The Well-Tempered Ear

Longtime friends organist Greg Zelek and Madison native and award-winning trumpeter Ansel Norris team up for a FREE live-streamed concert this Tuesday night

April 26, 2021
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By Jacob Stockinger

Two longtime friends and fellow musicians will team up this Tuesday night, April 27, to close this season’s organ concert series, sponsored in the Overture Center by the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

It will be live-streamed online because of the pandemic restrictions on attendance.

The concert features the critically acclaimed MSO organist Greg Zelek (below left) and Ansel Norris (below right), an award-winning trumpeter who is a native of Madison.

The program includes works by Bach, Vivaldi, Haydn and Samuel Barber among others.

The concert starts at 7:30 p.m. CDT. It is FREE but you must register. The concert will be available to registered listeners for unlimited access through May 31.

Here is a link to the MSO website where you can register. It also has more information about the program and biographies of the two performers: https://madisonsymphony.org/event/norris-zelek-2021-streamed/

Here is more background. It appeared in the latest issue of the email newsletter of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO), of which Norris was a member for many years:

Ansel Norris and Greg Zelek first met in 2010 as high school seniors who had both been selected as finalists in the YoungARTS Awards. The YoungARTS Award is a big competition with just a small percentage of students selected for the $10,000 prize from the thousands of high school applicants. In classical music that year, 12 students became finalists and assembled in Miami for a week of master classes with internationally recognized arts leaders.

Ansel Norris attended as an outstanding trumpeter from Madison East High School and Greg Zelek attended as an outstanding high school organist from the New World School of the Arts in Coral Gables, Florida. 

We hit it off right away and it came to me later what a great story this was,” Norris (below) mused. “Greg had grown up in south Florida and now was living in Madison, and I had grown up in Madison and was now living in south Florida.

“You know, there really is a synergy with trumpet and organ. The sounds are produced in a similar way and the way the sounds blend together is really special. Even then, I imagined a concert together.” 

Ten years later, the two friends were dreaming up this concert when Greg was in Miami in February, 2020. And then the world shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic. Norris has distinguished himself as a solo, orchestral and chamber musician.

After graduating from East High School in Madison, he attended Northwestern University, from which he received a Bachelor’s degree in Music in 2016.  From there he attended Rice University in 2019. Twice he was the first-prize winner at the National Trumpet Competition and a winner of the New World Symphony’s Concerto Competition. Then, at 26 years old, he became the first-ever American prizewinner in the International Tchaikovsky Competition’s Brass division. (You can hear Norris perform in the competition’s semi-finals in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Playing as soloist with orchestras is a special pleasure for Ansel, and he has enjoyed performances in front of the Mariinsky Orchestra, New World Symphony and his hometown Madison Symphony Orchestra, to name a few. Also a chamber musician, Ansel won a Bronze Medal at the Fischoff International Competition with his friends from the Lincoln Chamber Brass.

Ansel Norris currently resides in Naples, Florida, where he enjoys an eclectic musical career with the Naples Philharmonic. In a place without cold weather, the Naples orchestra could potentially play music safely outside all winter. But Ansel shook his head, “For the most part we’ve been indoors. The orchestra gets tested for COVID each week and we play on a stage with musicians spaced 10 feet apart. HEPA filters are positioned everywhere. Playing 10 feet apart is just crazy. You absolutely cannot depend on the musical cues you were trained to depend on.”

Norris remembers growing up in Madison where there was a “fine legacy for trumpet players. It was so great I didn’t want to go away to Interlochen, even with a full scholarship.” He studied privately with John Aley and attended WYSO rehearsals on Saturdays, which he absolutely loved. 

And now this Tuesday, this 2009 Bolz Young Artist Competition finalist will be returning to the Overture stage with his good friend Greg Zelek, who are both amazing and accomplished young musicians.

As Greg Zelek (below, in a photo by Peter Rodgers) writes: “Concerti of Bach and Haydn will bookend this program filled with music that is both written and arranged for this electrifying pairing of instruments. Mr. Norris’ remarkable technique and soaring lyricism will be on full display while our Mighty Klais both supports and shimmers in this exhilarating performance you won’t want to miss!” Register here for Tuesday’s concert! 


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Classical music: This afternoon is your last chance to hear native son Kenneth Woods conduct the Madison Symphony Orchestra and Canadian violinist Blake Pouliot. Here are two reviews, one a rave and the other very positive

March 8, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

This afternoon at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall is your last chance to hear native son and guest conductor Kenneth Woods and guest Canadian violinist Blake Pouliot with the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below, in a photo by Peter Rodgers).

Woods (below), once a student in Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO) and a student at Memorial High School, has established an international reputation by leading the English Symphony Orchestra, the Colorado MahlerFest and the British Elgar Festival, and by making many highly praised recordings.

At 26, Pouliot (below in a photo by Jeff Fasano) is a rising star, thanks to winning a major competition in Montreal and other prizes. (You can hear him play “Lotus Land,” composed by Cyril Scott and arranged by Fritz Kreisler, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The program is: Symphony No. 96 “Miracle” by Franz Joseph Haydn; the Violin Concerto in E Minor by Felix Mendelssohn; and “Ein Heldenleben” (A Hero’s Life) by Richard Strauss.

For more background and program notes, information about purchasing tickets ($19-$95) and The Ear’s detailed interview with Woods about growing up in Madison, go to: https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2020/03/02/classical-music-accomplished-native-son-kenneth-woods-returns-this-weekend-to-conduct-the-madison-symphony-orchestra-in-music-by-haydn-mendelssohn-and-richard-strauss-he-talks-to-the-ear-about-what/

The opening performance on Friday night received excellent reviews. Here are two major ones:

Here is the rave review that veteran critic Greg Hettmansberger (below) wrote for his blog “What Greg Says,” which is well worth following:

https://whatgregsays.wordpress.com/2020/03/07/a-healthy-orchestra-in-strong-hands/

And here is a largely positive review for The Capital Times newspaper written by freelancer Matt Ambrosio (below), who received his doctorate in music theory from the UW-Madison and now teaches at the Lawrence University Conservatory of Music in Appleton, Wisconsin:

https://madison.com/ct/entertainment/arts-and-theatre/soloist-blake-pouloit-brings-mso-audience-to-its-feet-with/article_d559c040-87d8-506d-8120-ae77b0d5481b.html/

You can be a critic too.

If you heard the concert, what did you think?

The Ear wants to hear

 


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Classical music: Acclaimed native son Kenneth Woods returns this weekend to conduct the Madison Symphony Orchestra. He talks to The Ear about what Madison meant to him and his international career

March 2, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

This weekend, native Madisonian Kenneth Woods (below) returns from his home in the UK to conduct three performances of the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

The concerts feature two MSO debuts: the prize-winning young Canadian violinist Blake Pouliot performing Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor; and the acclaimed guest conductor, Kenneth Woods, leading the orchestra for the MSO premiere of Haydn’s Symphony No. 96, “Miracle” plus Richard Strauss’ tone poem Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life).

Performances will be held in Overture Hall on Friday night, March 6, at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday night, March 7, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday afternoon, March 8, at 2:30 p.m.

Single tickets are $19-$95 each and are on sale now, along with discounted tickets, at: https://madisonsymphony.org/event/the-miracle/; through the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street; or by calling the Box Office at (608) 258-4141. Fees apply to online and phone sales.

You can view program notes for this concert online at http://bit.ly/msomar2020programnotes

A Prelude Discussion by Randal Swiggum will take place one hour before each concert.

Guest conductor Kenneth Woods is a busy and versatile musician. He is the Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra and the artistic director of both the Colorado MahlerFest and the Elgar Festival in England. (You can hear Woods conducting Carl Maria von Weber’s “Oberon” Overture in the YouTube video at the bottom.) 

Woods has won accolades for rediscovering and recording the music of the Austrian-British composer Hans Gàl. Woods, who has played guitar in a rock band, is also a professional cellist who solos with orchestras and plays chamber music. He writes a respected blog. And he currently plays and records in the Briggs Piano Trio for Avie Records.

For much more information about Kenneth Woods, including his blog “A View From the Podium,” go to: https://kennethwoods.net/blog1/

Woods recently spoke via email to The Ear about what Madison has meant to him and to his international career.

How did living in Madison play a role in your decision to become a professional musician?

Madison offered me a chance to hear music at an early age. I was taken to watch a rehearsal of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestra as a very young kid, maybe three or four years old. That made a huge impression on me, especially seeing the rehearsal process. Later, my parents took us to all the UW Symphony Orchestra concerts for years.

There’s really no reason not to take young kids to concerts! For me, a love of live music led to a love of recorded music, listening to records at home, and from there, to an interest in playing music as a kid.

We were lucky to have a very strong music program in the Madison public schools when I was growing up here. The orchestras at Memorial High School played some really impressive repertoire under Tom Buchhauser (below top, in a photo by Jon Harlow). The UW Summer Music Clinic made being a musician social – it was a great immersion with one’s peers.

Most important, however, was probably the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO). Playing under Jim Smith (below bottom) was the most fantastic education in orchestral playing one could hope for. He and Tom are a big part of why I became a conductor.

Madison in those days wasn’t a super-pressurized scene, like one might encounter around the big pre-college programs in New York or LA. But what I might have missed in terms of conservatory-level instrumentalists in every corridor, one made up in terms of feeling like you could find your own path. By the time I was in high school, I pretty much knew music was that path.

How did your experiences in Madison help prepare you for that career?

I learned so much about rehearsing from Jim Smith. In his first year, we worked on Dvorak’s 8th Symphony pretty much all year. Every week, he opened our ears to new facets of the music. I’ve never forgotten that.

I went off to Indiana University to do my Bachelor’s degree, but returned to Madison for a Master’s, when I studied cello with UW-Madison professor Parry Karp (below top).

Those were wonderful years for me. I learned an enormous amount from Parry as both a cello teacher and chamber music coach (and especially as a person).

I played in fantastic chamber groups, did lots of wacky new music and had solo opportunities. UW Symphony Orchestra conductor David Becker (below bottom) even gave me my first meaningful chance to rehearse an orchestra when he had me take a couple of rehearsals on the Copland Clarinet Concerto.

And I played in both the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra. I came away from that time with both new skills and new confidence.

What does returning to your hometown to conduct the Madison Symphony Orchestra mean to you?

It’s both very exciting and a little surreal. Under the leadership of John DeMain (below top, in a photo by Greg Anderson), the MSO (below bottom, in a photo by Peter Rodgers) has come so far since the time I was in it. And the new hall is such a treasure for all of Wisconsin – it’s practically a different orchestra.

I still have many friends and former mentors in the orchestra and it’s going to be wonderful to see them all and make music together again after so long.

But it’s more than a homecoming. It’s a chance to celebrate where we’ve all been and what we’ve all done the last 20 years or so. My musical life has mostly been in the UK for a long time, so to re-connect with my musical roots here is rather magical.

What are your major current and upcoming projects?

The English Symphony Orchestra (below) represents the biggest chunk of my musical life. This year we’re celebrating Beethoven’s 250th birthday and the orchestra’s 40th anniversary.

The ESO has a special commitment to new and unknown music, and right now we’re in the midst of something called the 21st Century Symphony Project, which involves commissioning, premiering and recording nine new symphonies by diverse composers. It’s one of the most ambitious commissioning projects I’ve ever heard of, let alone been involved in.

I’m also excited about this year’s Colorado MahlerFest in Boulder, where we’re focusing on Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 “Resurrection” this May, which will crown a week of music exploring themes of color and visual art with music by Wagner, Messiaen and British composer Philip Sawyers.

Is the MSO program special to you?

I must say that it was incredibly generous of John DeMain to offer me such a fantastic program. Not every music director is gentleman enough to let a guest have Ein Heldenleben.

What would you like the public to know about your approach to music and about the specific works by Haydn, Mendelssohn and Richard Strauss?

Haydn’s music is maybe the richest discovery of my adult life. I didn’t get it as a kid, largely because most performances I heard were so dull.

His music is so varied, and his personality so complex, one mustn’t try to reduce him down to a simplistic figure. The late symphonies, of which this is one of the finest, are inexhaustible sources of wisdom, beauty, humor and sanity.

The Mendelssohn is really an astonishing piece. I’ve probably conducted it as much as any piece of music, with so many different soloists, all of whom had hugely different temperaments, personalities, sounds and approaches.

I’ve played it with some of the greatest violinists in the world and with young students. Somehow, whoever is playing, it always leaves me, and the audience, smiling. I’m pretty sure we can continue that streak with Blake Pouliot (below, in a photo by Jeff Fasano).

The Strauss is a rich, personal, wise, funny and moving work. It’s always a challenge, particularly bringing out all the astonishing detail in the score, but it’s also a real joy to perform. If the Mendelssohn always leaves me smiling, the Strauss always leaves me smiling with a tear in my eye.

 


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