The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Super-virtuoso pianist Marc-André Hamelin makes his Madison debut with the Madison Symphony Orchestra this weekend in concertos by Richard Strauss and Maurice Ravel

April 8, 2019

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By Jacob Stockinger

As a pianist, he is known as someone who can play more notes faster and more clearly than anyone one – in short, a “super-virtuoso.”

He is the Canadian pianist Marc-André Hamelin (below), who will make his Madison debut this weekend with the Madison Symphony Orchestra when he performs two concertos: “Burlesque” by Richard Strauss and the Piano Concerto in G Major by Maurice Ravel.

The program opens with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Symphony No. 38, “Prague,” and closes with Claude Debussy’s La Mer (The Sea).

Performances take place in Overture Hall, 201 State St., on Friday, April 12, at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, April 13, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, April 14, at 2:30 p.m.

An Open Rehearsal will be held on Thursday, April 11 — free and open to the public. Limited space is available (RSVP required by calling 608 257-3734). Patrons must arrive by 6:45 p.m. For more information about the concerts and rehearsal, go to:

Maestro John DeMain (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson), who will conduct the concerts, says: “Marc-André Hamelin is one of the major pianists of our time. This program features two of the greatest German composers and two great French Impressionists. Always inspired by Mozart, I am delighted to open with his Prague symphony.

“Then comes Strauss’ Burlesque with Marc-André performing virtuosic and delightful musical fare. After intermission comes another favorite of mine, Ravel’s Piano Concerto with its sultry, cabaret-like slow movement that climaxes with a raucous but fun last movement. (In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear Martha Argerich play that second movement with conductor Claudio Abbado and the Berlin Philharmonic.)

“The concert closes with Claude Debussy’s La Mer, his amazing tone poem that conjures up images of the sea both raging and calm, placing ultimate demands on the orchestra and creating an aural thrill for the audience.”


The Oregonian summarizes the featured soloist concisely: “Is there anything Marc-André Hamelin can’t do at the piano?” Pianist Marc-André Hamelin is known worldwide for his unrivaled blend of consummate musicianship and brilliant technique, as well as for his exploration of the rarities of the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries — in concert and on disc.

Although primarily a performer, Hamelin has composed music throughout his career. He was a distinguished jury member of the 15th Van Cliburn Competition in 2017, where each of the 30 competitors in the Preliminary Round were required to perform Hamelin’s “L’Homme armé.” It marked the first time the composer of the commissioned work was also a member of the jury.

A prolific maker of recordings, Hamelin (below) was honored with the 2014 ECHO Klassik Instrumentalist of Year (Piano) and Disc of the Year for his three-disc set of “Busoni: Late Piano Music.” An album of his own compositions, “Hamelin: Études,” received a 2010 Grammy nomination and a first prize from the German Record Critics’ Association. Hamelin is the recipient of a lifetime achievement award from the German Record Critics’ Association.


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

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.

Program notes for the concerts are available online:

  • Single Tickets are $18-$93 each and are on sale now at:
 through 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,
  • 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:
  • 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 2018-19 symphony subscription concerts are available. Learn more at:
  • Out at the Symphony tickets include a seat in the Circle level of Overture Hall (regular price ($70-93), plus the after-party, for $45. Reception-only tickets are available for $25 each. Learn more at:

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

Major funding for these concerts was provided by Madison Gas & Electric Foundation, Inc., Fred and Mary Mohs, Skofronick Family Charitable Trust and WPS Health Insurance. Additional funding was provided by Forte, James and Joan Johnston, Gary and Lynn Mecklenburg, Rodney Schreiner and Mark Blank, Stafford Rosenbaum LLP, and the Wisconsin Arts Board with funds from the State of Wisconsin and the National Endowment for the Arts.

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Classical music: UW alumna and opera diva Brenda Rae returns to wow the crowd with her virtuosic singing while the UW Symphony Orchestra puts its strengths on display.

September 29, 2015

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.


By John W. Barker

The concert by the UW Symphony Orchestra on Sunday evening night was hyped largely for the appearance of the brilliant young soprano Brenda Rae (née Kinkert in Appleton, Wisconsin).

Soprano Brenda Rae

An undergraduate in the UW-Madison School of Music, and participant in University Opera productions a few years back, she has since moved on, through the Juilliard School, to a burgeoning career in German opera houses. This concert was the climax of her weekend return here to help promote the funding of the UW voice and opera program.

To her considerable credit, she chose as her scheduled vehicle Reinhold Gliere’s Concerto for Coloratura Soprano and Orchestra, a rarely heard work that is quite fascinating.

Gliere uses the solo part in instrumental terms, as a vocalise, without words. The work might be described as a concerto for vowels and orchestra. It is meant to explore the sheer sound of the soprano voice, in all its possible colors.

The soloist (below) is heard in the slow first movement blending into a handsomely melodious Late Romantic orchestral sound, while the second movement tests a coloratura’s virtuosity in suggesting meaning through inflection rather than words.

Brenda Rae in Gliere

It is an extraordinary work, both lovely and clever, and too few sopranos have opportunities to try it out. Inevitably, though, there was the big-hit opera aria as an encore, no less than Violetta’s grand effusions in Act One of Giuseppe Verdi’s “La traviata.”

Brenda Rae (below) sang it as a true diva, to tonal and dramatic perfection. But it also served to point up the kind of operatic style that Gliere was suggesting, and affectionately spoofing, in his concerto.

Brenda Rae in Verdi

There was far more than just vocal display to this concert, however.

The opening item was no less than Claude Debussy’s challenging tone poem La Mer. The work calls for both skilled playing and artful leadership. Conductor James Smith gave another demonstration of his capacity to draw wonders from his student players — unfolding and blending the kaleidoscope of instrumental colors that Debussy manipulates variously in each of the three movements.

UW Symphony violins 2015

Though some of the audience (mostly students, I think) walked out at the intermission — more interested in performers than in music, I fear — the bulk of the audience that remained was treated to another of maestro Smith’s wonders, if not miracles. Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances, his last completed work, is a fiercely difficult and draining affair.

Smith and his students sounded like confident pros in a probing, powerful performance of this piece, one of the truly great orchestral scores of the 20th century. I think this performance will be found to stand up well against impending competition, when the Madison Symphony Orchestra plays the same work in its October program. (Don’t miss that!)

UW Symphony cellos 2015

Here we have “Madison’s third orchestra” – the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra being the other two — making a blazing trail of its own in the direct wake this past weekend of the MSO’s own magnificent September concerts.

Oh, how blessed musically is Madison for those who take the trouble to benefit from it all!

Classical music Q&A: What makes Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2 so great? French pianist Philippe Bianconi discusses his upcoming performances of it this weekend with the Madison Symphony Orchestra. Plus, the memorial performances for singer Ilona Kombrink are this Sunday afternoon.

October 15, 2013

ALERT and REMINDER: Ilona Kombrink (below), UW Emeritus Professor of Voice, passed away on Friday, August 9, 2013 in Stoughton, Wisconsin, at the age of 80. A Memorial Concert and celebration of Ilona’s life will be held on this Sunday, October 20, 2013 at 3 p.m. in the Grand Hall at Capitol Lakes Retirement Community, 333 West Main Street, Madison. The public is invited with no formal reservations necessary.

A member of the University of Wisconsin-Madison voice faculty from 1967-2003, “Ms. K” counted among her students hundreds of singers and teachers working all over the world today. She performed frequently in her own recitals and collaborated often with many of her UW faculty colleagues on and off-campus. She was beloved in the wider Madison community for her uncompromising vocal artistry, and was featured in appearances with Madison Opera, Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Capitol City Band, and others.

Among the performers will be former students: Kathleen Otterson (Edgewood College), Margaret (Peggy) Walters, and Daniel Johnson-Wilmot (Viterbo University); UW colleagues: Professor Howard Karp (piano) and Professor Parry Karp (‘cello); Professor Karlos Moser (opera); and Professor Tyrone Greive (violin). Participating pianists include Michael Keller, Bruce Bengtson, Michael Ross, Janet Smith, and Melinda Moser. UW Professor Mimmi Fulmer, former student Marcia Roberts McCoy, and Professor James Latimer will offer remembrances. A reception will follow in the Capitol Lakes Encore Room.

Ilona Kombrink color

By Jacob Stockinger

French pianist Philippe Bianconi (below), a favorite of Madison audiences, returns this weekend for three performances, with the Madison Symphony Orchestra, of the towering Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat Major, Op. 82, by Johannes Brahms.


The program also includes Claude Debussy’s famous tone poem “La Mer” and Benjamin Britten’s “Variation and Fugue on a Theme of Henry Purcell,” which the composer also used in the popular “The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra” (that will be performed at the MSO’s fall school concerts) and which will mark the centennial of the composer’s birth.

Performances, under the baton of MSO music director John DeMain, are in Overture Hall in the Overture Center at 7:30 p.m. on Friday; 8 p.m. on Saturday; and 2:30 p.m. on Sunday.

Tickets are $13.50-$82.50. For more information, visit:

For program notes by J, Michael Allsen, who plays trombone in the orchestra, visit:

For more about Philippe Bianconi, who was born in Nice in 1960 and is the new director of the famed American Conservatory in France, visit:

To The Ear, Bianconi – who won a silver medal in the Seventh Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in 1985 – is a rare find: an outstanding virtuoso pianist who is also a poetic and complete musician in almost any repertoire, not just French music. I find his Rachmaninoff Rhapsody as convincing as his Debussy Preludes.

Bianconi (below) recently agreed to an email interview:


How do you rate the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2 among the other standard or popular concertos in the repertoire and in your own preferences?

I am not so sure that the Brahms Second Piano Concerto belongs to the most standard repertoire or to the most popular concertos, but it is certainly considered one of the great masterpieces of the kind.

In my own preferences, it stays at the very top. As a matter of fact, if I were pressed to choose one piano concerto for a desert island, my choice would be Brahms second. (Of course, I’d be devastated to leave behind a number of other great concertos!)

What makes it do great or special for you? What role has it played in your career? Do you play a lot of other Brahms and what do you like about Brahms?

There are many reasons that make it so special in my own pantheon, but the main one will seem a little odd: to me this concerto is not really a concerto – it is really a symphony with principal piano.

It has four movements, like a symphony, and everything about it — the structure, the texture, the way the piano is integrated into the orchestral fabric i– s very symphonic. And that is what I love about it: I have the feeling I’m playing in a Brahms symphony !


I don’t think it has played a particular role in my career, but every time I had the opportunity to play this piece was a great moment of happiness.

The sheer beauty of this music is simply overwhelming. And I don’t know many concertos that have such a great range of moods and emotions.

There is such grandeur and majesty in the first movement, it’s like climbing a mountain in the Alps, and when you get to the top, you discover a panorama of breathtaking beauty. Then there is the dark and violent passion burning in the second movement.

Then comes the sublime slow movement with the unforgettable solo of the cello that brings tears to my eyes every time. And finally, the lightness, the grace, the spirit of the last movement, in great contrast with the other movements, in the pure tradition of Haydn, even with the gypsy touch of the second theme.

This concerto is like a fabulous journey.

I have played a lot of other music by Brahms (below), including most of the chamber music with piano, and among the music for solo piano, I have a deep love for his late cycles. To me, Brahms is a true romantic at heart. He explores such a variety of feelings: passion, lyricism, dreamy intimacy, stormy conflicts, and it is all molded in classical form, and that is what gives his music such emotional power.


I know that one very well-known pianist said he had to perform it more than 200 times live before recording it. What makes the Brahms Second so challenging? Technical difficulties? Interpretive difficulties? What would you like the audience to listen for in your performance?

This concerto is very challenging for many reasons.

It is very long, between 45 and 50 minutes depending on the tempi chosen. It requires great strength, especially in the first two movements. Of course you must find a natural and relaxed strength in order to maintain a large, singing tone all the time. If you force or bang, the sound becomes ugly and it’s just unbearable.

The technical difficulties are numerous: the horrendous chords and jumps, the runs in double notes. There are also very “un-pianistic” things too. Because the piano is really part of the orchestra, and conceived in orchestral terms, in “coloristic” terms, and in relationship with the other instruments, certain things are technically very strange and awkward. Alfred Brendel (below) used to talk about the “pianistic perversions” of Brahms’ Second Concerto.

Then of course, the interpretative challenge is great too, and also because of the integration of the piano in the orchestra. You cannot think as a “soloist” when you play it. From beginning to end, you must have in mind the structure of the whole piece and the full orchestral texture, even in the solo passages. As a matter of fact, the collaboration with the conductor is absolutely crucial in this piece.

Brendel playing BIG

You have become a favorite pianist of Madison audiences and the Madison Symphony Orchestra and conductor John DeMain? How do you feel about the city and its audiences as well as about the orchestra?

I am so happy to come back to Madison. It’s a beautiful, lively city, and I love coming here. And I love the audience too. They are always so warm and enthusiastic.

I have played a number of times with the Madison Symphony and John DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad), and every time has been a great musical and human experience. I feel a little bit like I’m coming back home to my family.

As I said, when you play Brahms Second, collaborating with the conductor is very important, so you can imagine how I look forward to performing it with John DeMain. I know it’s going to be one of the best experiences of my life with this piece.

John DeMain full face by Prasad

What are your current projects and plans for concert performances, recordings, etc.?

In the next few months, I have some recitals planned in Europe, and in February I will be back in the States for a series of concerts with the Buffalo Philharmonic and Joann Falletta, playing Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in Buffalo and then on tour in Florida. Then I will be playing the Grieg Concerto in Santa Rosa, California, with the Santa Rosa Symphony and Bruno Ferrandis. It will be a great month of February for me.!

Last week, I recorded my first Chopin CD, which should be released in 2014. It’s with the same label (La Dolce Volta) I recorded the complete Debussy preludes (below, in a YouTube video) last year. It’s a new and energetic label and I’m really happy to work with them.

Classical music: 150 years later, do we still not know the real Debussy?

April 5, 2012

By Jacob Stockinger

During the past few years we have heard a lot about the anniversaries of Mendelssohn, Chopin, Liszt, Schumann and Mahler. Next year is Wagner.

But this year is a Debussy Year, and we haven’t heard nearly as much, even in anticipation.

That is regrettable.

There is a strong case to be made for Debussy (below) as The Modernist of All Modernists, the man who broke the Germanic strangle hold once and for all on classical music and who pioneering new structure and new harmony.

So far, the best piece I’ve read is this one in the UK’s The Guardian that I have linked to. But I expect to hear much more from such well-known critics as Alex Ross, Anthony Tommasini and Anne Midgette, among others.

There is so much Debussy I love, and good Debussy with a strong rhythmic and harmonic  backbone – not just the gauzy focus and slushy sentimentality that we wrongly associate with Impressionism. There is structure and Cartesian rationality and irony galore, as well as a distinctly Gallic subversive sensuality, in Debussy’s work.

I love the solo piano works — the two books of Preludes, the two books of Images, the Estampes, the Suite Bergamasque and the Ile Joyeuse. I love the Violin Sonata and the String Quartet.  I love the orchestral tone poems like Prelude to the Afternoon of a FaunLa Mer and Nocturnes. And I especially adore his “Homage to Rameau” (at bottom, played by Arturo Benedetti Michelangelo).

How would you describe the “real” Debussy”

What are your favorite Debussy works and your favorite Debussy interpreters?

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