The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: With actors and multimedia, the Madison Symphony Orchestra explores Felix Mendelssohn in Italy this coming Sunday afternoon

January 14, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

This coming Sunday afternoon, Jan. 20, at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall, the Madison Symphony Orchestra (MSO) and its music director John DeMain will present the story behind Felix Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 4 “Italian” with Beyond the Score®: Mendelssohn Symphony No. 4: Why Italy? (Ticket information is further down.)

The concert is a multimedia examination of German composer Felix Mendelssohn’s travels through Italy.

Starring American Players Theatre actors Sarah Day (below top), Jonathan Smoots (below middle) and Nate Burger (below bottom), the concert experience features visual projections, photos, musical excerpts and a full performance of the Symphony No. 4 by the MSO, with John DeMain conducting, in the second half.

In 1830, a young 21-year-old Mendelssohn (below) visited the Italian countryside and the historic cities of Venice, Naples and Rome.

Three years later, he set his journey to music and composed his fourth Symphony — later to be known as his “Italian” Symphony. Though it eventually became one of the composer’s most popular works, the piece was performed only twice during his lifetime and published four years after his death in 1851. (You can hear the rousing final movement of the “Italian Symphony” in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Designed for classical music lovers and newcomers looking for a deeper look into the world of classic music and the motivations of significant compositions, “Beyond the Score®: Why Italy?” joins Mendelssohn on his travels in Italy and discovers his inspiration for this symphonic work.

Incorporating the composer’s own letters and writings, the program presents the historical context behind the classical piece turned masterpiece.

Program notes by J. Michael Allsen are available at: http://www.allsenmusic.com/NOTES/1819/4AJan19.html

Single Tickets are $16 to $70 each, available at https://madisonsymphony.org/event/beyond-the-score-mendelssohn/, through 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://madisonsymphony.org/concerts-events/buy-tickets/group-discounts/.

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 $10 or $20 tickets. More information is at: https://madisonsymphony.org/concerts-events/buy-tickets/offers-discounts/. Students can receive 20% savings on seats in select areas of the hall on advance ticket purchases.

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.

Exclusive funding for this concert is provided by the Pleasant T. Rowland Foundation. Beyond the Score® is a production of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Gerard McBurney is the Creative Director for Beyond the Score®


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Classical music: The UW-Madison Choral Union and Symphony Orchestra plus soloists turn in a “glorious” performance of the rarely performed choral symphony “Hymn of Praise” by Felix Mendelssohn.

May 6, 2015
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By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, a review written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker. Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who for 12 years hosted an early music show every other Sunday morning on WORT FM 89.9 FM. He serves on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.

John Barker

By John W. Barker

This weekend, the Madison Symphony Orchestra will bring us that giant among symphonies, Beethoven’s Ninth. We now take that work so for granted as a musical summit by itself that we lose sight of its enormous impact on composers of the rest of the 19th century.

The introduction of solo and choral voices into an orchestral symphony score was radical, and inspired many responses. One was the efforts of Hector Berlioz to infuse the elements of opera into a symphonically structured work, resulting in that masterpiece, his “dramatic symphony” Romeo et Juliette. Richard Wagner, by contrast, built an entire career of casting operas in symphonic terms. The culmination of the “choral symphony” came with three of the symphonies by Gustav Mahler (Nos. 2, 3 and 8).

But an earlier response was brought to us last Saturday night by the UW-Madison Choral Union and Symphony Orchestra (below). This was Felix Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 2, known as the Lobgesang or “Hymn of Praise.” It was composed in 1840, a mere 16 years after Beethoven’s Ninth was premiered.

Choral Union and UW Symphony Lobgesang

Mendelssohn (below) did not simplistically imitate the prototype, but adapted its idea to his own purposes. In place of three elaborate and individual movements, the work’s No. 1, called “sinfonia,” is a set of three successive orchestral sections that flow with limited breaks one after the other, for a total of 15-20 minutes. Then follows a series of nine numbers constituting a cantata for soloists and chorus, running close to 60 minutes.

mendelssohn_300

It sets either Scriptural or devotional texts pertaining to faith in and celebration of the Almighty, with thematic references made to material in the preliminary “sinfonia.” This “choral finale” alone is in the line of sacred choral works, many on Psalm texts, that the composer wrote recurrently.

This cantata may lack the etherial daring of Beethoven’s choral finale, but it is far more idiomatically vocal and choral than what late Beethoven had come to. With its inclusion of Lutheran chorale elements and fugal counterpoint, it is in a class with Mendelssohn’s glorious oratorio Elijah. (Below is a photo of the performance by Margaret Barker.)

Lobgesang Margaret Barker

Because of the extra-orchestral resources the work calls for, it is not often performed, so that it has not become as familiar, and therefore as well-loved, as the composer’s popular Symphonies 3, 4, and 5, the so-called “Scottish,” “Italian” and “Reformation” symphonies. Some might find No. 2 less than top-drawer Mendelssohn, but it is certainly high-quality Mendelssohn, and readily rewards the hearing. (You can hear an excerpt featuring Claudio Abbado conducting the Berlin Philharmonic in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

This was the sole work on this Choral Union program. With the absence of regular conductor Beverly Taylor, who is on sabbatical this semester, the podium was assumed by the splendid James Smith (below), who seemed altogether comfortable drawing magnificent sounds from the large chorus, while working his usual wonders with his student orchestra.

Version 3

There are parts for three soloists. The main soprano was Elizabeth Hagedorn (below top, left), whose wide vibrato and squally high range represented for me the one disappointment of this performance. The reliable Mimmi Fulmer (below top, center) was drawn in only for a two-soprano duet: I wish she had been given the top assignment. Thomas Leighton (below bottom) is not the most lyrical of tenors, but he conveyed honestly the spiritual searching of his solos.

Mimmi Fulmer Lobgesang

Thomas Leighton Lobgesang

Here, then, was the Choral Union at its best. It offered stirring choral singing, while giving us an opportunity to experience an unfairly neglected but wonderful score.

 

 


Classical music: The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra opens its winter Masterworks season with fiery pianism in Saint-Saens’ “Egyptian” Concerto plus fluid strings and energetic brass in Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Also, the Middleton Community Orchestra opens its fourth season on Wednesday night with music by Berlioz, Wagner and Mendelssohn.

October 14, 2013
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ALERT: The Middleton Community Orchestra (below) will open its fourth season this Wednesday night at 7:30 p.m. in the Middleton Performing Arts Center that is attached to Middleton High School. The program, conducted by Steve Kurr, features Hector Berlioz’ “Roman Carnival Overture,” Richard Wagner‘s Overture to “Tannhauser” and Felix Mendelssohn’s “Italian” Symphony. Admission at the door and advance tickets at Willy Street West are $10 for adults and free for students. Here is a review of a previous concert I attended with a lot of reasons why the MCO is a fun and fine event to attend:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2012/06/04/classical-music-review-let-us-now-praise-amateur-music-makers-and-restoring-sociability-to-art-here-are-9-reasons-why-i-liked-and-you-should-attend-the-middleton-community-orchestra/

And here is a link to the MCO’s website with information about the rest of its fourth season:

http://middletoncommunityorchestra.org

Middleton Community Orchestra Steve Kurr conducting

By Jacob Stockinger

Loyal readers of this blog know very well the name of Mikko Utevsky. The young violist and conductor is a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin School of Music, where he studies with Pro Arte Quartet violist Sally Chisholm and plays in the UW Symphony Orchestra.

Utevsky, who has won awards and impressive reviews for his work in music education since his days at Madison’s East High School, is the founder and conductor of the Madison Area Youth Chamber Orchestra, which will perform its fourth season next summer. He was recently named the new Music Director of a local community orchestra, The Studio Orchestra. The ensemble has an out-of-date website here (www.disso.org).

You can check out his many honors and projects by typing his name into the search engine on this blog site.

Utevsky offered The Ear a guest review of a concert this past weekend by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra. I immediately took him up on the offer. After all, he is a fine and perceptive writer who, you may recall, blogged for this post when he was on tour two summers ago with the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO) tour to Vienna, Prague and Budapest.

Here is the review by Mikko Utevsky (below):

MAYCO Mikko Utevsky by Steve Rankin

BY Mikko Utevsky

Following on the heels of the Madison Symphony Orchestra‘s season-opening concerts two weeks ago, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra opened its winter Masterworks season in the Overture Center’s Capitol Theater this past Friday night.

WCO lobby

The WCO offered an intriguing program: Benjamin Britten (in his centennial year, sadly overshadowed by the bicentennials of Richard Wagner and Giuseppe Verdi); Camille Saint-Saëns; and Beethoven.

Benjamin Britten

Madison is fortunate to have both of these accomplished ensembles, whose divergent repertoires provide a welcome breadth for local audiences.

We can always rely on WCO music director and conductor maestro Andrew Sewell (below) to bring us a work unfamiliar to our ears, and often quite a good one. He has a particular sympathy for British composers, Britten and Gerald Finzi among them.

andrewsewell

But to my ears, Friday’s opener was not up to the usually high standard of these under-appreciated offerings, but still an enjoyable piece to hear.

Britten’s texturally minimal fanfare for piano, string quartet, and string orchestra “Young Apollo” (at bottom in a YouTube video) showed off its soloists well, particularly WCO pianist Beth Wilson, whose virtuoso part was rendered with fire and flair, complemented by commendable work from both the solo quartet and the section strings.

The whole piece seemed to sag slightly, however, and overplayed its hand somewhat in terms of pacing and texture, leaving too little left for the final burst of energy.

This apparent lack of energy was remedied effectively by guest soloist Bryan Wallick, the pianist the  Piano Concerto No. 5 (“Egyptian”), Op. 103, by Camille Saint-Saens (below).

Camille Saint-Saens

The work’s “Egyptian” elements bear the crude imprint of indiscriminate French appropriation of anything “Oriental,” sounding more like a hodgepodge of exoticisms than a unified sonic world. But while they are jarring after the first movement, the second and third together feel more unified, if no more authentic.

Wallick (below) played with personality and a palpably propulsive energy, and the orchestra complemented his drive with lush, shimmering tutti playing in the slow movement in particular. Some discomfort with tempo was detectable in the first movement, but it was transitory and overshadowed by Wallick’s fiery performance. He was rewarded with a lengthy ovation.

His encore, in recognition of Verdi’s 200th birthday, was Liszt’s “Rigoletto” paraphrase, which brought the audience to their feet for a second time.

Bryan Wallick mug

The second half brought us a typical season-opening warhorse, the Fifth Symphony by Beethoven (below), which Sewell conducted from memory — a risk seemingly rewarded by his increased freedom on the podium.

Beethoven big

In contrast to what felt like a wind-heavy Ninth Symphony in the 2011-12 season, the Fifth was string-focused, even to the point that winds were obscured in a few critical places like the canon in the slow movement Andante con moto (though the difference could have been my seats).

The WCO has fine string players, and it showed in the Beethoven. The aforementioned slow movement featured particularly lovely, fluid viola, cello and bass work. The lack of a fourth cello was felt acutely at points in the work – I found myself desiring a bigger bottom end to the Finale from the low strings and contrabassoon, whose contributions were unfortunately lost in the mix, to support the widened middle range provided by the addition of trombones.

Energetic brass playing supplemented the core string energy of the WCO sound in the Finale of the Fifth, which unfortunately suffered from inconsistent tempi, disregarding the critical relationship between the Scherzo and Finale.

The latter movement is decisively slower than the preceding one, and whatever one may think of Beethoven’s metronome markings, the relationship they establish is indisputable.

In Friday’s performance, this disregard was to the work’s detriment, and whatever perceived excitement was gained from pumping up the majestic Finale was taken out of the Scherzo.

Tempo aside, the work was well-received by the audience (swelled by an encouraging influx of student listeners, particularly young players from the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras), and Sewell was generous in his recognition of the orchestra, beginning with the particularly deserving low strings.

WCO ovation B-9

The concert proved a worthwhile beginning to what should be a diverse and enlightening season (the appearance of yet another rendition of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto aside).

The orchestra returns with its holiday performances (A Canadian Brass Christmas on Nov. 30, and Handel’s “Messiah” on Dec. 13). Then its Masterworks season resumes Jan. 17 with guitarist Anna Vidovic and Bruckner’s Second Symphony.

For information , visit: http://www.wcoconcerts.org


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