psalms in Hebrew. The piece is for strings, brass and percussion, and lasts about 20 minutes. It features a flamboyant, joyful and somewhat dissonant opening full of exciting percussion writing.

“The second movement features a wonderful boy soloist, Simon Johnson, from the Madison Youth Choirs, with harp and strings. He is like the shepherd King David, who is peacefully in the fields with his sheep; contrasting that are the warring peoples, sung by the tenors and basses. The boy and women’s voices return singing peacefully above the warring mobs.

“The third movement starts in dissonant pain, but it dissolves into a beautiful, quiet psalm of praise and trust.

“The Brahms Nänie is a 15-minute setting of a poem by Friedrich Schiller on the topic of beauty and its inability to last; even beauty must die, and the gods weep too, but the beauty itself is worth all! The style is Romantic with the long arching melodic lines for which Brahms is well-known.

“The Beethoven Mass in C is one of just two masses that Beethoven wrote; in contrast to the long, loud, high, grand and overpowering “Missa Solemnis,” the Mass in C is more charming, Mozartean and approachable. It still has some Beethovenian touches of sudden dynamic changes, sforzandi (which are emphases or accents), and slow, elegiac quartets. Our solo quartet will be Anna Polum, Jessica Krasinki, Jiabao Zhang and John Loud.”

For more background and information about how to get tickets, go to:

http://www.music.wisc.edu/event/uw-choral-union-and-chamber-orchestra/

SATURDAY

On this Saturday night at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall, the UW-Madison Symphony Orchestra (below top), under the baton of James Smith (below bottom, in a photo by Jack Burns), will give a FREE concert.

UW Symphony violins 2015

james smith Jack Burns

The program features three works: the late “King Stephan” Overture by Ludwig van Beethoven (heard below in a YouTube video as conducted by Leonard Bernstein with the Vienna Philharmonic)  the “Billy the Kid” Suite by Aaron Copland; and the Symphony No. 4 “Inextinguishable” by Danish composer Carl Nielsen.

The Ear has heard both groups often and highly recommends both concerts.

He was quite amazed at how good the last UW Symphony Orchestra program he heard was. It offered two Fifth Symphonies — by Sergei Prokofiev and Jean Sibelius – only about three weeks into the semester.

It was nothing short of amazing how well the orchestra had come together in such a short time. It was a tight and impassioned performance. The Ear expects the same for this concert, which has had a lot more rehearsal time.


Classical music: Maestro John DeMain talks about the challenges and rewards of Beethoven’s “Ninth” – the “Choral” or “Ode to Joy” symphony that he will conduct this weekend with the Madison Symphony Orchestra and Madison Symphony Chorus plus soloists.

May 4, 2015
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

It could well be a case of saving the best for last.

This weekend brings what, for The Ear, is the one of the most interesting programs – maybe THE most interesting program — of the season from the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

The sonic combination of a Romantic classic and post-World War II modern music includes the performance of a major symphony that is a beloved icon around the world: the Ninth Symphony by Ludwig van Beethoven (below), also known as the “Choral” and “Ode to Joy” symphony.

Beethoven big

The Ninth was the symphony that Leonard Bernstein famously conducted in Germany to celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall.

So what better offering to accompany it than something composed by Bernstein – his 1954 “Serenade” for solo violin and orchestra, with MSO concertmaster Naha Greenholtz, that is based on the Socratic dialogue “Symposium” by the ancient Greek philosopher Plato. (Greenholtz will talk about the Bernstein work in a Q&A here later this week.)

Love and joy: Can there be a better way to finish out a season?

The program will be performed under the baton of longtime MSO music director John DeMain, who studied and worked with Leonard Bernstein. It will feature the Madison Symphony Chorus, as prepared by MSO assistant conductor Beverly Taylor (below), who also heads the UW-Madison choral department.

Beverly Taylor MSO portrait COLOR USE

Guest vocal soloists are: soprano Melody Moore (below top); contralto Gwendolyn Brown (below second); tenor Eric Barry (below third); and bass Morris Robinson (below bottom).

Melody Moore

Gwendolyn Brown

Eric Barry

Morris Robinson

Performances are in Overture Hall in the Overture Center. Times are Friday at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday at 8 p.m.; and Sunday at 2:30 p.m.

Tickets are $12-$84.

For details, go to https://www.madisonsymphony.org or call the Overture Center Box Office at (608) 258-4141.

For more information, including audio samples and a link to program notes by MSO bass trombonist and UW-Whitewater professor Michael Allsen, visit: http://www.madisonsymphony.org/beethoven

Maestro DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad) recently agreed to do an email Q&A about Beethoven’s Ninth with The Ear:

John DeMain full face by Prasad

Why does Beethoven’s Ninth always appeal and what makes it an icon in the public mind? What makes it at the same time so revolutionary and so typically Beethoven?

Aside from the Ninth Symphony being a great musical composition, one cannot get away from the inclusion of the poem by Friedrich Schiller (below, in a painting by Ludovick Simanowiz). The “Ode to Joy” literally shouting that all men in our universe are brothers is what makes this symphony an icon in the public mind. (At bottom is a more informal street scene flash mob performance in a YouTube video that has more than 8 million hits.)

The first three movements are typically Beethoven in style, though consummate in his compositional development. It is the inclusion of voices in the last movement, and the length and structure of the last movement that makes this symphony truly revolutionary. This was the first symphony to have included a chorus and soloists for its final movement.

Friedrich Schiller by Ludovike Simanowiz

It isn’t hard to guess what meaning it holds for the public and why audiences find it popular. But what does this music do to you? How do you feel when you perform it and have finished it?

Music for me is a powerful aural emotional experience. While there is great beauty, majesty and excitement to be found in the first three movements, it is that last movement that fires up my own emotions, not dissimilar to what the listening audience is feeling as well.

Literally shouting for a united brotherhood on Earth under our Maker in heaven, Beethoven develops this movement from a lovely and simple melody in the beginning, to a massive and wild declaration at the end.

It is always a uniquely significant event, often conjuring up whatever injustices are occurring in our contemporary world. Certainly our challenges in the Middle East, and our domestic situations, most recently in St. Louis and Baltimore, will resonate in people’s minds as they listen to this music. It’s a call for harmony in the universe.

When you finish conducting the Beethoven Ninth, you are emotionally and physically drained having conducted not one, but two symphonies, as the last movement is a symphony unto itself.

John DeMain conducting 2

What are the challenges, technically and interpretatively, for you, as a conductor and for the orchestra players, the soloists and the chorus?

There is rather elaborate contrapuntal writing for the orchestra, which always poses a problem for ensemble and clarity. Length poses a challenge for endurance, particularly for the strings. The recitative sections for the orchestral basses as well as the soloist are particularly challenging for the conductor, as are the on the spot pull backs in tempo during the last movement.

We all know that the vocal writing is a challenge to both the soloists and the chorus, but particularly for the chorus. The high tessitura (average pitch range) of the writing makes it extremely difficult for the sopranos and tenors to sustain a thrilling fortissimo, for example. (Below is a photo of the Madison Symphony Chorus by Greg Anderson.)

Beethoven was completely deaf at this point in his life, and was writing what was in his mind, not paying particular attention to what was doable. But then, isn’t that how musical innovation and the stretching of form sometimes happen?

MSO Chorus from left CR Greg Anderson

Why did you choose to pair The Ninth with the Bernstein’s Serenade? Do you see certain parallels or contrasts?

Well, Lenny was a real devotee of Beethoven, and in this composition, he does marvelous things with the use of leitmotif. I love juxtaposing 20th century harmonies with the musical language of the early 19th century. Both composers use dissonance as a part of their language, but in very different ways.

The Serenade, while not specifically programmatic, deals with the various aspects of love, and relates to the Beethoven in that love has to be the basis that binds all men and women together.

I  also love featuring our wonderful concertmaster, Naha Greenholtz (below), and when she suggested the idea, I thought it would make a wonderful contrast to the Ninth, and fill out the concert in a truly wonderful way to close our season.

Naha Greenholtz [playing


Classical music: A new movie traces the many political and cultural uses around the world of Beethoven’s iconic Ninth Symphony.

January 24, 2014
4 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Beethoven (below) would have approved.

And no doubt he would have been very, very happy.

Beethoven big

In his famous Ninth Symphony, Beethoven quoted a poem by German writer Friedrich Schiller to announce his solidarity with the revolutionary ideals of universal brotherhood and universal freedom.

And sure enough, all around the world, in many different cultures, Beethoven’s Ninth has found a place as an emblem of those aspirations. During the Pinochet Years, it was sung by Chilean women outside the walls of prisons where political activists were being tortured — the men could hear them and took heart from their singing,

Of course Hitler also appropriated the Ninth too. But then Leonard Bernstein used it to celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of East Germany. And protesting Chinese students (below) in the Tiananmen Square uprising where they rebelled to strains of the Ninth coming out of loudspeakers.

The Ear wonders if it was played anywhere in the Mideast or Northern Africa during the Arab Spring?

Beethoven and Tiananmen Square

I particularly like the way the Japanese sing it out loud en masse – in German no less — as a rite of ushering in the coming New Year. (Below is a photo of 10,000 Japanese singing the “Ode to Joy” as a huge stadium choir that spent months studying and rehearsing the music and the German language.)

As a ritual, it is kind of like dancing waltzes in Vienna or watching the ball drop in Times Square in New York City, only a lot more soulful, beautiful and personal in the public’s involvement and its own cultural meaning. (You can hear for yourself the Japanese stadium concert of singing “Ode to Joy” finale of the last movement in a YouTube video at the bottom. It has had about 1.5 million hits and is pretty impressive and moving to experience even in a audio-video recording.)

10,000 Japanese sing Beethoven's  Ninth

Here is the story that I first heard about the movie documenting Beethoven’s Ninth — “Following the Ninth: In the Footsteps of Beethoven’s Final Symphony” — around the world on NPR. It moved The Ear and I hope it moves you. I also hope someone out there knows if or when it is scheduled to play in Madison and will let the rest of us know the dates.

The film also redeems all the baloney we hear about classical music being outdated and old-fashioned and elitist and so on ad nauseam. Other music would be damn lucky to get even close to this kind of universality, significance and appreciation.

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2014/01/14/262481960/the-ode-to-joy-as-a-call-to-action

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