The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Autumn arrives today. The Ear thinks Richard Strauss’ poignant orchestral song “September” is perfect for greeting Fall. What music would you choose?

September 23, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Fall officially arrives today.

The autumnal equinox takes place at 2:50 a.m. CST.

If you listen to Wisconsin Public Radio, it’s a certainty that you will hear music appropriate to the season. WPR does these tie-ins very well and very reliably — even during a pledge drive.

At the top of the list will probably be the “Autumn” section of three violin concertos from the ever popular “The Four Seasons” by the Italian baroque composer Antonio Vivaldi.

But there are lots of others, including late songs, piano sonatas and chamber music by Franz Schubert; slow movements from symphonies by Gustav Mahler; and many of the “autumnal” late works by Johannes Brahms, especially the short piano pieces and chamber music such as the Clarinet Trio, Clarinet Quintet and the two sonatas for clarinet or viola and piano.

Here is a link to a YouTube video with more than two hours of autumn music. You can check out the composers and the pieces, some of which might be new to you.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4fddGrDV2gw

And if you want less music with some unusual choices, complete with individual performances, try this much shorter compilation:

http://www.classical-music.com/article/best-classical-music-inspired-autumn

Yet this time of year, when the days end earlier and the mornings dawn later, one work in particular gets to The Ear: It is “Four Last Songs” by Richard Strauss (below), one of the great masterpieces of the 20th century.

The second of the four songs is “September” and fits the bill very nicely.

In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear it sung by Renée Fleming, who will perform a recital next spring in Madison at the Wisconsin Union Theater. She is accompanied by the Houston Symphony Orchestra under conductor Christoph Eschenbach.

Here are the lyrics of the poem, in which summertime is the protagonist, by Nobel Prize winner Hermann Hesse:

The garden is in mourning

Cool rain seeps into the flowers.

Summertime shudders,

quietly awaiting his end.

 

Golden leaf after leaf falls

from the tall acacia tree.

Summer smiles, astonished and feeble,

at his dying dream of a garden.

 

For just a while he tarries

beside the roses, yearning for repose.

Slowly he closes

his weary eyes.

Is the Ear the only person who wishes that the Madison Symphony Orchestra and maestro John DeMain, who has a gift for finding great young voices, would perform Strauss’ “Four Last Songs” some autumn?

With the right vocal soloist it could make for a memorable season-opening concert.

What music do you identity with the fall season?

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music education: Brother and sister alumni return to play cello and conduct in the fall concerts by Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras. Plus, hear a free concert of three solo cello suites by Bach on Friday at noon

November 9, 2016
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ALERT: This week’s FREE Friday Noon Musicale at the First Unitarian Society of Madison 900 University Bay Drive, features cellist Leonardo Altino playing Suites Nos. 1, 5 and 6 for unaccompanied cello by Johann Sebastian Bach. The concert runs from 12:15 to 1 p.m.

By Jacob Stockinger

WYSO will kick-off its 51st season with the Evelyn Steenbock Fall Concerts on this Saturday, Nov. 12, and next Saturday, Nov. 19. Nearly 500 young musicians will display their talents to the community during the concerts, which are dedicated to music teachers.

WYSO Youth Orchestra

The Youth Orchestra concert on Nov. 19 will be performed at the River Arts Center in Prairie du Sac, where WYSO will welcome back two alumni guest artists: Kenneth Woods and Cynthia Woods.

Kenneth will be playing cello and Cynthia will be conducting in the Cello Concerto by British composer Philip Sawyers. (You can hear Kenneth Woods conduct the opening movement of the cello concerto in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The Youth Orchestra, under the direction of James Smith, will also be playing Symphony No. 2 by Ralph Vaughan Williams and Overture to the opera “Der Freischuetz” by Carl Maria von Weber.

Cynthia Woods (below) is currently the Music Director of the Cambridge Symphony Orchestra and the conductor for the Youth Preparatory Orchestra at the New England Conservatory, where she serves on the violin, chamber and conducting faculty.

Along with her conducting activities, Ms. Woods is also a frequent speaker and writer. She has been a guest lecturer at institutions such as MIT and the Longy School of Music of Bard College, a panelist for radio shows such as WGBH’s Callie Crossley, and a frequent contributor to The Boston Herald’s State of the Arts blog. Cynthia was a member of WYSO from 1984–1989 in Concert, Philharmonia and Youth Orchestra.

For more background about Cynthia Woods, go to:

http://www.wysomusic.org/guest-artists/cynthia-woods/

https://www.wysomusic.org/events/concerts-recitals/evelyn-steenbock-fall-concerts/interview-with-cynthia-woods/

cynthia-woods

Kenneth Woods (below) is currently the Artistic Director and Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra. As a cello soloist and chamber musician, Wood’s collaborators have included members of the Toronto, Chicago and Cincinnati symphonies, the Minnesota, Gewandhaus and Concertgebouw orchestras and the La Salle, Pro Arte, Tokyo and Aubudon String Quartets.

He also  is currently cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo, with whom he performs regularly in the UK, Europe, and the USA. He writes a popular blog, “A View From the Podium.” Kenneth was a member of WYSO from 1980–1986 in Concert, Philharmonia and Youth Orchestra. He also studied cello at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music with Parry Karp, of the Pro Arte Quartet.

For more background and an interview with Kenneth Woods, go to:

http://www.wysomusic.org/guest-artists/kenneth-woods-cellistconductor/

https://www.wysomusic.org/events/concerts-recitals/evelyn-steenbock-fall-concerts/interview-with-ken-woods/

Avie, London 15 Feb 2011

Schedule and Programs

November 12, 2016 – 1:30 P.M., Mills Hall

Philharmonia Orchestra

  • Rimsky- Korsakov: Procession of the Nobles from Mlada 
  • Shostakovich: Finale from Symphony No. 5, Op. 47 
  • Prokofiev: Montagues and Capulets from Romeo and Juliette, 2nd suite
  • Shostakovich: Six Pieces from the First Ballet Suite Op. 84

wyso concert orchestra brass

November 12, 2016 – 4 P.M., Mills Hall

CONCERT ORCHESTRA (below)

  • Jack Bullock: Okeanos
  • James Curnow: Phoenix Overture
  • Jaromír Weinberger: Polka from the Opera Schwanda, the Bagpiper
  • Albert O. Davis: Moonlight Masquerade
  • Richard Strauss: Allerseelen (All Souls’ Day) Op. 10 No. 8

SINFONIETTA

  • Domenico Gallo: Sinfonia in G
  • Grieg: A Nordic Lullaby Op. 68, No.5 
  • Tchaikovsky: Serenade for Strings 
  • Robert S. Frost and Mary Elledge: Tales from Sherwood Forest
  • Brian Balmages: Wood Splitter Fanfare
  • Norman Leyden: Serenade for String Orchestra
  • Michael Korb and Ulrich Roever: Highland Cathedral 
  • William Owens: Carpathia
  • Sebastian Yradier: La Paloma 

wyso-youth-orchestra-2016-2

November 19, 2016 – 7 P.M., River Arts Center

YOUTH ORCHESTRA (below)

  • Symphony No.2– Ralph Vaughan Williams
  • Overture to the opera “Der Freishuetz”– Carl Maria von Weber
  • Cello Concerto– Philip Sawyers 
with Kenneth Woods – Cello, Cynthia Woods – Conductor

youth-orchestra-1

The Evelyn Steenbock Fall Concerts will be held in Mills Concert Hall in the UW Humanities Building, 455 N. Park Street, Madison, and at the River Arts Center, 105 Ninth St. Prairie du Sac, Wisconsin.

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 youth 18 and under.

This project is supported by Dane Arts with additional funds from the Evjue Foundation, Inc., the charitable arm of The Capital Times. This project is also supported in part by a grant from the Wisconsin Arts Board with funds from the State of Wisconsin and the National Endowment for the Arts.


Classical music: Is this the minority report of a dissenter? The Ear offers some thoughts and after-thoughts from recent concerts by the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, the Pro Arte String Quartet, the Middleton Community Orchestra and pianist Christopher Taylor. Plus, here are links to rave reviews of this afternoon’s final all-Beethoven concert by pianist Yefim Bronfman and the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

March 9, 2014
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ALERT: Today at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall of the Overture Center is the final performance of the all-Beethoven concert by the Madison Symphony Orchestra under John DeMain. It features pianist Yefim Bronfman (below) in TWO piano concertos (Nos. 2 and 5 “The Emperor”) plus the Symphony No. 1 and “The Creatures of Prometheus” Overture. Here are links to two rave reviews of the concert by Madison Magazine critic and blogger Greg Hettmansberger and by Isthmus critic John W. Barker, who also guest blogs for The Ear. It sure sounds like a NOT-TO-BE-MISSED concert. See you there!

http://www.madisonmagazine.com/Blogs/Classically-Speaking/March-2014/A-Piano-Concerto-Doubleheader-and-Beethoven-to-the-Max/

http://www.thedailypage.com/daily/article.php?article=42237

Yefim Bronfman portrait

By Jacob Stockinger

It has been a very busy time musically in Madison, with a lot of previews to post, which often supplant reviews since The Ear thinks previews are more useful than reviews to most listeners and performers. And this coming week and weekend are even worse. So much music, and so little space!

But here are some “outdated” capsule reviews, impressions really, with accompanying afterthoughts that come to The Ear as he listened and later thought about what he had heard:

MADISON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA AND TRUMPETER TINE THING HELSETH

It seemed a curious, even odd theme for a Valentine’s Day program. But BRASS – not romantic love — marked the Valentine’s Day weekend performances by the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below), although ending with the “Rosenkavalier” suite by Richard Strauss did indeed prove an inspired choice to combine brass and love. Plus by all accounts, the concert sold very well. It sure got standing ovations. In short, it may have seemed odd, but it worked.

MSO playing

The “Doctor Atomic” Symphony by the contemporary American composer John Adams (below), who put the instrumental work together from his own opera score, was powerful, and also fit the brass bill, with great solos by MSO trumpeter John Aley, and was impressive to hear –- though also hardly romantic.

John Adams

Given conductor John DeMain (below) and his stupendous taste and talent for choosing great singers who are also affordable, I kept thinking: How I would like to have heard some great singers perform familiar and unknown love arias from operas by Mozart, Rossini, Verdi, Puccini, Saint-Saens, even Wagner. Now those would be symphony tickets to throw in with a box of chocolates and a bouquet of roses. But The Ear has been informed that such concerts often do not sell well and might also be seen as competing with the local opera company.

John DeMain full face by Prasad

All that said, I thought that the guest soloist, Norwegian trumpeter Tine Thing Helseth (below), proved an inspired, if unexpected, choice. She showed an uncanny power for playing softly. Brass instruments are not easy to control with little breath and with soft tone. But she did both beautifully in two concertos by Franz Joseph Haydn and Alexander Arutiunian. She clearly has the lung power to blow down the Walls of Jericho. But what impressed and seduced me was her quietness, which nonetheless possessed rich tone and unwavering pitch. That is a rare talent, and one to be cherished — and brought back to Madison!

Tine Thing Helseth big profile

WISCONSIN CHAMBER ORCHESTRA

Maestro Andrew Sewell (below) has a never-failing knack of finding terrific music that has been overlooked but is actually very good, if not revolutionary or pioneering.

Sure, at his last concert I too, like the rest of the audience, loved what he did with the Jupiter Symphony of Mozart –- not too hectic, clear voicing, propulsive energy even with all the repeats. And the talented and congenial soloist Joshua Roman proved an irresistible highlight in Haydn’s Cello Concerto in D major.

Andrew Sewell BW

But the real surprise of the night was the 20th-century Concerto Grosso by Vittorio Giannini (below), who taught composition at the Juilliard School and the Manhattan School of Music and then established the North Carolina School of the Arts. What a discovery! I want to hear more by this guy.

Vittorio Giannini

And Sewell will soon unwrap another surprise this week –- and I expect, as usual, that it will be modern music that is accessible and tuneful, not R&D Music (that’s short research and development) that sounds like jet noise or broken plumbing.  Could that help explain why he gets full houses?

Sewell and the WCO will probably do so again THIS COMING FRIDAY NIGHT at 8 p.m. in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center. That is when he and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra combine the famous famously listenable and lovely Violin Concerto (with guest soloist Karina Canellakis) by Felix Mendelssohn and Franz Joseph Haydn’s “Clock” Symphony (Symphony No. 101 of his 104 symphonies) with “Elements” by American composer Michael McLean (below, and with a sample of  “Elements” in a YouTube video at the bottom). Sounds like another MUST-HEAR concert  to The Ear.

Michael McLean 1 REAL not mormon

PRO ARTE QUARTET

Well, the headlines and chit-chat went rightfully to the world premiere of Belgian composer Benoit Mernier’s commissioned String Quartet No. 3, which sounded fiendishly difficult and seemed based largely on technical stuff like trills, tremolos and glissandos instead of themes and infectious rhythms. And the Pro Arte Quartet, artists-in-residence at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music since 1940 and celebration its centennial, played it with impressive aplomb and apparent ease.

Pro Arte Quartet in Haydn at Mernier

“Do you like the music?” someone asked me right after the performance.

I think the better question is: “Does the music like me?”

Think about it: What is the composer’s responsibility to you the listener, and what is your responsibility to the composer (Mernier, below), especially if he seems to ignore you?

Benoit Mernier 1

I also loved the rarely heard and beautifully performed viola quintet by Anton Bruckner and particularly the contrasts between Sally Chisholm’s viola and Samuel Rhodes’ viola (the two are below side-by-side). If you liked the combination –- and what is not to like with the darker hued voice of the viola –- be sure to try the viola quintets by Mozart and Brahms, which I would also like to hear the Pro Arte do more of.

Sally Chisholm and Samuel Rhodes in Bruckner Quintet

But for old-fashioned me, the star of the evening was the Haydn Quartet, Op. 20, No. 4. It just cleaned out your ears and was proof again that, at its best, the genre is indeed still as it was described by Haydn himself when pretty much invented in the 18th century: A conversation of equals. And did the Pro Arte ever play it with accuracy, clarity and texture. It sparkled like a diamond. The string quartet may have evolved, changed or morphed over the centuries, but it has simply not gotten any better than Haydn.

So: Is there any chance that we night get of a multi-year Haydn cycle by the Pro Arte, which decades ago in another avatar or configuration of players started to record the complete Haydn quartets in the famous Abbey Road studio in London for RCA. They have done Beethoven and Shostakovich cycles. What about Papa Haydn? And if not a complete cycle of the 68 or so quartets, how about a fairly comprehensive survey or at least a very large sampler of Haydn’s early, middle and late styles?

Haydn

PIANIST CHRISTOPHER TAYLOR

What more can you say about the award-winning, audience-approved star talent pianist Christopher Taylor (below) who teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music and concertizes around the world, and his stunning solo recital this year?

ChristopherTaylorNoCredit

I loved the “War” Sonata No. 6 by Sergei Prokofiev, a great piece that he performed greatly with both riveting energy and heartbreaking lyricism. I also loved the encore — Scott Joplin’s “Pineapple Rag” –- as a contrast and change of pace.

But I have to be honest: I have heard enough of the Liszt piano transcriptions of Beethoven’s symphonies. Trust the genuine original! Accept no substitutes!

The next day I listened to a recording of the same work by a real orchestra — the Gewandhaus Orchestra of Leipzig under conductor Riccardo Chailly. What a difference when the “Eroica” is played with real brass countering, with jarring dissonance, real strings; when it is real tympani drumbeats rather than bass tremolos on the piano. Ludwig (below) simply had more of IT – whatever musical genius is — than Franz.

Beethoven big

The real “Eroica” Symphony doesn’t — and shouldn’t — sound so much like a Hungarian Rhapsody or a Transcendental Etude. In their day, these transcriptions served a purpose and they stretched the resources of the piano, or at least, of pianists. Now, they strike The Ear as precious, more of a sideshow of amazing and ingenious pianism and not much little else aside from some strokes of minor genius here and there by the Paganini of the Piano.

Liszt photo by Pierre Petit

From one of those transcriptions I learned something and I enjoyed it. But now that makes three down (symphonies numbers 3, 4 and 5) for Taylor. I, for one, sure hope we don’t have the other six to go. How much more I would have preferred to hear this supremely talented pianist and gifted musician in some serious and original piano repertoire –- maybe a late Schubert sonata, or a Bach partita, or a Chopin ballade, or a Schumann cycle. I want to hear Christopher Taylor in something that puts depth over display, substance over style.

Am I alone in that wish?

MIDDLETON COMMUNITY ORCHESTRA

Guest reviewer John W. Barker covered this recent concert of the mostly amateur Middleton Community Orchestra (below), which featured music by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Johannes Brahms and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, thoughtfully and thoroughly for this blog.

Middleton Community Orchestra Margaret Barker

All I would add is a lesson that every teacher knows: Students with lesser abilities rise to meet high expectations. That is why symphony orchestras and chamber orchestras should book the best soloists they can get and afford: The Ear is convinced that the level of playing and performing usually rises to match the soloist and fosters cohesion.

With the MCO, it was two lifelong friends and award-winning, UW-Madison trained string players -– violinist Eleanor Bartsch and violist Daniel Kim (below) who soloed and who seemed in complete synch, down to the timing of their trills, during Mozart’s sublime Sinfonia Concertante.

Their playing was superb, and the amateur orchestra rose to meet them and give them the beautiful support they deserved. And with Mozart there is no place to hide, so flaws or mistakes are quickly revealed.

Eleanor Bartsch and Daniel Kim MCO Mozart

Well, now it is on to another busy week of concerts.

Where, I wonder, will the music lead The Ear this time?

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