The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Juilliard violin professor Laurie Smukler continues a great season of string playing on Saturday night with a FREE recital at the UW-Madison

November 18, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

This is a post about a very appealing FREE concert by Juilliard violinist Laurie Smukler (below) on this Saturday night at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall.


But for The Ear, some context seems fitting.

Some seasons are memorable for great singing or great piano playing or great orchestral playing. And there certainly has been, and will continue to be, lots more of all three this autumn and winter.

But what has really stood out to The Ear this Fall is the string playing, especially the violin.


Actually it started in the summer with a sizzling, white-hot performance by the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society. The BDDS interspersed Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” with Astor Piazzolla’s “Four Seasons in Buenos Aires.”

Violinist Suzanne Beia (below top) played the Vivaldi seasons and McGill University violinist Axel Strauss from Montreal (below bottom) played the Piazzolla seasons. The dueling violins were something to behold and to hear! And the alternation kept listeners from tiring of one particular composer or style. It was a thoroughly enjoyable and thoroughly memorable concert. 



Then came an unforgettable performance of the Violin Concerto by Tchaikovsky, played with intimacy and clarity as well as stunning virtuosity by the prize-winning Russian-born Ilya Kaler with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra under Andrew Sewell.


Then came wonderful performances by Norwegian violinist Henning Kraggerud of the Violin Concerto No. 1 by Max Bruch and some works by Kraggerud himself, accompanied by the Madison Symphony Orchestra under John DeMain.

Henning Kraggerud playing

Over at the Wisconsin Union Theater, superstar Joshua Bell didn’t disappoint. Appearing in a recital with pianist Alessio Bax, Bell played music by Ludwig van Beethoven, Johannes Brahms, Claude Debussy, Eugene Ysaye, Pablo de Sarrasate and Manuel Ponce. Violin recitals just don’t get better.


In between came several performances by the four always reliable and always outstanding string players of the UW-Madison’s Pro Arte Quartet (below top, in a photo by Rick Langer) as well as the newly reformed Ancora String Quartet (below bottom).

Pro Arte 3 Rick Langer copy


And there were many other events.

But The Season of Strings isn’t over yet.

This Saturday night at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall, there is a FREE recital by Laurie Smukler, a violin professor at the Juilliard School who is also doing a guest residency here that features master classes in the violin and chamber music.

Smukler was invited by and will be joined by Soh-Hyun Park Altino (below, in a photo by Caroline Bittencourt), who teaches violin at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music and whose debut recital last year still lingers in The Ear’s ear.

Soh-Hyun Park Altino CR caroline bittencourt

Both women, who are personal friends, are terrific musicians and highly accomplished violinists.

The intriguing program, with the distinguished pianist Victor Asuncion, features the popular work “The Lark Ascending” by English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams; the Sonata for Two Violins by Soviet composer Sergei Prokofiev; and the Violin Sonata No. 3 in D minor by Brahms. (You can hear the heart-rending slow movement of the Brahms, played by violinist Itzhak Perlman and pianist Daniel Barenboim, in a popular YouTube video at the bottom.)

For more information about all events related to the Smukler residency, go to:


Classical music education: Here are 10 tips from China for productive practicing. Also, this afternoon is your last chance to hear the Madison Symphony Orchestra and violinist-composer Henning Kraggerud

October 23, 2016
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ALERT: This afternoon at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall is your last chance to hear the Madison Symphony Orchestra with violinist-composer Henning Kraggerud (below). The popular “Pastorale” Symphony by Ludwig van Beethoven is also on the program. Here are some reviews, all positive:

Here is the review that John W. Barker wrote for Isthmus:

Here is Jessica Courtier’s review for The Capital Times and The Wisconsin State Journal:

And here is the review written by Greg Hettmansberger for his blog “What Greg Says”:


By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear, who is an avid amateur pianist, ran across these 10 tips for productive practicing – something he can always use.

He knew some of them before. But it never hurts to review the basics. That’s why they are called the basics.

And some tips — included on a website based in Hong Kong, China, where music education is booming — were new.

Steinway Grand Piano

string trio violin, viola and cello

He thought that you too – no matter what instrument you play or if you sing – would find them helpful too.

And if you don’t play or sing, maybe these tips will still enhance your appreciation of the hard work that goes into playing and practicing.

So here they are:

If you have some practice tips of your own to add, just leave them in the COMMENT section.

The Ear wants to hear.

And to play better.

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.


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:

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.


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:

Classical music: Madison Symphony Orchestra and violinist Henning Kraggerud perform music by Beethoven, Bruch, Elgar and Kraggerud this weekend

October 17, 2016

By Jacob Stockinger

Ludwig van Beethoven’s popular Symphony No. 6 “Pastorale” anchors the Madison Symphony Orchestra (MSO) concerts under the baton of music director John DeMain on this coming Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

John DeMain and MSO from the stage Greg Anderson

Norwegian violinist Henning Kraggerud returns to perform a violin concerto and some of his own original compositions.


The concerts will open with “In the South” by Sir Edward Elgar, a work that was inspired by the countryside and music he experienced during an Italian holiday.

Kraggerud will perform the dramatic and lyrical Violin Concerto No. 1 by Max Bruch (below), followed by his own Three Postludes from his composition “Equinox.”

max bruch

The program will conclude with Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6, “the Pastorale,” which is a tribute to country life, as you can see and hear in the popular YouTube video, with almost 3 million hits, that is at the bottom.

The concerts are in Overture Hall of the Overture Center, 201 State Street, on Friday at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday at 8 p.m.; and Sunday at 2:30 p.m.

While escaping a drab English winter, Elgar (below), inspired by the Italian Riviera and his realization of the human cost of war, wrote “In the South” – an overture that begins and ends in a stormy mood, while encompassing wistful music for clarinets and strings.

Edward Elgar

Austrian violin virtuoso Joseph Joachim (below) put Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1 in the same league as the violin concertos of Beethoven, Brahms and Mendelssohn, calling the Bruch composition the “richest, most seductive” of the four composers. The main musical theme eventually becomes the foundation for a flashy and exhilarating ending.

Joseph Joachim

Kraggerud’sEquinox” is a set of 24 postludes for solo violin and orchestra in all major and minor keys, with a concluding 25th movement, based on a narration titled “24 Keys to a World Before it Slips Away” by Norwegian novelist Jostein Gaarder.

The Three Postludes, each short character pieces expressing an emotion, will transport audiences around the globe, capturing in a witty way a bit of the flavor of the protagonist’s various stops on his imaginary journey.

Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 was inspired by his love for the countryside around Vienna. In it he reflects upon humanity’s role in the quiet spaces of nature. According to Beethoven (below), the Pastorale is meant to transport the listener to lush, restful, nature scenes that are “more an expression of feeling than painting.” Popularized through the Disney-animated classic film “Fantasia,” the Pastorale Symphony delights audiences of all ages.

Beethoven big

One hour before each performance, Tyrone Greive (below, in a photo by Kathy Esposito), former MSO Concertmaster and retired professor of violin at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, will lead a 30-minute Prelude Discussion in Overture Hall to enhance concertgoers’ understanding and listening experience.

Tyrone Greive 2013 by Kathy Esposito

For more background on the music, please visit the Program Notes at:

Single Tickets are $16 to $87 each, available at, through the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street, or by calling the Box Office at (608) 258-4141.

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

Club 201, MSO’s organization for young professionals, has continued to fulfill its mission for the past 11 years as the premier organization promoting classical music and networking opportunities to the young professionals’ community in Madison.

For a $35 ticket, young professionals will enjoy world-class seating in Overture Hall, an exclusive after-party in the Promenade Lounge, one drink ticket and a cash bar. Conductor John DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad), as well as musicians from the symphony, will be attending to mingle with Madison’s young professionals.

John DeMain full face by Prasad

The deadline to purchase tickets is this Thursday, Oct. 20. 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

Student rush tickets can be purchased in person on the day of the concert at the Overture 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: Students can receive 20 percent savings on seats in select areas of the hall on advance ticket purchases.

Seniors age 62 and up receive 20 percent 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 October concerts is provided by: Steinhauer Charitable Trust, Rosemarie Blancke, Cyrena and Lee Pondrom, and UW Health & Unity Health Insurance. Additional funding is provided by: DeWitt Ross & Stevens S.C., Audrey and Philip Dybdahl, and the Wisconsin Arts Board with funds from the State of Wisconsin and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Classical music: Maestro John DeMain of the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Madison Opera is The Ear’s “Musician of the Year” for 2013. Plus, “New Year’s Day From Vienna” will be broadcast Wednesday once on Wisconsin Public Radio and twice on Wisconsin Public Television.

December 31, 2013

REMINDER: “New Year’s Day From Vienna,” with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra performing waltzes, polkas and marches under Daniel Barenboim, will be broadcast live on Wednesday morning at 10 a.m. on Wisconsin Public Radio, and then air at 1:30-3 p.m. and again at 7-8:30 p.m. on Wisconsin Public Television.

Vienna Philharmonic

By Jacob Stockinger

Today is the day last of the old year, New Year’s Eve — which means it is that time of the year again when The Ear looks back over the past year and decides who deserves to be named “Musician of the Year.”

That is never an easy decision, especially in a city with as much fine classical music and as many fine classical musicians as Madison has. There are so many talented individuals and so many outstanding groups or ensembles in the area that any number of them could qualify for the honor.

It was particularly difficult this year because, due to personal circumstances, The Ear didn’t get to attend a lot of live events he wanted to.  Even so, this year the choice seemed somewhat obvious.

For example, here is a link to an insightful overview of the 2013 season offered in Isthmus by critic John W. Barker, who often is a guest writer on this blog. You just have to scroll down through the long story until you find Barker’s spot-on assessments of the year in classical music. It should make any classical music fans envious and proud to be in Madison:

So on to the man who happens to be the most common denominator among Barker’s Best Picks: John DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad) is the Musician of the Year for 2013.

John DeMain full face by Prasad

Let’s start at the beginning.

It has been 20 years since maestro John DeMain came to Madison as the Music Director of the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Artistic Director of the Madison Opera. And he is a supremely articulate — he often does interviews on TV and radio — and cordial advocate of his own causes, as you can hear for yourself in a video at the bottom and in more than a dozen video on YouTube.)

Even before he arrived here, DeMain had a high profile as the artistic director of the Houston Grand Opera, where he commissioned and premiered John Adams’ “Nixon in China” and has a long history with the City Opera, where he conducted while still a student at the Juilliard School. He had also won a prestigious Grammy Award for his landmark recording of George Gershwin’s opera “Porgy and Bess.”

But coming to Madison, DeMain had a chance to show his strength as an organizational  builder and planner -– with results that the Madison public could easily see, hear and be impressed by.

John DeMain inherited a fine organization for an amateur or semi-professional orchestra, one that had been built up especially by Roland Johnson during his long tenure.

But once he took over, DeMain vastly improved the playing and then programmed more ambitious pieces for the players, and developed his approach to them. His Brahms now is tighter and leaner and more exciting than when he arrived. John DeMain (below in a photo by Greg Anderson) is devoted to lifelong learning and improvement, and doesn’t take even the music he already knows and performs for granted.

John DeMain conducting MSO CR Greg Anderson

Over his tenure, DeMain has discovered and booked exciting and affordable young guest soloists – pianist Philippe Bianconi, violinists Augustin Hadelich and Henning Kraggerud, cellist Alisa Weilerstein tenor Stephen Costello — although The Ear would also like to see some big and more expensive figures brought to town to allow us to hear these artists live. Plus, DeMain listens to dozens of auditions each year and unerringly picks great young up-and-coming singers for the Madison Opera’s season including the popular Opera in the Park each summer.

opera in park De Main_001

I also find it noteworthy and important. DeMain is in demand elsewhere and every season has many opportunities to guest conduct out of town — for the now defunct New York City Opera, the San Francisco Opera, the Glimmerglass Opera in upstate New York and many others.

John DeMain conducting 2

No less important is his willing to expand out into the local scene. In addition to the opera, he has conducted the chamber groups Con Vivo the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society. He continues to play the piano — he was trained as a pianist before turning to conducting.

As an administrator and organizer, he has demonstrated great skills at putting together a team. True, the orchestra has suffered somewhat during the Great Recession and its aftermath – as did all artistic groups. It had to cut back its season by one concert, which DeMain says he hopes to restore to the subscription season.

But the same labor strife that has led to great damage to the Minnesota Orchestra, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra and so many others has not touched the MSO. DeMain’s contained the damage.

Having inherited double performances, DeMain took the MSO to three performances of each concert, reaching about 5,000 people or so with each “triple” performance. He continues to experiment with programming, and in late January will try out the “Behind the Score” series of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra with the “New World” Symphony by Antonin Dvorak (below).


And while some listeners might complain about the lack of more adventurous contemporary music, DeMain has seats to fill and still manages to program contemporary works every season, even with many experimental offerings nearby at the University of Wisconsin School of Music.

DeMain attends concerts at the University of Wisconsin School of Music, and is a tireless promoter of music education from the televised “Final Forte” Bolz concerto competition to the matinée Young People’s concerts (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson).

MSO Fall Youth kid greg anderson

And let’s not forget that DeMain was instrumental in getting the impressive Overture Center built and then programming concerts for the orchestra’s and opera’s home in Overture Hall (below).

Overture Hall

I am sure there is more I am overlooking.

Do I have some disappointments? Sure.

I thought his 20th anniversary season would be a bit more ambitious and adventurous, and feature some big works by Gustav Mahler and Anton Bruckner. I would like to see few more big-name and hot young soloists, including pianists Joyce Yang, Daniil Trifonov and Jeremy Denk (below), who has done two recitals at the Wisconsin Union Theater but has yet to perform a concerto. And there are so many young talented soloists out there today, we should be hearing more of them live and while they are still affordable in our market.

Jeremy Denk playing 2

I also get impatient with what I call “playing the Gershwin card” too often -– including again for this year’s season finale -– because the important and identifiable George Gershwin (bel0w) had such an easy-listening and crossover pop-like musical style that it unfailingly draws so many listeners. I loved DeMain’s last concert version of “Porgy and Bess,” but there must be other solutions.

gershwin with pipe

But in the end I have to defer to his judgment. The excellence that John DeMain has brought to the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Madison Opera has extended to the entire city and to other groups. The rising tide he brought has lifted all boats.

If any one individual can take credit for the ever-increasing quality of the classical music that wehear in Madison, that person is John DeMain (below in a photo by Katrin Talbot).


Little wonder, then, that on this 20th anniversary of his arrival in Madison, maestro John DeMain is the Musician of the Year for 2013.

Thank you, John DeMain. We all – listeners and performers alike — are in your debt.

Cheers and good luck in the coming years!

Classical music: From farm accident to international violin virtuoso: Augustin Hadelich will solo with the Madison Symphony Orchestra this weekend.

November 12, 2013
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear thinks that discovering and then booking young up-and-coming violinists is among the biggest success stories that the Madison Symphony Orchestra and its music director and conductor John DeMain have had over the last 20 years, ever since DeMain arrived in Madison. 

One example is the Austrian violinist Augustin Hadelich, below.

Augustin Hadelich 1

Another is the Norwegian violinist Henning Kraggerud, below.

Henning Kraggerud MSO 2013

Both Hadelich and Kraggerud seem totally natural and complete artists who do exactly what a world-class virtuoso should do: Make the difficult seem effortless without sacrificing musicality.

Hadelich  — who also has a compelling personal back story that involves overcoming adversity — will solo again this weekend with the MSO.


Here is the informative press release from the orchestra: 

“How does one goes from a farm accident of severe burns to becoming a violin virtuoso, who enchants millions all over the world?

“Augustin Hadelich (pronounced HOD-uh-lick), a child prodigy with a violin in rural Tuscany, was told he might never play a violin again after he barely survived a farm accident that burned his home and him, including his bow arm at age 15.

From those challenging days, he has emerged as a violinist of international renown, who will return to Madison again to join John DeMain and the Madison Symphony Orchestra for three performances this weekend in Overture Hall.

Augustin Hadelich in park

Hadelich will take the stage in the first half to perform Edouard Lalo’s exotic Symphonie Espagnole, a virtuosic concerto with a lush Spanish flavor that he performed in his 2012 debut with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.

The concert will open with the wild and spontaneous Too Hot Toccata, by American composer Aaron Kernis.

The Symphony No. 2, by Sergei Rachmaninoff, is a monumental late Romantic work. It is a lush, unmistakably Russian work, and it will close the program. (The melody-rich work’s third movement — the slow Adagio that can be heard at the bottom in a popular YouTube video with conductor Andre Previn and the NHK Symphony Orchestra of Tokyo, part of the public broadcasting system in Japan  — more than “inspired” the bestselling pop song “Never Gonna Love Again.” Carmen also “borrowed” from Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 for his bestselling song “All By Myself.”)

The concerts are in the Overture Center’s Overture Hall on Friday, Nov. 15 at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, Nov. 16, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Nov. 17, at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall, 201 State Street.

A free prelude discussion by UW-Madison musicology professor Charles Dill (below, in a photo by Katrin Talbot for the UW School of Music) will take place one hour before each performance.

Charles Dill  cr Katrin Talbot

For more information, including a link to Augustin Hadelich’s website, critics’ reviews and audio/video samples, visit:

Here is a link to program by notes by MSO trombonist J. Michael Allsen (below, in a photo by Katrin Talbot for the Madison Symphony Orchestra) who teaches at UW-Whitewater:


J. Michael Allsen Katrin Talbot

“Symphonie Espagnole” remains Lalo’s most popular work.  He composed it during a period when French composers were fascinated with Spanish music, and Lalo (below) tastefully incorporates this culture’s melodic and dance figures into the work. The soaring violin parts require both technical precision and immense musicianship.

edouard lalo

Hadelich is often noted in the media for his “gorgeous tone,” “poetic communication” and “fast-fingered brilliance.” The New York Times wrote, “[Hadelich] has become one of the most distinctive violinists of his generation…he plays with dazzling technique, a gorgeous tone, and penetrating, spontaneous musicality.”

Kernis (below) describes his “Too Hot Toccata” as predominantly “high energy” and “out of control.”  Composed in 1996, the piece excitedly works through a series of furious, oddly-metered and sometimes jazzy ideas.  Multiple players in the ensemble are featured with virtuosic solos, including violin, clarinet, piccolo, trumpet and percussion.

aaron kernis 3

In his Symphony No. 2, Rachmaninoff (below) achieves an unending and beautiful flow of melody, citing a motto from the opening bars throughout the piece.  This is especially impressive given the size of the composition. The 320-page, carefully detailed score rivals the largest of Anton Bruckner’s or Gustav Mahler’s scores in length and breadth. The piece also promises some orchestral fireworks during an hour-long sonic experience.


Tickets are $16.50 to $82.50 each, available at and through the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street or call the Box Office at (608) 258-4141.

New subscribers can receive up to a 50% discount.  For more information and to subscribe, visit: or call (608) 257-3734.

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

Student rush tickets can be purchased in person on the day of the concert at the Overture Box Office at 201 State Street. Full-time students must show a valid student ID and can receive up to two $12 or $15 tickets. More information is at:  On advance ticket purchases, students can receive 20% savings on seats in select areas of the hall.

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.

MSO playing

The Madison Symphony Orchestra is marking its 88th concert season in 2013-2014 by celebrating John DeMain’s 20th anniversary as music director. The Symphony engages audiences of all ages and backgrounds in live classical music through a full season of concerts with established and emerging soloists of international renown, an organ series that includes free concerts, and widely respected education and community engagement programs. Find more information at

Major funding for this concert is provided by the Steinhauer Charitable Trust, UW Health Burn Center and UW-Madison Department of Surgery, and Rosemarie Blancke with additional funds from DeEtte Beilfuss-Eager and Leonard P. Eager, Jr., and the Wisconsin Arts Board.

Classical music: The Madison Symphony Orchestra performs charming Mozart and overpowering Shostakovich in ways that impressively demonstrate how much it has grown over the past 20 years under music director and conductor John DeMain. Plus, the MSO is looking for a Principal Tuba player.

March 12, 2013

ALERT: The Madison Symphony Orchestra (MSO) announces auditions for the Principal Tuba position. Auditions will be held by appointment on Thursday, June 13. Qualified candidates are encouraged to sign up for an audition time by emailing a one-page resume to A list of excerpts and a season schedule are also available.  All musicians qualifying for a position will be expected to attend all rehearsals and concerts as instrumentation demands. The MSO is a professional, fully orchestrated ensemble comprised of 91 contracted per-service musicians, offering approximately 80 services per season. 


By Jacob Stockinger

Later this week, the Madison Symphony Orchestra will announce the programs and soloists for its next season. It is sure to be noteworthy, since the 2013-14 season marks the 20th year of the tenure of music director and conductor John DeMain (see below in a photo by James Gill.)

And it will surely be a season loaded with special events, DeMain has that Italian flavor for both drama and festive celebration, which is now doubt why he is also great opera conductor.

John DeMain HeadShot color by James Gill

But in a way, the Madison Symphony didn’t wait for the 20th anniversary season to announce just how accomplished it has become under DeMain and his team. In short, they upstaged themselves.

This past weekend in Overture Hall  we saw in this season’s penultimate concert aspects of the performance that highlighted what next season can only underline: that the programming has become more ambitious; that the soloists have become more predictable (perhaps too predictable in some ways, but that is a topic for another posting and another time); and that the players have become terrifically accomplished, consistent and precise in a thoroughly professional ensemble way.


The concert, which I heard Sunday afternoon, started with the opening half devoted to Mozart, whose music is the ultimate test of refinement, taste and charm. The first half started with a wonderfully upbeat rendering of the Overture to “The Impressario.” Some might have found the tempo a bit fast; I loved the brisk tempo and found it close to what I think the early Classical period was about. I particularly loved the way DeMain emphasized counterpoint and the subtle influences of Bach and the Baroque on Mozart.

Then came the youthful Violin Concerto No. 4 with the gifted Norwegian violinist Henning Kraggerud (below). One of the real finds made by the MSO during The DeMain Years, Kraggerud once again did not disappoint. True, the music is early Mozart and in some ways immature Mozart, compared to the late works that are deeper and more bittersweet.

Henning Kraggerud MSO 2013

And it is also true that Kraggerud could not have, and should not have, tried to turn the Mozart concerto into the kind of dramatic vehicle for his virtuosity that his past performances of concertos by Sibelius and Tchaikovsky offered.

But virtuosity matters in understatement too. And Kraggerud excelled there. His playing was clear and precise, yet also lyrical and charming. Transparency is what makes Mozart difficult, and the art of the virtuoso is to make the difficult seems easy. Kraggerud did that in spades. Both he and DeMain seemed to exult in the George Szell approach, somewhat clipped but clear in manner, that made the performance a model of Mozartean music-making. And talk about tone! (Hear Henning Kraggerud playing a Telemann Fantasie at the bottom in a YouTube video.)

And the audience to loved him, offering Kraggerud a standing ovation that brought him to play an impressive encore: one of his own improvisations on a theme by Ole Bull (below), the famed Norwegian violinist who also just happened to live in Madison, at 130 West Gilman Street, during the 1870s with his younger second wife Sarah Thorpe. He also established ties to the Scandinavian Studies Department at the UW-Madison.

Here is a link to a story I once posted  with references about Ole Bull and Madison as well as a previous performance with Kraggerud:

Ole Bull_playing

Clearly, when it comes to Kraggerud, this Nordic violinist has many sides to him, and we can hope we have not heard the last of him. I would love to hear Kraggerud in the violin concertos by all those B’s –- Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Bartok and Barber — as well as some of the rarities, like violin concertos by Ludwig Spohr, that he has recorded for Naxos.

The concert concluded with one of the titanic works of the 20th century: The Symphony No. 10 in E minor by Dmitri Shostakovich (below), who wrote to celebrate the death of the mass murderer and Soviet dictator Josef Stalin who had so oppressed the composer and censored his work.

dmitri shostakovich

Once again, you might justly expect the massive Shostakovich to overwhelm to Mozart, And in a way it did, from sheer power and scale.

But some of the same qualities that made for great Mozart playing made for great Shostakovich, Music, after all, is music.

That is, DeMain had his ensemble perform with clarity, but always with the right momentum and drive. The precision matched and even enhanced the moodiness, no small feat. And the fact that all the principal chairs performed so well as speaks volumes about the DeMain tenure.

John DeMain conducting

If Kraggerud demonstrated the less-is-more kind of virtuosity, the orchestra exuded the more-is-more kind of virtuosity. Little wonder, then, that as the composer whipped up a coda and finale – he had a knack for that – the end left the audience jumping to its feet in an enthusiastic and prolonged ovation.

(PS: Was the subtle but obtrusive background noise –- that almost seemed like a falsetto overtone of the piccolo — during the third movement of the symphony feedback from a hearing aid? A cellphone? Does anyone know?)

I will be honest: I generally prefer the smaller scale, more intimate Shostakovich, especially the string quartets. But there was no denying -– and no resisting — the power of this large-scale work, especially in the capable hands of DeMain and the MSO players.

Of course not all critics agreed with my takes.

John W. Barker (below) of Isthmus had reservations about DeMain’s Mozart just as he did about DeMain’s Haydn. But I really like DeMain in both and wish the MSO would program more Mozart and Haydn. Here is a link to Barker’s review:

John Barker

Here is a link to a review by Greg Hettmansberger (below), who didn’t like the juxtapositional contrast of Mozart and Shostakovich as much I did, for his “Classically Speaking” blog for Madison Magazine: 

greg hettmansberger mug

Unfortunately, I cannot link to a review, as I usually do, by critic Lindsay Christians in 77 Square, The Capital Times or The Wisconsin State Journal. The newspapers’ new policy is NOT to review music performances with rare exceptions (like big rock shows maybe?).

It seems odd, irresponsible and maybe even “shameful,” to quote one local classical music fan, for a local paper to forgo reviewing a local cultural event that draws 5,000 to 6,0000 listeners over a weekend – especially in such an arts-rich city as Madison.

But times are tough for the print media, which must do more with less. And it is hard to cover local culture when staff and budgets have been cut. So apparently there will be more trend pieces and previews that links different performing groups.

Hey, maybe some TV station could pick up the slack and offer a two-minute classical review segment on a weekend broadcast, or something similar.

Anyway, what did you think of the performances by MSO and Henning Kraggerud?

The Ear wants to hear.

Classical music: This weekend’s concerts by the Madison Symphony Orchestra and returning violinist Henning Kraggerud offer a terrific mix of Classical-era Mozart and modernist Shostakovich. Plus, a UW-Madison horn and trombone duo, with electronics, plays a FREE concert tonight.

March 6, 2013
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A REMINDER: Tonight, Wednesday, March 6, at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall,  the duo “Gretzler”  — made up of UW-Madison hornist Daniel Grabois (below) and UW-Madison trombonist Mark Hetzler will perform a FREE concert. The new electronica power duo combines the horn and trombone with electronics, both computer- and hardware-based. The program will feature “Volcano Songs” by Meredith Monk; “Available Forms” by Meyer Kupferman; “Videotape” by Radiohead; and “Love Meant Living” Alone by Daniel Grabois.

Daniel Grabois color use

By Jacob Stockinger

It is exactly my kind of programming: Putting very disparate or contrasting styles side-by-side, and it often proves irresistible.

The Madison Symphony Orchestra’s music director John DeMain (below) has done it before—one of the most memorable examples for me was his combining Haydn cello concerto with a massive Mahler symphony, and the last MSO concert combined Prokofiev and Beethoven. This weekend he is doing is again with the “Champagne and Vodka” program.

This time, Mozart is the champagne and Shostakovich is the vodka. But you don’t even have to be a drinker to get intoxicated by this music.

John DeMain conducting 2

This weekend, DeMain and the Madison Symphony Orchestra (MSO) team up with the quiet but forceful Norwegian violinist Henning Kraggerud.

Kraggerud (below) will perform Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 4, the most elegant of the composer’s five violin concertos – Mozart was an excellent violinist as well as keyboardist. They are all relatively early works, full of charm but less dramatic and less dark than many of Mozart’s later and more mature works.

Henning Kraggerud playing

The MSO will open the concert with the lively overture to Mozart’s opera “The Impresario” and conclude with Shostakovich’s powerful Symphony No. 10.

The MSO concerts will take place in Overture Hall at 201 State Street this Friday at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday at 8 p.m.; and Sunday at 2:30 p.m.

Tickets cost $16.50 to $78.50, and are available at and through the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street, (608) 258-4141. Groups of 15 or more save 25 percent.

Seniors and students save 20 percent, and the MSO’s $10 Student Rush is good for best available seats on the day of the concert. Discounted seats are subject to availability and discounts may not be combined.

Full concert details, music samples and links to buy tickets can be found on the MSO website at

For comprehensive but very accessible program notes by MSO trombone player and UW-Whitewater professor J. Michael Allsen, visit:

Allsen (below) will also be giving the free pre-concert talks.

MEMF 2012 J. Michael Allsen

Kraggerud, who is returning to the MSO stage for the third time in just six years, has been praised for his “virtuosity minus theatrics” by the Washington Post, and has gained a reputation as a violinist to watch: “Kraggerud has extraordinary sweetness of tone,” said The Telegraph of London recently, “his sound always dances as much as it sings.”

About the D Major Mozart concerto, Kraggerud said, “The Mozart concerto is one of my favorites. It is like champagne in the bloodstream, so fresh.”

All five of violin concertos by Mozart (below) were written in 1775 when the composer was a teenager. Though they are youthful works, the violin concertos are also worldly, showing the influence of Mozart’s having traveled through much of Europe as a child prodigy, absorbing ideas and influences. The overture that opens the concert is light and comic, an apt introduction.

mozart big

By contrast, the Shostakovich symphony that closes the March concerts is a late work and was first performed after the death of the ruthless Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, who had threatened the composer many times, in 1953.

The Symphony No. 10 is in many ways the reaction of Shostakovich (below) to Stalin’s death as the tight artistic controls of the 1930s and ‘40s were relaxed. It represents a new beginning, pouring forth all that had been repressed under the dictator’s oppression.

dmitri shostakovich

Anyone wishing to share dining and conversation with other music lovers can join Club 501 before any Saturday or Sunday performance. Hosted by members of the Madison Symphony Orchestra League, Club 501 welcomes everyone to the Madison Concourse Hotel’s Dayton Street Grille on concert Saturdays at 6 p.m. and concert Sundays at 12:30 p.m.

Participants receive a generous 20% meal discount and free parking with a validated underground parking ticket. Guests should ask for the Club 501 tables when arriving. Reservations are welcome — but not necessary — at (608) 294-3068.

Classical music: The Peninsula Music Festival in Door County turns 60 and runs Aug. 7-25. It features Madison singer Jonathan Overby in Copland’s “A Lincoln Portrait” as well as pianist Orli Shaham in Gershwin and Mozart plus violinists Henning Kraggerud in Beethoven and Hilary Hahn in Prokofiev.

August 1, 2012
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By Jacob Stockinger

It’s no secret that Wisconsin’s rural Door County (below) is a beautiful, well-known and popular vacation spot, not only for Badgers but also for people from surrounding areas including Chicago and the Twin Cities.

The scenic location is famed for its sailing, swimming and water sports on Lake Michigan as well as its fine food and arts.

You can also hear some great classical music up north.

This year’s marks the 60th anniversary of the Peninsula Music Festival, which takes place near Fish Creek in the Door County Auditorium. The festival, which features symphony music performed by the Peninsula Festival Orchestra (below) and guest soloists, opens next Tuesday, Aug. 7, and continues through Aug. 25 with concerts on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.

For a full schedule and more information about the Peninsula Music Festival, visit

There is a lot of music to take note of. But I want to single out one local performer.

He is baritone Jonathan Overby (below), the acclaimed Madison-based singer who is also a radio host for Wisconsin Public Radio (listen to “Higher Ground” on Saturday night) and who teaches at Edgewood College. He will perform as the narrator in Aaron Copland’s famous “A Lincoln Portrait. It is an inspired choice, The Ear says, for a presidential election year in which the nation’s first African-American president is seeking reelection and for the narrator who organizes Madison’s annual tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. in the state Capitol.

The other outstanding soloists who with perform with the Peninsula Festival Orchestra under conductor Victor Yampolsky (below) include violinists Hilary Hahn and Henning Kraggerud as well as pianist Orli Shaham.

Both Kraggerud (below top) and Hahn (below bottom) have performed to acclaim in Madison, and I have never heard a live or recorded performance by them  – recital or concerto – that disappointed me. I find them both to be among the best all-around, most dependable and engaging violinists in the world today.

Overby will narrate Aaron Copland’s “Lincoln Portrait” with the Peninsula Music Festival on Saturday, Aug. 11 at 6:30 p.m. The concert entitled “Rhapsody in Blue” features the music of Aaron Copland and George Gershwin, and will take place in the Door Community Auditorium.

In addition, the concert will also include Copland’s full orchestral version of “Appalachian Spring” Suite as well as Gershwin’s “An American in Paris” and “Rhapsody in Blue.” Orli Shaham will be the pianist for “Rhapsody in Blue.”

Pianist Orli Shaham (below) is making her sixth appearance with the Festival Orchestra. In addition to her solo turn in Gershwin on Saturday, Aug. 11, Shaham will also solo on Tuesday, Aug. 14, at 8 p.m. in a program of “All Mozart, All the Time.” Shaham will perform Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21. Mozart’s Serenade No. 12 and Symphony No. 39 will also be heard.

The opening concert next Tuesday night features violinist Henning Kraggerud in Beethoven’s Violin Concerto. Hilary Hahn will perform Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 1.

Concerts are held in the Door Community Auditorium with air conditioning and reserved seats.

Tickets — along with other information including programs and a video — are available for all concerts and can be purchased at the Festival’s box office at 3045 Cedar Street in Ephraim, or on-line at or by calling (920) 854-4060. You can also find several video previews at YouTube. Here is the first:

Classical music review: Violinist Augustin Hadelich and the Madison Symphony Orchestra triumph in an unforgettable and moving performance of Prokofiev’s Second Concerto.

January 24, 2012

By Jacob Stockinger

I doubt I will hear a better performance of any concerto in this season,or many others, than I heard at the Sunday afternoon concert by the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

Several reasons account for that.

One reason is that the concerto was the Violin Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op. 63, composed in 1935 by Sergei Prokofiev (below), which – hard to believe but true – has never been performed before by the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

It is one of the great concertos, the masterpiece concertos, of the 20th century. It is simply a terrific work that especially in the slow second movement, which opens with a solo aria underpinned by pizzicato plucking, becomes a sublime work, one that brought The Ear to tears with its poignant and breath-taking beauty. (Listen to it at the bottom.)

A second reason is that the young violinist Augustin Hadelich (below), who last played the popular Mendelssohn Violin Concerto with the Wisconsin Chamber orchestra two years ago, was the soloist. At 28, he is not only a complete violin virtuoso, but also a deep musician who puts the music first, never himself or the violin. He has a great future facing him, and we can hope it is a very long one.

The third reason was that the conductor, MSO music director John DeMain (below) was on exactly the same wavelength as Hadelich and offered him an accompaniment that was precise and soulful at the same time.

Listening to Hadelich is to hear the emergence of a great talent. So I add Hadelich to the short list of great young violin talents the MSO has been booking. Hadelich is right at the top of the list, along with the Norwegian violinist Henning Kraggerud (below) who has turned in astonishingly musical versions of such warhorses as the Sibelius and Tchaikovsky concertos.

I have long argued that Prokofiev was the Mozart of the Soviet Union while Shostakovich was its Beethoven. I could develop that argument at length. But on Sunday the music made the argument for me.

Prokofiev can be percussive, but more often he has a transparency, an elegant simplicity and a gift for melody that reminds one of Mozart.

As one veteran listener remarked to me, “I’m not familiar with the concerto, but I found I could really understand it and make sense of it on the first hearing.” Is there a better definition of classicism? Unfortunately, there is a lot of modern and contemporary classical music you cannot say that about.

Both DeMain and Hadelich played with such conviction and dedication that they took you inside the piece. From the opening strain of the solo violin to the closing measure of the energetic and march-like perpetual motion, toccata-like rondo that brought a standing ovation, the Prokofiev concerto enthralled the audience.

I am betting it will not be another 80 years or so before we get to hear this work again at an MSO concert. At least I certainly hope not. What Prokofiev’s Third Concerto is to the piano, his Second Concerto is to the violin – a glorious masterpiece of the modern repertoire that is also a sure-fire hit with audiences.

As for Hadelich, he is the real deal – an heir to such violin virtuosos as Jascha HeifetzDavid Oistrakh and Itzhak Perlman. He has tone and power, lyricism and virtuosity. Even the encore he played, the famous Caprice no. 24 by Paganini (below is the opening of the score) with the familiar theme that Liszt, Brahms, Rachmaninoff and Lutoslawki among others used for variations, sounded more musical than I have ever heard it in live or recorded performances.

In short, Hadelich goes for the music, never the glitz or schmaltz. It is true in his live performances and it is also true of the recordings I have heard. It makes you wonder if the severe burns he suffered in an accident at 15 and took two years to recover from didn’t deepen his maturity and his underlying appreciation of music. But, then again, maybe that is too easy an explanation for his superlative talent.

The other works on the program were extremely well performed, but nonetheless seemed to pale just a little bit in comparison to the superlative and stirring Prokofiev.

Debussy’s “Iberia” was a fine curtain-raiser, especially on an afternoon when we needed a bit of warm and sunny Spain to melt the freezing rain that had begun to fall with its color and rhythms. I often think DeMain is more at home in Ravel, who had a better sense of structure. But he did justice to modernist Debussy in this reading.

The last half of the concert consisted of Tchaikovsky’s early Symphony No. 2 “Little Russian” (or the “Ukrainian,” as Big Russians liked to pejoratively call it) was given a sparking reading by the MSO. That the score is often repetitive to a fault is only to criticize Tchaikovsky’s usual method and to remark that for most listeners, his first three symphonies can’t really compete with the maturity of his last three. Most listeners prefer the Fifth or Sixth (the famous “Pathetique”), while my vote goes for the Fourth.

Still, from the very beginning of his career Tchaikovsky (below) demonstrated a great facility for memorable melodies and appealing, accessible orchestration. (Am I the only  person who thought of Mussorgsky’s popular and dramatic “Great Gate at Kiev” from his “Pictures at an Exhibition” during the opening measures of the last movement of the Tchaikovsky?) Those aspects, present even in this early symphony, made for a solid and stirring performance that wrapped up an outstanding program that will, for me, remain one of the peaks of the current MSO season.

Of course, other critics had other things to say, and it can be fun and illuminating to compare us.

So here are some links to other reviews:

Here is John W. Barker’s review for Isthmus:

And here is Lindsay Christians’ review for The Capital Times and 77 Square:

Here is Greg Hettmansberger’s review for Madison Magazine’s “Classically Speaking” blog:

And here is Bill Wineke’s for WISC-TV’s Channel 3000:

Play critic yourself.

What did you think of the MSO concert?

Of the Prokofiev Violin Concerto No. 2?

Of violinist Augustin Hadelich?

The Ear wants to hear.

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