The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Personal experience, artistic excellence and historical importance drew pianist Wu Han and cellist David Finckel into planning next year’s centennial season at the Wisconsin Union Theater

March 30, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Now that Spring Break is over and subscription tickets are available for the Wisconsin Union Theater’s special centennial celebration next season – which includes superstar soprano Renée Fleming and pianist Emanuel Ax — here is an email interview that pianist Wu Han and cellist David Finckel (below, in a photo by Lisa-Marie Mazzucco), the wife-and-husband consultants and planners of that season, granted to The Ear.

For more about the season and tickets, go to two websites:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2019/03/04/classical-music-superstar-soprano-renee-fleming-and-pianist-emanuel-ax-headline-the-100th-anniversary-of-the-wisconsin-union-theaters-concert-series-next-season/

https://union.wisc.edu/visit/wisconsin-union-theater/seasonevents/concert-series/

Could you briefly introduce yourselves to readers and tell them both your past and current activities?

We have been performing on the world’s many concert stages for almost our entire lives. In addition to our careers as concert performers, we serve as the founding Artistic Directors of Music@Menlo, the premier chamber music festival in Silicon Valley, as well as the Artistic Directors of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center (CMS) in New York City.

Our main responsibility as concert performers is to give the best concerts we possibly can, and we are constantly striving to achieve the highest possible level of artistry in our performances.

In our roles as artistic directors, our responsibilities lie in the programming, casting and designing of concert series and chamber music projects for our organizations. At CMS, this includes designing the programming for our seven different satellite series around the country, plus international partnerships in Taiwan, Korea and Europe.

We are also involved in chamber music programming endeavors beyond Music@Menlo and CMS, having just completed a first-ever chamber music residency at the Society of the Four Arts in Palm Beach, Florida. Furthermore, Wu Han is serving as Artistic Advisor to Wolf Trap Chamber Music at the Barns, which entails thematically programming eight concerts per season for the 2018–19 and 2019–20 seasons.

As artistic directors, we spend much of our time putting ourselves in the shoes of our listeners, measuring their experience and receptivity to chamber music of all periods and styles, and putting together the best programs and artists who will move our audiences forward into ever-increasing engagement with and love of the art.

David was the cellist of the Emerson String Quartet for 34 seasons, and we have been performing together as a duo for about 35 years, and continue to do so as one of our main performance activities.

What are your personal relationships to the Wisconsin Union Theater, and what do you think of it as a concert venue?

Our engagement with the Wisconsin Union Theater goes back quite a few years, but certainly not even close to the beginning of the Theater’s distinguished history. For any performer setting foot on its stage, there’s a sense of slipping into an ongoing tradition of artistic excellence that makes us feel both privileged and obligated to do our best.

The Wisconsin Union Theater and its story in American cultural life is larger than any of us; only the music we play rises above and beyond it all, and as performers, our lucky moment is to represent that incredible literature in a venue as significant and storied as the Wisconsin Union Theater. (Below is the theater’s main venue, the renovated and restored Shannon Hall.)

Why did you agree to be artistic advisors and artists-in-residence for the centennial season? Did your personal experiences in Madison play a role in that decision?

As seasoned artists, we deeply admire and respect the very special place in the classical music tradition and history that the Wisconsin Union Theater (below) inhabits, and the invitation to participate in the Theater’s 100th anniversary was an honor for us to receive. Our experiences playing on this distinguished stage and forming a relationship with the local audience have made our pursuit of the common goal of artistic excellence in the centennial season incredibly fulfilling.

Of course, having performed there in the past gave us a hint of confidence through our familiarity with the place, but we must say we have learned perhaps double what we knew originally through this planning process. Without interfering, but at the same time sharing our uncompromised commitment to artistic excellence, we hope that our presence during the process has been useful, and we know that we look so much forward to seeing the careful thought and hard work of all involved come to fruition.

Is there a unifying or guiding principle to the season you have put together?

The guiding principle behind our work on this historic season is artistic excellence, which in our opinion is what most inspires audiences and best serves the art form of classical music.

Our area of expertise is chamber music, and, as we wanted to share the best of what we can do with the Theater, our focus has been on ensuring that the chamber music offerings during this historic season, and hopefully beyond, reflect the best of the world of chamber music.

In our suggestions, we looked for variety of instrumentations, of composers and periods—in other words, giving as much of an overview of the art as we could within a season.

What would you like the public to know about the Wisconsin Union Theater and the upcoming centennial season?

In the Theater’s centennial season, the audience will have the opportunity to savor a variety of different genres of chamber music, from solo piano to vocal music, as well as a sampling of the very best works of the chamber music canon. Between these various genres, the great composers left a wealth of chamber music that could sustain the art form on its own, but that’s still only the tip of the iceberg.

Our chamber music offerings will include the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio, which has a long history of performing for the Madison audience. Their December program will include celebrated cornerstones of the piano trio repertoire, including Mendelssohn’s D minor Trio and Beethoven’s “Archduke” Trio. (You can hear the opening of the Archduke Trio in the YouTube video at the bottom.) Both pieces have achieved monumental historical significance through their influence in propelling the art form forward from the Classical period to the Romantic period.

The Escher String Quartet performance in January represents the best of the next generation of young string quartets. Their program includes a quartet by Franz Joseph Haydn—the father of the string quartet genre—and the sole quartet of none other than revered violin virtuoso Fritz Kreisler, who performed in the Wisconsin Union Theater nearly a century ago. Kreisler set foot on the Theater’s stage numerous times, and his rarely heard string quartet nods to the Theater’s long, distinguished history. David will join the Escher Quartet for the beloved Schubert Cello Quintet, which is the “desert island” must-have piece for many music lovers.

Furthermore, in March, we will bring two of the most fantastic musicians in the world to join us for a program of Antonin Dvorak, Josef Suk and Johannes Brahms. This multigenerational cast of musicians includes the incredible young French violinist Arnaud Sussmann (below top, in a photo by Matt Dine) as well as the most important violist of our generation, Paul Neubauer (below bottom). This program is all about the passing down of the baton and the continuous investment in the next generations of artists: Brahms was the one who discovered Dvorak, and Dvorak in turn discovered Suk.


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Classical music: This weekend pianist Emanuel Ax helps conductor John DeMain celebrate his 25th anniversary season with the Madison Symphony Orchestra

September 26, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

This weekend the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below top, in a photo by Peter Rodgers) will open its season by celebrating the 25th anniversary of its music director and conductor John DeMain, who will collaborate with renowned pianist Emanuel Ax (below bottom, in a photo by Lisa-Marie Mazzucco).

The program opens with the “Fanfare Ritmico” by Jennifer Higdon, the contemporary American composer and Pulitzer Prize winner. Then comes a special suite of favorite movements, cobbled together by DeMain, from the ballet score for “Romeo and Juliet” by Sergei Prokofiev. The grand finale is the monumental Piano Concerto No. 2 by Johannes Brahms.

Performances will be held in Overture Hall, 201 State Street, on Friday night, Sept. 28, at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday night, Sept. 29, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday afternoon, Sept. 30, at 2:30 p.m.

Jennifer Higdon’s “Fanfare Ritmico” celebrates the rhythm and speed of life. Written on the eve of the new millennium, the work reflects on the quickening pace of life as time progresses.

Higdon (below) herself notes, “Our lives now move at speeds much greater than what I believe anyone would have imagined in years past. As we move along day-to-day, rhythm plays an integral part of our lives — from the individual heartbeat to the lightning speed of our computers. This fanfare celebrates that rhythmic motion, of man and machine, and the energy which permeates every moment of our being in the new century.”

Soviet composer Sergei Prokofiev (below) originally wrote the Romeo and Juliet Suite in 1935 for the titular ballet produced by the Kirov (now Mariinsky) Theatre. In addition to the somewhat standard instrumentation, the ballet orchestration also requires the use of tenor saxophone, a voice that adds a unique sound and contributes to the sense of drama prevalent in Shakespeare’s original tragedy.

For this performance, John DeMain (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson) has hand-picked the best excerpts from across the work to create one orchestra piece.

The epic Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-Flat Major, Op. 83, is separated by 22 years from Johannes Brahms’ first piano concerto and is dedicated to Brahms’ teacher Eduard Marxsen. It was premiered in 1881 in Budapest, Hungary, with Brahms (below) playing the piano solo.

The work was an immediate success and demonstrates Brahms’ ability to blend beauty with fire, tenderness with drama. (You can hear the unusual and fiery Scherzo movement, played by Krystian Zimmerman and Leonard Bernstein with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Emanuel Ax (below) is considered one of the best-known concert pianists of the 21st century. As the Seattle Times reports, “[Ax’s] touch is amazing. The keys are not so much struck as sighed upon — moved as if by breath. There is no sense of fingers or hammers or material mechanisms…[it] simply materializes and floats in the air.”

Ax captured public attention in 1974 when he won the first Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Competition in Tel Aviv. In 1975 he won the Michaels Award of Young Concert Artists, followed by the coveted Avery Fisher Prize four years later. In 1975, he made his Madison solo recital debut at the Wisconsin Union Theater and he has frequently performed here since then.

Ax is a particular supporter of contemporary composers and new music, and he has given three world premieres in the last few seasons: “Century Rolls” by John Adams; “Seeing” by Christopher Rouse; and “Red Silk Dance” by Bright Sheng. He has also received Grammy awards for the second and third volumes of his cycle of Haydn’s piano sonatas and has made a series of Grammy-winning recordings with cellist Yo-Yo Ma of the Beethoven and Brahms sonatas for cello and piano.

Emanuel Ax (below, in a photo by Lisa-Marie Mazzucco) is currently a faculty member of the Juilliard School of Music, a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a recipient of Yale University’s Sanford Medal.

One hour before each performance, MSO retired trombonist and longtime program annotator J. Michael Allsen will lead a 30-minute Prelude Discussion in Overture Hall to enhance concertgoers’ understanding and listening experience. It is free to ticketholders.

Allsen’s program notes for the concerts are available online at this address: http://www.allsenmusic.com/NOTES/1819/1.Sep18.html

The MSO recommends that 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 Prelude Discussion.

The lobby opens 90 minutes prior to each concert.

Tickets can be purchased in the following ways:

  • Single Tickets are $18-$93 each and are on sale now at: https://madisonsymphony.org/axthrough the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street, or by calling the Box Office at (608) 258-4141.
  • Groups of 10 or more can save 25% by calling the MSO office at (608) 257-3734. For more information, visit, 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 $15 or $20 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.
  • Subscribers to 5 or more symphony subscription concerts can save up to 50% off single ticket prices. More information is available about the season at: https://madisonsymphony.org/18-19
  • Flex-ticket booklets of 10 vouchers for 18-19 symphony subscription concerts are available. Learn more at: https://madisonsymphony.org/flex

 NOTE: Discounted seats are subject to availability, and discounts may not be combined.

The Madison Symphony Orchestra is celebrating its 93rd season in 2018–2019 and its 25th season under the leadership of Music Director John DeMain. Find more information about the rest of the MSO season at madisonsymphony.org

The Presenting Sponsors for the September concerts are: Joel and Kathryn Belaire. Major funding is provided by: The Wisconsin State Journal and Madison.com; the Irving and Dorothy Levy Family Foundation, Inc.; the Kenneth A. Lattman Foundation, Inc.; Rosemarie and Fred Blancke; and David and Kato Perlman. Additional funding is provided by Jeffrey and Angela Bartell, Martin L. Conney and the Wisconsin Arts Board, with funds from the State of Wisconsin and the National Endowment for the Arts.


Posted in Classical music
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