By Jacob Stockinger
Several years ago, artistic director and conductor John DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad) decided to use the season-opening concerts of the Madison Symphony Orchestra to spotlight the symphony and its first-chair players as soloists.
No big-name imported guest soloists were to be booked.
Such multimedia events increasingly seem to work as a way to build audiences and boost attendance by new people and young people. After all, a music director has to sell tickets and fill seats as well as wave a baton.
And it seems that, on both counts, DeMain’s strategy proved spectacularly successful.
All sections of the orchestra (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson) — strings, brass, winds, percussion — played with energy, precision and subtlety. The MSO proved a very tight ensemble. Each year, you can hear how the MSO improves and grows increasingly impressive after 23 years of DeMain’s direction.
The public seemed to agree. It came very close to filling the 2,200-seat Overture Hall for all three performances with more than 6,100 audience members, according to Peter Rodgers, the new marketing director for the MSO. Especially noteworthy, he said, was the number of children, students and young people who attended.
In fact, so many students showed up for student rush tickets on Friday night that the performance was delayed by around 10 minutes – because of long lines at the box office, NOT because of the new security measures at the Overture Center, which Rodgers said worked smoothly and quickly.
But not everything was ideal, at least not for The Ear.
On the first half, the playing largely outweighed the music.
True, the Romanian Rhapsody No. 1 by a very young George Enescu (below) received a sizzling and infectious performance. With its catchy folk tunes, dance rhythms and Gypsy harmonies, the fun work proved an irresistible opener – much like a starting with an encore, which is rather like eating a rich and tasty dessert before tackling the more nutritious but less snazzy main course.
The music itself is captivating and frequently played – although this was its surprising premiere performance by the MSO. Little wonder the Enescu got a rousing standing ovation. Still, it is hardly great music.
Then came the Chaconne for violin and orchestra by the American composer John Corigliano (below), who based the work on his Oscar-winning film score for “The Red Violin.”
Concertmaster Naha Greenholtz (below) impressed The Ear and most others with her mastery of what appeared to be a very difficult score. The ovation was for her, not for the music.
That music also has some fine moments. But overall it seems a dull and tedious work, an exercise in virtuosity with some of the same flaws you find in certain overblown piano etudes by Franz Liszt. Once again the playing trumped the music.
Then came The Big Event: Gustav Holst’s “The Planets” coupled with clear, high-definition photos of the planets taken by NASA that were projected on a huge screen above the orchestra. Saturn’s rings, Jupiter’s and Venus’ clouds and Mars’ landscape (below) have never looked so impressive.
The orchestra again struck one with its exotic and “spacey” sound effects and with what must have been the difficulty of timing simultaneously the music and the images.
Yet ultimately Holst’s work became a sound track — music accompanying images rather than images accompanying the music. The Ear heard several listeners compare the admittedly impressive result to the movies “Fantasia” and “2001: A Space Odyssey.” That says something.
At some moments the sound and images really matched and reinforced each other, especially in the dramatic opening section, “Mars, the Bringer of War.” Holst’s score also succeeds nicely with “Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity” and to a lesser degree with “Venus, the Bringer of Peace.”
But overall “The Planets” reminds The Ear of colorful and dramatic programmatic showpieces such as Ottorino Respighi‘s “The Pines of Rome” and “The Fountains of Rome.” (Earth, curiously, is not included in “The Planets.” Makes you wonder: What would Earth bring?) Enjoyable music, to be sure, but not profound fare.
The Ear’s extensive library of CDs has none of the three works on the program. And it will probably remain that way.
While Holst’s work does have great moments, it grows long, repetitive and finally uninteresting as it ends not with a bang but with an underwhelming whimper – which was beautifully enhanced by the atmospheric singing of the MSO Women’s Chorus. There are just too many planets!
Listen to the YouTube video at the bottom, played by James Levine conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and you will see: Mars rules!
Add it all up and despite three standing ovations, in the end The Ear found the concert less than fully satisfying. The music, however likable and appealing, was not, for the most part, great music. Moreover, it was mostly trumped first by the performances and then by the visuals.
So on a personal note, here is The Ear’s request to the MSO, which scored an undeniably brilliant success with this program: Keep the same all-orchestra and first-chair format for season-openers and use multimedia shows whenever appropriate. But please also include at least one really first-rate piece of music with more substance.
Is that asking for too much?
Is The Ear alone and unfair in his assessment?
Other critics had their own takes and some strongly disagree with The Ear.
Here is a link to three other reviews:
By John W. Barker (below) for Isthmus:
By Jessica Courtier for The Capital Times:
And by Greg Hettmansberger (below), who writes for WISC-TV Channel 3 and his Classically Speaking blog for Madison Magazine, and on his own blog, What Greg Says:
What did you think of the music, the performances and the visual show?
How well did they mix?
What did you like most and least?
The Ear wants to hear.
By Jacob Stockinger
They will be in effect for the three MSO concerts this weekend, including the performance today, Sunday, Sept. 25, at 2:30 p.m.
For more information about the program, visit this link:
“Due to changes in the Overture Center’s security procedures, there will be only THREE main entry points into the building (below) as you come for your concert. When you arrive, please enter at:
• The main Overture Center entrance on State Street
• An entrance on Fairchild Street (one door only)
• The “back” entrance on Henry Street
Security stations will be placed at each entrance where Overture staff will conduct a bag search on bags larger than a small purse, including backpacks.
We anticipate that the process will be smooth and proceed quickly, although we do recommend you come early for peace of mind so you can enjoy the concert from start to finish!
For more information on the Overture Center’s security measures, please visit the website at overturecenter.org/about/security
The Ear wonders what effect these new security measures will have on attendance at the symphony, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra concerts, the Madison Opera, the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society and other non-musical events.
The Ear would like to know if the new security measures come in response to an actual terrorist threat or are simply a new standard operating procedure. The published explanation leans to the latter and says the Overture Center was to take the same precautions that big presenters in, say New York City and Washington, D.C., do.
Does anyone have more information or an opinion?
What do you think about the necessity or desirability of such measures ?
And what was your experience like with the new procedures?
The Ear wants to hear.
In the meantime, this afternoon is your last chance to hear the program that generally gets very positive reviews.
Here is the review that John W. Barker (below) wrote for Isthmus:
And here is the review that Jessica Courtier wrote for The Capital Times:
By Jacob Stockinger
The Ear has received the following announcement from the Madison Symphony Orchestra:
The Madison Symphony Orchestra (MSO, below), with Music Director John DeMain conducting, opens its 91st season – and its 23rd season under Maestro DeMain — with three works by 20th-century composers.
Science, music and stunning visuals come together with Gustav Holst’s The Planets accompanied by a spectacular, high-definition film featuring NASA imagery. (Below is a photo of Jupiter, “The Bringer of Jollity” to Holst. The musical depiction of Jupiter — performed by James Levine conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra — is in the YouTube video at the bottom.
The concerts are in Overture Hall on this Friday., Sept. 23, at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, Sept. 24, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Sept. 25, at 2:30 p.m.
A national hero in his homeland, Enescu rarely included hints of his Romanian heritage in his music, except when he composed the Romanian Rhapsodies as a teenager. Romanian Rhapsody No. 1 captures a series of Romanian folk songs, including melodies of increasingly wild Gypsy dances. This is MSO’s first performance of this work.
In the Chaconne, American composer John Corigliano (below) draws the audience in with a foreboding and haunting signature tune, which he wrote for the powerful film about music, The Red Violin. His film score for the movie earned him an Academy Award in 1999 for his original music. This will be the first time MSO has performed this Oscar-winning work, and features MSO Concertmaster Naha Greenholtz.
Greenholtz (below) has captivated audiences as Concertmaster of the MSO and the Quad City Symphony Orchestra. A Canadian violinist, Greenholtz was born in Kyoto, Japan, where she began her violin studies at age three.
Since her solo debut at 14, she continues to perform internationally, most notably with: the Oregon Symphony, Calgary Philharmonic, National Ballet of Canada, Omaha Symphony, and Memphis Symphony.
The Planets is known as Holst’s most popular work. The musical movements were inspired by characteristics connected with astrology’s seven planets. For instance, ominous sounding Mars, the Bringer of War, is followed by the calmly flowing Venus, the Bringer of Peace. (Below top is Mars and below bottom is Venus.)
The performances will be accompanied by a high-definition film projecting celestial images above the main stage.
According to New York Times senior critic Anthony Tommasini, the film shows “photographs from rovers and satellites, radar images and computer-generated graphics … combining to give the audience the impression of circling individual planets and sometimes flying over their awesomely barren landscapes.” (Below is a close-up of the surface of Mars.)
The Madison Symphony Women’s Chorus (below top, in a photo by Greg Anderson), under the direction of Beverly Taylor, will be part of the final movement of The Planets, and the Overture Concert Organ (below bottom) is featured at several moments in the piece.
This is the first time MSO’s performance of The Planets will be accompanied by the high-definition film.
One hour before each performance, Randal Swiggum, the artistic director of the Elgin Youth Symphony Orchestra Artistic, will lead a 30-minute Prelude Discussion in Overture Hall to enhance concertgoers’ understanding and listening experience.
For more background on the music, please view the Program Notes at: http://www.allsenmusic.com/NOTES/1617/1.Sep16.html or madisonsymphony.org/planets.
Before all of the concerts and at intermission, Friends of University of Wisconsin–Madison Astronomy will have an interactive display in the lobby concertgoers can experience.
The Symphony 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 pre-concert talk and the astronomy exhibit (free for all ticket-holders).
Single Tickets are $16 to $87 each and are on sale now at madisonsymphony.org/planets, 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 visit, madisonsymphony.org/groups.
Student rush tickets can be purchased in person on the day of the concert at the Overture Box Center Office at 201 State Street. Students must show a valid student ID and can receive up to two $12 or $15 tickets. More information is at: 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.
Major funding for the September concerts is provided by: NBC15, Diane Ballweg, Capitol Lakes, Friends of University of Wisconsin–Madison Astronomy, The Gialamas Company, Inc., and Nicholas and Elaine Mischler. Additional funding is provided by: Analucia and Mark Allie, for their beloved “Doc” Richard Greiner; Judith and Nick Topitzes, and the Wisconsin Arts Board with funds from the State of Wisconsin and the National Endowment for the Arts.