The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: This weekend the Madison Symphony Orchestra and Grammy-winning guitarist Sharon Isbin will perform Spanish music and a new concerto by Chris Brubeck

November 13, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

This weekend, the Madison Symphony Orchestra (MSO), with music director John DeMain conducting, will present the third concert of its 92nd season.

“Troubadour: Two Faces of the Classical Guitar” features Grammy-winning guitar virtuoso Sharon Isbin (below) playing two works: one written for Isbin by American composer Chris Brubeck; and the other by the Spaniard Joaquin Rodrigo. (Isbin will also give a FREE and PUBLIC master class on Thursday from 10 a.m. to noon in Morphy Recital Hall on the UW-Madison campus in the Humanities Building on North Park Street.)

In addition the MSO will perform two 20th-century ballet suites — The Three-Cornered Hat by Spanish composer Manuel De Falla and Billy the Kid by American composer Aaron Copland.

The concerts (below, in a photo by Peter Rodgers) are in Overture Hall at the Overture Center, 201 State Street on Friday, Nov. 17, at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, Nov. 18, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Nov. 19, at 2:30 p.m.

Tickets are $18-$90. Details are below.

Invoking a sense of the American heartland, Billy the Kid was written by Copland (below) as a ballet following the life of the infamous outlaw. This piece is most well-known for the memorable “cowboy” tunes and American folk songs that paint a vivid picture of the Wild West.

The virtuosity and versatility of multiple Grammy Award-winner Sharon Isbin is on display in this program of contrasts: the jazz idioms of the American composer Chris Brubeck’s “Affinity: Concerto for Guitar and Orchestra,” written for Sharon Isbin, alongside the lush romanticism of the Spaniard Joaquin Rodrigo’s “Concierto de Aranjuez.” (You can hear Sharon Isbin play the beautiful slow movement of the Rodrigo concerto in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The piece by Brubeck (below) contains strong hints of the jazz influence of his father, noted pianist and composer Dave Brubeck. Inspired by the gardens at Palacio Real de Aranjuez, Rodrigo’s composition attempts to transport the listener to another place and time through the evocation of the sounds of nature.

Isbin’s performances of Chris Brubeck’s “Affinity: Concerto for Guitar and Orchestra” have received wide acclaim: “The concerto takes off with Isbin delivering rapid-fire virtuosity with infectious themes. The slow middle is a tender jazz-based tribute to Dave Brubeck, and Isbin played with heartfelt warmth and tenderness. The finale was an infectious rhythmically driven journey through myriad styles. It was as intriguing as it was moving … Isbin is much more than a virtuoso; she is an artist of depth.”

The Three-Cornered Hat by De Falla (below) is based on a story written by Pedro de Alarcón about a Corregidor (magistrate) who tries, without success, to seduce the pretty wife of the local miller.

One hour before each performance, Michael Allsen (below, in a photo by Katrin Talbot), professor at UW-Whitewater, MSO trombonist and writer of MSO’s program notes, will lead a 30-minute Prelude Discussion in Overture Hall to enhance concertgoers’ understanding and listening experience.

For more background on the music, please read Allsen’s Program Notes at: http://www.allsenmusic.com/NOTES/1718/3.Nov17.html.

The Symphony recommends concert attendees arrive early for each performance to make sure they have time to pass through Overture Center’s security stations, and so they can experience the pre-concert talk (free for all ticket-holders).

Single Tickets are $18-$90 each and are on sale now at https://www.madisonsymphony.org/singletickets, 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% by calling the MSO office at (608) 257-3734. For more information, go to: https://www.madisonsymphony.org/groups

Student rush tickets can be purchased in person on the day of the concert at the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street. Students must show a valid student ID and can receive up to two $12 or $18 tickets. More information is at: https://www.madisonsymphony.org/studentrush

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.

ABOUT SHARON ISBIN

Acclaimed for her extraordinary lyricism, technique, and versatility, Sharon Isbin has been hailed as “the pre-eminent guitarist of our time.” Recipient of numerous prestigious awards, her debut concert with the MSO comes after over 170 solo performances with orchestras including the New York Philharmonic, National Symphony, London Symphony, Baltimore Symphony, Orchestre National de France, and the Tokyo Symphony.

Isbin is the subject of a one-hour documentary presented by American Public Television. Seen by millions on over 200 PBS stations throughout the US, it is also available on DVD/Blu-ray and won the 2015 ASCAP Television Broadcast Award. “Sharon Isbin: Troubadour” paints the portrait of a trailblazing performer and teacher who over the course of her career has broken through numerous barriers to rise to the top of a traditionally male-dominated field.

The following is a dedicated website where you can view the trailer, read rave reviews, and see detailed broadcast dates: www.SharonIsbinTroubadour.com

Major funding for the September concerts is provided by: NBC-15, the Madison Symphony Orchestra League, and Elaine and Nicholas Mischler. Additional funding provided by Scott and Janet Cabot, John DeLamater and Janet Hyde, Steven Weber, and the Wisconsin Arts Board with funds from the State of Wisconsin and the National Endowment for the Arts.

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Classical music: Which well-known composers or works can’t you stand and consider overrated?

August 5, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

We all have them: Composers and well-known works we just don’t like and consider highly overrated.

Composers whose musical works are deemed masterpieces by some but just don’t speak to others.

The Ear recently saw a blog post on the Internet in which a musically sophisticated British listener ranted against Johannes Brahms (below) – the epitome for so many of carefully crafted, soulful late Romanticism — and about how unlistenable and overwritten Brahms’ music is.

The Ear also knows several people who think that the music of the Classical pioneer Franz Joseph Haydn (below) is boring beyond bearable, that his music is thoroughly second-rate or forgettable – even though the great contemporary American composer John Harbison calls Haydn the most undervalued and underplayed of the great composers.

The 12-tone, serial and atonal composers – Arnold Schoenberg, Anton Webern and Alan Berg – also come in for more than their fair share of dismissal.

For The Ear, one of those composers who divide the world in two – into those who love him and those who hate him – is Alexander Scriabin (below), the late Russian Romantic (1872-1915).

Oh, some of the early piano preludes and etudes are OK, largely thanks to the obvious influence of Chopin.

But even though Scriabin died young, he developed his own mature style, including the use of a mystical chord and a taste for apocalyptic and visionary frenzy .

To The Ear, those late works seem way too over-the-top and out-of-control, lacking in discernible structure and significance.

Not long ago, Wisconsin Public Radio played Scriabin’s symphonic tone poem “The Poem of Ecstasy.” (You can hear it in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Is The Ear the only person who finds it more like “The Poem of Agony”?

And then there are the late, virtuosic and pretentious piano sonatas called “White Mass” and “Black Mass” – favorites of the great Russian piano virtuoso Vladimir Horowitz (below) who, as a child played for Scriabin.

When it comes to the Russian school, The Ear far prefers the emotion in the music of Sergei Rachmaninoff, Sergei Prokofiev and even Peter Tchaikovsky.

Well, what can you do? Such is taste.

So today, The Ear wants to know: Are there famous composers or famous works that you just can’t stand and consider highly overrated?

Leave the name and the reason you hate it so much in the COMMENT section.

Here’s hoping for some interesting and surprising responses.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: “I like tunes,” says Academy Award-winning composer Thomas Cabaniss, who talks about his “Double Rainbow” piano concerto. The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and guest soloists will give the world premiere of the work this Friday night.

April 24, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

Even for the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below), which likes to mix things and up during its winter season, the concert this Friday night is something special to close out the current season.

The WCO will give the world premiere of the “Double Rainbow” Piano Concerto by Thomas Cabaniss, which was commissioned for the WCO.

The performance will also feature husband-and-wife duo-pianists Michael Shinn and Jessica Chow Shinn.

The concert is Friday night at 7:30 p.m. in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center.

Also on the program is Maurice Ravel’s Neo-classical homage to World War I, “Le Tombeau de Couperin,” and the Symphony No. 2 by Robert Schumann.

Tickets are $10 to $80.

For more information about the program, the soloists and tickets, go to:

https://wisconsinchamberorchestra.org/performances/masterworks-v-2/

Composer Thomas Cabaniss recently did an email Q&A for The Ear:

Can you briefly introduce yourself and your career to the reader?

I’m Thomas Cabaniss (below). I am a composer and teaching artist from Charleston, South Carolina. I have lived in New York for the last 30 years, and so I greedily claim both places as home. I teach at the Juilliard School — where I met Michael and Jessica Shinn — and I also lead arts education projects at Carnegie Hall.

After graduating from Yale in 1984, I was an assistant conductor on a variety of projects including Leonard Bernstein’s opera A Quiet Place at La Scala and the Kennedy Center. Setting out to forge a career as a composer, I moved to New yolk City, which had the added benefit of being the same city where my girlfriend was attending medical school. A few years later we married and settled in Manhattan.

To start, I worked primarily as a theater composer, but I was also writing piano and chamber music on the side, and doing arts education work in between shows. In 1990 I scored and arranged a short film called The Lunch Date, which won the Palme D’Or and the Academy Award. In 1995 I joined the New York Philharmonic education programs, eventually becoming the orchestra’s Education Director.

I kept composing, and wrote a chamber opera called The Sandman, which was premiered in New York in 2002 and revived again the following season. In 2004 I was appointed to special education position with the Philadelphia Orchestra, and at the same time I wrote a series of evening length dance scores that were premiered in New York.

In 2009, I began working as composer-in-residence for the LinkUp program at Carnegie Hall, which has grown in that time to serve over 95 orchestras around the world and across the U.S. – including the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

I also helped to create the Lullaby Project at Carnegie Hall, which serves young parents in shelters, hospitals and prisons, and we are working hard to extend that work across the country through a series of partnerships.

How would you describe your musical style in general and the style of the new two-piano concerto specifically? Accessible? Tonal or atonal? Modernist or Neo-Classical? Melodic or percussive? Are there composers or works that have influenced your style?

I like tunes. I like to write songs, and I like to sing, so my music tends to value melody. My works are generally tonal, often spiked with cluster chords and other atonal devices, but I am always interested in the musical gravity of tonal centers. (You can hear a sample of Thomas Cabaniss’ music in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

This piece is inspired by its soloists, Michael and Jessica Shinn (below), and by the image of a Double Rainbow (also the work’s title). I have written Michael and Jessica pieces for piano-four hands, and there is one piece they have championed called Tiny Bits of Outrageous Love. Something about the chemistry of their relationship as musicians (and as husband and wife) has inspired me to create music that is particularly exciting and intimate.

And yes, I suppose most composers embed hints of the music they love in the music they write, and I am no different. Tiny Bits was a kind of homage to the Brahms Waltzes for piano-four hands, and Double Rainbow nods to Leonard Bernstein, Olivier Messiaen, Leos Janacek and John Adams. I’m sure listeners will hear other influences, too.

What would you like listeners to know about and listen for in the piano concerto? What were the special challenges of writing for duo-pianists?

This is from the program note I wrote for the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra:

DOUBLE RAINBOW is based on an experience I had with my family on the Isle of Palms, South Carolina, about 20 years ago. On this particular August day, there was a huge rain in the early afternoon, many dark clouds, thunder (but no lightning). After the storm, from the porch of our beach rental house, we saw not one, but two rainbows (below). My sister-in-law is an avid photographer, and so she coaxed us all down onto the beach so she could get a pristine angle. That alone might have been enough inspiration for a piece of music, but when we got to the water’s edge, as Julia was snapping her photos, a dolphin jumped out of the water in a vertical launch, the tail clearing the water’s surface. It was one of those moments that seemed so unbelievable that none of us said a word. 

I have always been fascinated by the search for the elusive “perfect moment,” and DOUBLE RAINBOW is a sort of study of that kind of exploration. It is all bound up in the idea of “doubleness,” represented by the two pianos. It is divided into three movements: “Surfaces” (exploring the accumulation of drops of water from tiny, atomized particles), “Disturbances” (exploring imbalances and the storms that result from them), and “Revelation” (of the Double Rainbow). Not surprising in a double concerto, there is a great deal of dialogue between the pianos, and the orchestra has more of an accompanying role in the first two movements. The final movement is different, though. Everybody is in, and the music pulses with magic. The movement seems to be headed for a big climax, but at the last moment, it suddenly slows down and there are stars.

The main challenge for me in writing a double piano concerto is all those fingers! Twenty of them, and they are capable of so much. The music I write does not usually focus on virtuosity, and yet I also wanted it to be a vehicle for them to be expressive and dynamic. I worked hard to achieve a balance between the lyricism and the fireworks – we’ll see how audiences experience it.

What else would you like to say?

I am especially excited to be able to visit Madison for the premiere. I’ll get to meet members of the family of Jessica Chow Shinn (below, she is a Madison native), and I have a former student in the orchestra (Midori Samson, Second Bassoon). My Carnegie Lullaby Project collaborators include another Madison native (Ann Gregg) and Elizabeth Snodgrass, who is originally from Appleton (I think) but recently moved to Madison. I will get to meet WCO music director Andrew Sewell (below) in person. We have been doing some Skype rehearsals and phone consultations. It will be great to watch Andrew in action.

While we are here, my wife Deborah will be giving Grand Rounds at the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin, and my son Will leads an a cappella group at University of Chicago (Voices In Your Head), and this year they have been singing frequently with a wonderful University of Wisconsin group (Fundamentally Sound).

The last few seasons the Madison Symphony Orchestra has been offering Carnegie Hall LinkUp concerts to kids in grades 3-5, and this year is no exception. They will perform The Orchestra Moves in May, for which I wrote two of the works (Come To Play and Away I Fly) and arranged another (Cidade Maravilhosa).

This project has been a few years in the making, and so for Michael and Jessica and me, this is a kind of celebration. We can’t wait to share DOUBLE RAINBOW with you.


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