The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Should Yannick Nézet-Séguin be the Metropolitan Opera’s next music director? Here are the pros and cons

May 22, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

As you may have already heard, the legendary James Levine just retired as the music director of the famed Metropolitan Opera in New York City.

So now the question becomes: Who should succeed Levine?

Several names stand out.

But the smartest money seems to be on the relatively young conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin (below). The French-Canadian and openly gay conductor now leads the Philadelphia Orchestra and is closely attached to the Rotterdam Philharmonic in the Netherlands.

Yannick Nezet-Seguin close up

A comprehensive profile of the charismatic and energetic conductor – who is known for his unique, subtle and powerful interpretations – with the pros and cons of an appointment to The Met was recently written by New York Times music critic Zachary Woolfe.

Yannick Nezet-Seguin in aciton

Woolfe raves about his conducting but then goes on to raise several important points about the difference between being a conductor and a music director. (You can hear a lot of recorded performances of his conducting on YouTube. At bottom is the beginning of an insightful two-part interview with Nézet-Séguin.)

The Ear found the criticism relevant, if a little lopsided, and was impressed overall with the story.

So read it for yourself and decide:

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/15/arts/music/for-yannick-nezet-seguin-questions-of-vision.html?_r=0

Then leave word in the COMMENTS section and let The Ear and his readers know whether you think Nézet-Séguin should be the next music director of The Met?

Or would you suggest another name?


New Life for “The Great Gatsby”: John Harbison’s “Roaring ‘20s” opera has its European premiere this month in Dresden, Germany

December 5, 2015
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear’s good friend, Sarah Schaffer, who works with composer John Harbison, writes:

Many Madisonians were among those who travelled to New York City in 1999 for the world premiere of John Harbison’s opera, “The Great Gatsby,” which is based on the iconic novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald and which was commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera in celebration of renowned conductor James Levine’s 25th anniversary there. (Below, from the original production, are the late tenor Jerry Hadley as Jay Gatsby and soprano Dawn Upshaw as Daisy Buchanan.)

Harbison Great Gatsby Gatbsy (Hadley) and Daisy (Upshaw)

The work has since been presented by Lyric Opera of Chicago, in Boston and at Tanglewood by Emmanuel Music, and, in a reduced orchestra chamber version, by Opera Parallele in San Francisco and at the Aspen Music Festival.

A suite from the opera, commissioned by conductor David Zinman, was performed by the Madison Symphony Orchestra under Maestro John DeMain here in 2010.

And of course, John Harbison and his wife, violinist Rose Mary Harbison, are best known in Madison as the artistic directors of the fiercely imaginative annual Token Creek Chamber Music Festival, held in their refurbished barn near Sun Prairie just before Labor Day each summer.

John and Rose Mary Harbison Katrin Talbot

Now, the first European performance of “The Great Gatsby” will take place at Semperoper (below) in Dresden, Germany from this Sunday, Dec. 6, through Dec. 21. It will be presented in English, with German surtitles.

semperoper dresden exter

Semperoper interior

Preceding the first performance, Semperoper is offering a preview event where two film versions of “The Great Gatsby” will be shown: the 1974 version with Robert Redford and Mia Farrow; and the 2013 Baz Luhrman version with Leonardo DiCaprio and Carey Mulligan.

According to Semperoper, “The opera blends modern classical music with jazz and swing to paint a thrilling portrait of a debauched and decadent society, where double standards clash with idealism. European audiences can now enjoy this work for the first time.”

John Harbison directing Gatsby

Wayne Marshall is music director, Keith Warner stage director, with dramaturgy by Stefan Ulrich, and set design by the late John Engels, whose stunning and evocative work was seen last spring in the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s production of The Passenger, Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s powerful opera about how the horrors of Auschwitz impact people’s lives in the present.

Wayne Marshall, renowned interpreter of the works of George Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein, Duke Ellington and other 20th-century American composers, serves as music director.

In making a new production of The Great Gatsby, Director Keith Warner does not adopt an “update” strategy, often seen in recent European productions.  Instead he goes directly to the period, the American mid-1920s, making its excesses, its excitements, and its cloak of impending doom the essential color of the opera. (below is the party scene.)

Harbison Great Gatsby Party Scene

In the upcoming Dresden production, tenor Peter Lodahl makes his Semperoper debut in the role of Jay Gatsby. For more information, visit: www.peterlodahl.co

Daisy Buchanan will be performed by soprano Maria Bengtsson. For more information, visit: www.mariabengtsson.com

A complete cast list and production personnel can be found at https://www.semperoper.de/en/whats-on/schedule/stid/Gatsby/60545.html

A brief video regarding the launching of Gatsby at Semperopera can be found at:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G7x_dVimgYg

While not without its detractors, over the years and through its many productions Gatsby has garnered significant praise from some of the most respected critics and publications.

With such an iconic and thoroughly American novel, story and music as its origin and soundscape, it will be fascinating to see what kind of reception Gatsby’s eagerly anticipated European premiere will garner across the pond.

Harbison Great Gatsby 2

Europeans, very conversant with the Fitzgerald novel, tend to emphasize the role of class more than American readers.  Warner uses a number of theatrical devices to starkly outline the attitudes and surroundings of the Wilsons, the working-class couple so crucial to conflicts within the story.

The racist and elitist rants of Tom Buchanan, perhaps more comfortably folded into his familiar character by American fans of the book, emerge in stark outline in Warner’s conception.

 


Classical music: This Saturday, “Live From the Met in HD” offers a controversial and innovative production of Verdi’s “Otello.” Here are some background stories plus a positive review from The New York Times.

October 15, 2015
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By Jacob Stockinger

This Saturday, “Live From The Met in HD” will present a live performance by the Metropolitan Opera of Giuseppe Verdi’s “Otello,” which is based on William Shakespeare’s tragedy “Othello.”

This is the production that has made news because it is the first one in the history of The Met not to use blackface. (Below, in a photo by Ken Howard for The Metropolitan Opera, are the Latvian tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko, right, as Otello and baritone Zjelko Lucic as Iago.)

otello (left) Aleksandrs Antonenko CR Ken Howard:Metropolitan Opera

This year marks the 10th season of the popular and innovative series of high-definition broadcasts that are beamed via satellite to 2,000 screens in 70 countries.

In Madison, the opera can be seen at the Point Cinemas on the city’s far west side and at Eastgate cinemas on the far east side.

Admission is $24 for adults and $22 for seniors 60 and over; and $18 for children 3 to 11. Tickets to the encore productions are $18.

The performance starts at 11:55 a.m. and will last about 2 hours and 45 minutes including an intermission. (Below center is the acclaimed Bulgarian soprano Sonja Yoncheva as Desdemona.)

Otello Met Sonja Yoncheva as Desdemona

The handsome new and ingenious Romantic-era production (below top) in a photo by Sarah Krulwich for The New York Times) has been praised for its stage direction by Bartlett Sher.

Otello (Aleksandrs Antonenko) and Iago (Zeljko Lucic, right) CR Sara Krulwich NYT

Also drawing praise is the production’s firebrand conductor Yannick Nezet-Seguin (below bottom), the acclaimed French-Canadian music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra who reportedly is a likely candidate to succeed the legendary James Levine as music director of The Met.

Yannick Nezet-Seguin in aciton

For information about the cast and a synopsis:

https://www.metopera.org/Season/In-Cinemas/SynopsisCast/Otello/

https://www.metopera.org/Season/2015-16-Season/otello-verdi-tickets/

From NPR or National Public Radio, here is a story about The Met foregoing blackface in this production. It is especially interesting because the reporter talks to an African American tenor who does not object to the use of such makeup:

http://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2015/09/21/442279816/farewell-to-blackfaced-otellos-at-the-met

And here is a debate about the blackface issue in which the central question is: If you didn’t know the plot of the play or opera, would you realize the pivotal role that race plays in the story without blackface? Read it and decide for yourself. (In a YouTube video at bottom is part of the love duet between Otello and Desdemona.)

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/01/arts/music/debating-otello-blackface-and-casting-trends.html?_r=0

Finally, here is a positive review by Anthony Tommasini for The New York Times:

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/23/arts/music/review-metropolitan-operas-new-otello-bold-and-tentative.html


Classical music: Here are four for the Fourth.

July 4, 2015
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By Jacob Stockinger

Yesterday The Ear asked readers for suggestions about classical music that would be appropriate to post and play today, which is Independence Day or the Fourth of July.

American Flag

TETRRF-00024113-001

I got some good answers.

Some of the suggestions were great music but seemed inappropriate like “On the Transmigration of Souls” by the contemporary American composer John Adams. It won the Pulitzer Prize. But it deals with the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and strikes The Ear as a bit grim for this holiday.

So, here are four others for The Fourth:

Ann Boyer suggested the Variations on “America” by Charles Ives, who was certainly an American and a Yankee original. The original scoring for organ was transcribed for orchestra by the well-known American composer William Schuman and it is performed below in a YouTube video by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under the baton of the famous composer-arranger Morton Gould, who seems to specialize in Americana:

Tim Adrianson suggested Aaron Copland’s great Third Symphony. It is long but the most famous part of the symphony is “Fanfare for the Common Man,” played here by Metropolitan Opera artistic director James Levine and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. And that seems a perfectly fitting piece of music to celebrate the birth of American democracy:

Reader fflambeau suggested anything by Howard Hanson, but especially Syphony No. 2 “Romantic.” Here is the famous slow movement — performed by Gerard Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony Orchestra — that is also the appealing theme of the Interlochen Arts Academy and National Summer Music Camp:

Finally, The Ear recently heard something that seems especially welcome at a time when there is so much attention being paid to matters military.

It is also by Aaron Copland and is called “A Letter From Home.” It was dedicated to troops fighting World War II but it strikes me for its devotion to the home front and to peaceful domestic life, which is exactly what the Fourth of July should be about. Be sure to look at the black-and-white photographs that accompany the music:

And The Ear reminds you that you can hear a lot of American composers and American music today on Wisconsin Public Radio.

Have a Happy Fourth of July and Independence Day, everyone!

fireworks


Classical music: Pianists Peter Serkin and Julia Hsu will play works for piano-four hands by Mozart, Schubert, Schumann and Brahms this Saturday night at Farley’s House of Pianos.

March 31, 2015
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By Jacob Stockinger

Our friends at Farley’s House of Pianos write to the blog with news of a noteworthy piano concert this Saturday night:

Renowned American pianist Peter Serkin (below top) and Julia Hsu (below bottom) will perform piano, four-hand pieces by Schumann, Bizet, Mozart and more, as part of the Salon Piano Series concerts held at Farley’s House of Pianos at 6522 Seybold Road on Madison’s far west side near West Towne.

Peter Serkin

Julia Hsu

The concert is at 7:30 p.m. this Saturday night, April 4 and will include an introduction by Karlos Moser (below), a retired University of Wisconsin-Madison professor of music and former longtime director of the University Opera at the UW-Madison School of Music.

Karlos Moser

The program includes: Six Etudes in the Form of Canons for Pedal-Piano, Op. 56, by Robert Schumann; Three Pieces from “Jeux d’Enfants” (Children’s Games) by Georges Bizet; the Sonata in B flat Major, K. 358, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; the Allegro ma non troppo in A minor (the dramatic and lyrical “Lebenssturme” or “Lifestorms” that you can hear in a live performance in a YouTube video at the bottom), D.947, and the Rondo in A Major, D.951, by Franz Schubert; and Four Hungarian Dances by Johannes Brahms.

Tickets are $45 and are expected to sell quickly. They are available online at www.salonpianoseries.org and http://www.brownpapertickets.com/profile/706809 or at Farley’s House of Pianos, (608) 271-2626.

For more information about the Salon Piano Series, visit: http://salonpianoseries.org

The distinguished American pianist Peter Serkin has performed with the world’s major symphony orchestras with such conductors as Seiji Ozawa, Daniel Barenboim, George Szell, Claudio Abbado, Eugene Ormandy and James Levine. A dedicated chamber musician, Serkin has collaborated with artists including violinist Pamela Frank and cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

An avid exponent of the music of many contemporary composers, Serkin has brought to life the music of Arnold Schoenberg, Igor Stravinsky, Michael Wolpe, and others for audiences around the world. He has performed many world premieres written specifically for him, in particular, works by Toru Takemitsu, Oliver Knussen and Peter Lieberson. Serkin currently teaches at Bard College Conservatory of Music and the Longy School of Music. Serkin became friends with the Farleys in 1994 when he was in town for a concert and visited the Farley’s showroom (below).

Farley Daub plays

Originally from Taiwan, Julia Hsu received scholarships to study at The Purcell School for young musicians at the age of 14. She has also studied at the Royal Academy of Music, London and at the Hannover Hochschule für Musik und Theater, Germany. Julia has collaborated with conductors Fabio Panisello, Lutz Koeler and cellist Ivan Moniguetti. She was a Festival Fellow at Bowdoin Music Festival, and a scholar at the Banff Centre, Canada before she became a Piano Fellow at Bard College Conservatory of Music in 2013.

The Salon Piano Series is a non-profit founded by Tim and Renée Farley to continue the tradition of intimate salon concerts at Farley’s House of Pianos.

Upcoming concerts include the internationally acclaimed Czech pianist Martin Kasík (below top), who will play the “Moonlight” and “Les Adieux” Sonatas by Ludwig van Beethoven and Sonata No. 3 by Sergei Prokofiev, on Saturday, April 18, 2015 at 7:30 p.m. Jazz pianist Dick Hyman (below bottom) will perform on May 30 and 31, 2015, at 4 p.m. both days.

Martin Kasik w piano

dick hyman

For ticket information and concert details see www.salonpianoseries.org.

All events will be held at Farley’s House of Pianos, 6522 Seybold Road, Madison, on Madison’s west side near the Beltline, and plenty of free parking is available. It is also easy to reach by bicycle or Madison Metro.


Classical music: Should superstar tenor Placido Domingo retire?

March 28, 2015
3 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Should Spanish superstar tenor Placido Domingo (below) – who has aged into a baritone as well as a conductor and the artistic director of an opera company – retire?

FRENI

That is the touchy question that was taken up last week by The New York Times senior music critic Anthony Tommasini in his opening night review of Domingo’s performance in the role of the King of Spain Don Carlo (below, in a photo by Sara Krulwich for The New York Times) in the opera by Giuseppe VerdiErnani,” which was based on the play “Hernani” by French writer Victor Hugo.

Placido Domingo in Ernani at the Met 2015 Sara Krulwich NYT

The production of “Ernani” is taking place at the Metropolitan Opera – hardly a strange stage to the veteran Domingo, who is now 74. James Levine led the orchestra. And Tommasini offered quite specific criticisms to back up his opinion about Domingo. 

Here is a link to the review:

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/23/arts/music/review-ernani-with-placido-domingo-a-tussle-to-hold-on-to-a-love.html?_r=0

Read it and weigh in with your own opinion about whether it is time for the great Placido Domingo to retire.

The Ear wants to hear.

 


Classical music: Can you sing? Famed diva Jessye Norman thinks you can -– and should try. She says it is good for your physical health and mental health.

December 26, 2014
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By Jacob Stockinger

We have just come through Christmas and the holiday season where the instrument of choice – quite appropriately – is the human voice, both solo and in choruses.

Do you sing?

Can you sing?

The famous Grammy Award-winning soprano diva Jessye Norman (below) thinks you can -– and should, or at least try to.

In an interview with the Deceptive Cadence blog for NPR (National Public Radio), Norman explains why all  people can sing.

She also explains why you should: Singing, she says, is healthy for your body and mind.

Jessye Norman

She may be 69, but Norman, who was born in Georgia but now lives in France, is not retiring from singing, even if she is cutting down on professional appearances. She is following her own advice and so continues to sing, as she recently did on The David Letterman Show in New York City.

The interview traces her career from her earliest years in Augusta, Georgia, through training at the famed Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore and the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. It has samples of her fabulous voice, and also her remembrances of great voices she has admired in others, such as the great history-making African American contralto Marian Anderson (below, during her historic concert at the Lincoln Memorial).

anderson

She also names some favorite orchestral music and instrumental music, including a prelude from the opera “Lohengrin” by Richard Wagner, as conducted by James Levine (below top) of the Metropolitan Opera; a cello sonata by Johann Sebastian Bach performed by cellist Yo-Yo Ma (below middle); and a Beethoven piano concertos performed by pianist Alfred Brendel (below bottom) and the conductor Simon Rattle along with the Berlin Philharmonic.

James Levine conducting

yo-yo ma

Brendel playing BIG

Norman also singles out American jazz composer Duke Ellington (below) for praise.

Duke Ellington at piano

And the NPR interview includes some fine music audio samples.

Here is a link:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2014/11/25/364758676/guest-dj-jessye-norman-from-augusta-to-valhalla

And here is one of my favorite and landmark or legendary performances by Jessye Norman: “Im Abendrot.” It is one of the “Four Last Songs” by Richard Strauss that was recently used in the movie “The Trip to Italy” to such great and repeated effect:


Classical music: The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra plus choirs and soloists offer a FREE carol concert this Saturday night at the Orpheum Theater.

December 18, 2014
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By Jacob Stockinger

If you are still looking for seasonal and holiday music events to attend, The Ear has received word of a fine one that is SHORT and FREE.

Scott Foss (below) — the accomplished, congenial and generous music director of the First United Methodist Church in Madison who has been a longtime music advocate and participant in Madison — writes:

Scott Foss

Hi Jake:

I am writing in regard to our FREE family-friendly, sacred music holiday concert “Celebration of Carols” by Joseph M. Martin. (You can hear some of the cantata in a YouTube video at the bottom.)  It is coming up this Saturday night from 7:30 to 8:30 p.m. in the landmark Orpheum Theater (below are photos of the exterior as well as the stage and interior of the restored historic theater). It is located at 216 State Street, across from the Overture Center.

Orpheum Theatre Madison EXT

Orpheum Theatre INT

We had our first rehearsal yesterday with the combined choirs and it really is going to be terrific.

I will conduct the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below) — the orchestra for the concert — and it will be fabulous as always.

WCO lobby

The choirs sounded awesome. And you know that the two soloists — my wife, mezzo-soprano Kitt Reuter-Foss (below top), who has performed Mozart at the Metropolitan Opera under James Levine, and tenor J. Adam Shelton (below bottom) — will sing beautifully.

Kitt Reuter-Foss

J. Adam Shelton 2

I’m really excited to bring this FREE public program to downtown Madison.

As you know, the First United Methodist Church has been a home to countless classical music groups and theater groups — Four Seasons Theatre, Forward Theatre, the Madison Opera, the Madison Symphony Orchestra Chorus, the Festival Choir of Madison, the Wisconsin Chamber Choir, the VSA Choir, the Madison Choral Project, Isthmus Brass, The Kat Trio — all either are currently or have in the past used our space for rehearsals.

And we always give it away for free as part of our ministry to downtown Madison where affordable rehearsal space is very difficult to find.

Plus, an understanding of the arts and how important they are to Madison and Dane County is in our DNA. The Isthmus Brass is giving a free concert in our sanctuary on Thursday night of this week. (I’ll be conducting the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra in Baraboo that night in one of their three performances of “Messiah” by George Frideric Handel, so I won’t be there).

So I had this idea that we should not only present house arts groups but also that we should be able to present art in a way that any and all in Madison could access it — in a beautiful space and beautifully performed.

Our church foundations agreed and they are financing the event — more than $10,000 to make this music available.

We hope you and others can attend.


Classical music: The Madison Symphony Orchestra receives a National Endowment for the Arts grant for community outreach and music therapy, and gives its season-closing last performance of “The Gershwin Legacy” this afternoon at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall. Plus, the University of Wisconsin Masters Singers give a FREE concert Monday night.

May 4, 2014
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By Jacob Stockinger

Today brings some of this and some of that:

MSO GETS NEA MUSIC THERAPY GRANT

The federal National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) has awarded the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below) a $15,000 grant to support HeartStringsSM, an internationally-recognized music therapy-informed community engagement program for individuals with special needs.

The MSO, under music director John DeMain, is one of 886 nonprofit organizations nationwide that received grants totaling $25.8 million.

John DeMain and MSO from the stage Greg Anderson

HeartStrings uses live music to address the physical, emotional, cognitive, and social needs of children and adults with disabilities, long-term illnesses, dementia, and assisted-living needs.

The distinctive program is presented free-of-charge by the MSO’s Rhapsodie Quartet (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson), a professional string quartet comprised of principal MSO musicians: from left, they are violinist Suzanne Beia, violinist Laura Burns, violist Christopher Dozoryst and cellist Karl Lavine.

Rhapsodie Quartet MSO Greg Anderson

The Quartet leads a series of 9 group music therapy-informed sessions at 10 retirement communities, healthcare facilities, and state institutions across Dane County each year. It reaches nearly 3,200 individuals per season–many of whom would not otherwise have access to the restorative effects of live classical music.

Acting NEA Chairman Joan Shigekawa said, “These NEA-supported projects will not only have a positive impact on local economies, but will also provide opportunities for people of all ages to participate in the arts, help our communities to become more vibrant, and support our nation’s artists as they contribute to our cultural landscape.”

Art Works grants support the creation of art that meets the highest standards of excellence, public engagement with diverse and excellent art, lifelong learning in the arts, and the strengthening of communities through the arts. A complete listing of projects recommended for Art Works grant support is available at the NEA website at http://arts.gov/.

MSO Education and Community Engagement Director Michelle Kaebisch (below, in a photo by Katrin Talbot) commented, “HeartStrings is a signature program of the Madison Symphony Orchestra and has transformed healthcare environments by bringing meaningful musical experiences directly to individuals across south-central Wisconsin. This nationally-recognized community engagement initiative combines the profound impact of live music with interactive, music therapy-informed activities designed to promote the well being of traditionally underserved populations.”

Michelle Kaebisch WYSO cr Katrin Talbot

THE “GERSHWIN LEGACY” PROGRAM ENDS MSO SEASON TODAY

Here is a link to background preview with information about tickets and program notes to the program about the musical legacy of American composer George Gershwin (see the photo of Gershwin further down) with music by Stephen Sondheim, Leonard Bernstein and Harold Arlen.

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2014/04/28/classical-music-the-madison-symphony-orchestra-turns-this-weekend-to-george-gershwin-and-his-legacy-with-leonard-bernstein-stephen-sondheim-and-harold-arlen-to-close-out-its-88th-season-and-conducto/

Clearly, the program  points to what George Gershwin might have achieved had he lived longer than 39 and had he developed the orchestral skills he was exploring in the “Catfish Row” Suite he extracted from his folk opera “Porgy and Bess.” (You can hear it performed by conductor James Levine and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in a YouTube video at the bottom)

Also, two stars are born at the MSO concert — by which I mean that two local talents were given the opportunity to stand out, and they did: the young pianist Garrick Olsen (below top) and the increasingly familiar soprano Emily Birsan (below bottom), who was trained at the University of Wisconsin-Madiosn School of Music and then the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

Garrick Olsen MSO 2014

Emily Birsan MSO 2014

Just read the review by John W. Barker (below) for Isthmus. Here is a link: 

http://www.thedailypage.com/daily/article.php?article=42665&sid=b176b1add7d22af437fc720c5a689e79

John-Barker

And here is a link to the review by Greg Hettsmanberger (below) for Madison Magazine:

http://www.madisonmagazine.com/Blogs/Classically-Speaking/May-2014/Madison-Symphony-Closes-Season-With-Two-Legacies/

greg hettmansberger mug

And here are links to the MSO’s new 2014-15 season:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2014/03/19/classical-music-madison-symphony-orchestra-announces-its-new-2014-15-season-including-programs-soloists-and-ticket-prices/

http://www.madisonsymphony.org/14-15

gershwin with pipe

UW MASTERS SINGERS PERFORM MONDAY

On this Monday night at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall, the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music Masters Singers will perform a FREE concert.

The choir will singer under the direction of Anna Volodarskaya and Adam Kluck (below).

Sorry, no word about the program.

Adam Kluck conducting

 

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Classical music: Madison Symphony Orchestra and Madison Opera conductor John DeMain talks about the role of the piano in his career and his upcoming performances this weekend with the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society of Robert Schumann and Clara Wieck Schumann songs and romances, and of Johannes Brahms’ “Variations on a Theme of Robert Schumann” for piano, four-hands.

June 19, 2013
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By Jacob Stockinger

Madison and the rest of the world know John DeMain (below, in a  photo by Prasad) primarily as a symphony and opera conductor who is also the longtime music director of the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the artistic director of the Madison Opera.

John DeMain full face by Prasad

But this acclaimed conductor, who won a Grammy Award for his recording of George Gershwin’s opera “Porgy and Bess” and who conducted the world premiere of John Adams’ opera “Nixon in China” at the Houston Grand Opera, started his career as a promising pianist, as did many other conductors including Leonard Bernstein (with whom DeMain studied conducting), Sir Georg Solti, James Levine, Daniel Barenboim and Christoph Eschenbach. Aside from the pipe organ, the piano is generally considered to be the most orchestral of instruments — so it really comes as no surprise that so many conductors started out as pianists. (To be fair, still other well-known conductors began as string or wind players.)

DeMain will return to the piano this weekend when he splits accompanying duties with pianist Jeffrey Sykes (below), the co-founder and co-director of the Madison-based Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society. DeMain and Jeffrey Sykes will perform jointly in Johannes Brahms’ “Variations on a Theme of Robert Schumann,” Op. 23, and will take turns accompanying other performers in songs and romances for flute. (BDDS is also performing  a second program of  songs and chamber music by Ferdinand Ries, Ned Rorem, Frank Martin and Gabriel Faure.) 

Performances are on Saturday night at 7:30 p.m. in the Overture Center’s Playhouse (below top) and on Sunday evening, at 6:30 p.m. in the Hillside Theater (below bottom) at the landmark and historic Frank Lloyd Wright compound Taliesin in Spring Green.

BDDS Playhouse audience

taliesin_hillside2

The rest of the “love triangle” program of music by Robert Schumann, Clara Wieck Schumann (both below) and Johannes Brahms includes many songs by Robert Schumann, Clara Wieck Schumann and Brahms; Robert Schumann’s Three Romances for flute and piano, Op. 94; Clara Wieck Schumann’s Three Romances for flute and piano Op. 22. For more information about the program, performers and tickets, visit http://www.bachdancinganddynamite.org

Schumann_Robert_and_Wieck_Clara

DeMain (below, in a photo by Katrin Talbot) graciously answered an email Q&A for The Ear:

DeMainOpera

Most of us know you as a conductor, even though you have played continuo and conducted smaller operas from the keyboard for the Madison Opera. You started out as a pianist. Can you tell about your time as a pianist from starting lessons through competitions and Juilliard and the decision to go into conducting?

I started studying piano at the age of six. I was a pretty good sight-reader and loved to accompany myself singing. When I was a senior in high school, I won the Youngstown Symphony Society’s piano competition, competing with college-level students.

After making my debut playing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.1 with the symphony, I decided to audition for Juilliard. I was accepted and studied for six years with Adele Marcus (below, as a demanding young teacher and performer). I played chamber music with the concertmaster of the Juilliard orchestra, and I won a competition in New York for young artists.

Adele Marcus

Why did you want to change from being a pianist to being a conductor, especially an opera conductor? (What are the comparative pleasures and pains of each, the piano and conducting?)

Conducting sort of coexisted side by side with playing the piano. I was conducting the grade school band in fourth-grade when the teacher didn’t show up. It came to me naturally.

While at Juilliard I took some elective conducting courses with Jorge Mester (below). I earned my tuition for Juilliard by conducting musicals for big summer stock theaters in the summer.

063040_PasadeSym_LKH_

After graduating from Juilliard, I continued to play chamber music in New York and played a few recitals. I always had a big love for the theater, opera and singing as well as the symphony orchestra.

Certain opportunities were presented to me in the field of conducting, starting with the Norwalk Connecticut Symphony, followed by a lengthy stint with opera for public television.

That, in turn, led to a summer studying conducting at Tanglewood, and to beginning my professional career at the New York City Opera as the second winner of the Julius Rudel award. (Below is a photo of Julius Rudel, the Austrian native who led the New York City Opera for many years and also guest conducted at the Met and elsewhere .) My duties included 35 hours a week of coaching and playing rehearsals. So the piano was always part of my professional life.

julius rudel

My next position was with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra (below) as associate conductor. In addition to conducting the orchestra on tour and having my own subscription concerts, I was playing chamber music with members of the orchestra on our chamber music series.

St Paul Chamber Orchestra

How did the piano affect your conducting and what did you bring to conducting from the piano? And inversely, what does conducting now bring to your playing the piano?

Playing the piano is a great aid in learning orchestral scores. One can study both the melodic content of a work, but even more importantly the harmonic structure of the music.

Conducting makes me aware of pulse when I’m playing the piano. And, of course, there is the imagining the piano part as though it would be orchestrated, much the same way we imagine the human voice singing an orchestral melody.

I think the life of a pianist can be more isolated, considering the many hours of practicing that is required. While studying orchestral and operatic scores is also isolated and private, there are so many rehearsals with the cast or the orchestra that makes for a more social experience. That seems to suit me better.

John DeMain conducting 2

I suppose the trite answer is we do something because we can. I love the big playground of opera and symphony, and wouldn’t trade it for the world. But making music at the piano with fellow musicians is such an important part of a complete musical life.

In the orchestra world, we like to say that all music is chamber music. Listening to each other and responding accordingly is a great part of great orchestral playing. One develops this playing chamber music. Playing one-on one with your fellow musicians where everyone is equal. I feel blessed that I can participate in all of this from time to time.

Do have any comment about Brahms’ “Variations on a Theme of Robert Schumann” for piano, four-hands, and other works you will be performing this weekend with Jeffrey Sykes for the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society?

I certainly don’t play the piano publicly that frequently anymore, and I haven’t for years. But I thought this would be a rewarding experience, which is turning out to be just that. I have big respect for what Stephanie Jutt (who is principal flute with the Madison Symphony Orchestra) and Jeffrey Sykes (below) have created. And I love Jeffrey’s pianism.

jeffrey sykes

The Brahms theme-and-variations (played by the Kontarsky brothers in a YouTube video at bottom) are rather extraordinary, and we are enjoying ourselves immense putting them together. They are harmonically quite daring at times, and of course deal in the finality of life as well. It should be an interesting concert.


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