The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Canadian violinist James Ehnes and American composer John Harbison are spotlighted this coming weekend by the Madison Symphony Orchestra

February 11, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Internationally recognized and Grammy Award-winning Canadian violinist James Ehnes returns to Overture Hall this weekend to perform the Brahms Violin Concerto with the Madison Symphony Orchestra (MSO, below in a photo by Greg Anderson).

The program opens with a performance of American composer John Harbison’s The Most Often Used Chords, and closes with Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.

This program is a continuation of MSO music director John DeMain’s 25th anniversary season.

Performances will be held in Overture Hall, 201 State Street, on Friday, Feb. 15, at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, Feb. 16, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Feb. 17, at 2:30 p.m.

Tickets information is below.

“Mussorgsky’s masterpiece explores the colors of the orchestra — the correlation of an artist’s visual medium through the colors of sound and music. And its finale The Great Gate of Kiev (heard in the YouTube video at the bottom), is one of classical music’s greatest hits,” says DeMain (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson).

DeMain adds: “James Ehnes (below, in a  photo by Benjamin Ealovega) is a violinist who is completely to my taste. With an absolutely gorgeous sound and consummate technique, he goes to the heart of the music. He will approach the Brahms violin concerto as a violinist’s violinist, adored by the public, by his colleagues and by me for the integrity in his playing.”

On this Friday afternoon, Feb. 15, from 2:30 to 4 p.m. in Mills Hall, Ehnes will give a free and public master class at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music. 

DeMain continues: “We celebrate the 80th birthday of the internationally renowned — and Madison resident — composer John Harbison (below) with the first performance by the MSO of his delightful composition, The Most Often Used Chords.”

Harbison’s The Most Often Used Chords is a satirical piece of “anti-art art,” or “found object,” art. According to the composer, the found object that inspired this symphony (originally titled Fli Accordi Piu Usati) were the pre-printed “Fundamentals of Music” pages that he noticed in an Italian music-writing notebook. The work was originally composed in 1992 for the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra.

Written in 1878, the Brahms Violin Concerto was dedicated to his friend Joseph Joachim and premiered in 1879 in Leipzig, with Joachim soloing and Brahms (below) conducting.

An equal partnership between soloist and ensemble is on full display in this concerto; it is not a piece in which the orchestra serves as mere backdrop. Rather, the violinist and orchestra are a team, collaborating and interacting to recount an elegant and nuanced musical drama.

Originally written as a piano composition, Pictures at an Exhibition by Modest Mussorgsky was composed as a memorial to his friend, the Russian artist Viktor Hartmann, who died in 1873. The suite consists of 10 movements — each a musical depiction of one of 10 paintings by Hartmann. These movements are interspersed with a recurring promenade theme that represents a visitor strolling through the exhibition.

The arrangement by Maurice Ravel (below), produced in 1922, represents a virtuoso effort by a master composer. His instrumental colors — a trumpet solo for the opening Promenade, dark woodwind tones, the piccolo and high strings for the children’s “chicks in shells” — are widely admired. The influence of Ravel’s version may often be discerned in subsequent versions of the suite.

CONCERT AND TICKET DETAILS

The lobby opens 90 minutes prior to each concert. One hour before each performance, Randal Swiggum (below) will lead a 30-minute Prelude Discussion in Overture Hall to enhance concertgoers’ understanding and listening experience. It is free to ticket holders.

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 Prelude Discussion.

Program notes for the concerts, written retired MSO trombonist J. Michael Allsen, are available online: http://bit.ly/feb2019programnotes

  • Single Tickets are $18-$93 each and are on sale now at: https://madisonsymphony.org/ehnesthrough the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street, or by calling the Box Office at (608) 258-4141. Fees apply to online/phone sales.
  • 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.
  • Flex-ticket booklets of 10 vouchers for 18-19 symphony subscription concerts are available. Learn more at: https://madisonsymphony.org/flex

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

Major funding for the February concerts is provided by: The Madison Concourse Hotel and Governor’s Club, BMO Harris Bank, Boardman and Clark LLP, Capitol Lakes, Dr. Robert and Linda Graebner, Marvin J. Levy, and Cyrena and Lee Pondrom.

Additional funding is provided by Martha and Charles Casey, and by the Wisconsin Arts Board, with funds from the State of Wisconsin and the National Endowment for the Arts.

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Classical music: The Wisconsin Chamber Choir excelled in Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” despite questionable acoustics and cutting. A second performance is this afternoon at UW-Whitewater

December 16, 2018
3 Comments

IF YOU LIKE A CERTAIN BLOG POST, PLEASE SPREAD THE WORD. FORWARD A LINK TO IT OR, SHARE or TAG IT (not just “Like” it) ON FACEBOOK. Performers can use the extra exposure to draw potential audience members to an event.

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 hosts an early music show once a month on Sunday morning on WORT FM 89.9 FM. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison. He also took the performance photos.

By John W. Barker

On Saturday night, the Wisconsin Chamber Choir (below) gave Madison a proper gift for the holiday season with Johann Sebastian Bach’s Christmas Oratorio

Or with four-sixths of it, to be accurate.

Though Bach conceived of it as an integral composition, it is nevertheless cast in the form of six cantatas — one for each of the six days of the Christmas liturgical sequence, from the Nativity through Epiphany. Each cantata was meant to be self-sufficient by itself, in Bach’s conventional form for such works, with numerous chorales (in which the congregation could well have joined).

Artistic Director and conductor Robert Gehrenbeck (below) chose, however, to omit Cantatas 4 and 6. Allowing that the performers could be glad for the extra respite, I think this was an unnecessary omission. The evening would still not be that long, at least for an audience ready to welcome more. (I will note that Gehrenbeck did turn a repeat of the festive opening chorus of Cantata 3 as a makeshift finale of Cantata 5.)

I counted 14 soloists, many from among the choir itself, a few modestly serviceable, but most really very good. Most recognizable would be tenor Wesley Dunnagan, who sang both as the Evangelist and as tenor soloist.

The chorus itself, a total of 51 in number here, was just a bit large for the work, but was handsomely drilled by the conductor. The orchestra of 23 players (11 on strings), called the Sinfonia Sacra, was contrastingly small but played with verve and eloquence. (You can hear the irresistibly energetic opening of the Christmas Oratorio in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

I have great praise for the performance itself.  But I fear it was rather compromised by the venue.

Bach intended this cycle of cantatas for his sizable Lutheran church in Leipzig. But the Luther Memorial Church (below) is a much larger and loftier building than that with which Bach worked.  Its acoustics are big and reverberant. The choir, spread out before the altar, and the widely dispersed soloists, were far from much of the audience.

Their sound projected variously, rolling out into the big space in beautiful blurs. For much of the audience, that could well have been enough: lovely sounds and rhythms. But almost all the words were muddled or lost.

Now, words mattered to Bach (below), and to his congregation.  With the presence of the words all but lost, the messages of these cantatas are badly compromised. In that sense, this performance was successful sonically but not as sacred music.

Musicians obviously give thought to the settings for their performances. Their concern is very much about how well they can hear each other. But careful attention to what their audiences hear, and how that does justice to the performances. On that count, then, I found this event a mixed success.

On the other hand, I must praise the splendid program booklet, handsomely laid out, with good information, the full texts and translations, and particularly good notes on the work by J. Michael Allsen, who also did the English translations.

A second performance is this afternoon at 3 p.m. in the Young Auditorium at the UW-Whitewater. For more information and tickets, go to https://www.wisconsinchamberchoir.org


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