The Well-Tempered Ear

From Beethoven to today: The next five days at the UW-Madison are busy with FREE online concerts of new music, string music, brass music and more

April 8, 2021
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By Jacob Stockinger

From now through Monday, April 13, there are many FREE online concerts – virtual or pre-recorded – at the UW-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music.

The schedule includes three different concerts on Saturday, April 10, alone. (All times are central and many concerts will be available for longer than a day.)

The variety of music is terrific and features all kinds of instruments and genres of music.

Here is a link to all of them, which will appear on YouTube. If your click on “Show More,” you will see more information about the performers and the programs. You can also set a convenient Reminder Timer to help you remember to listen: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCZZ2F66Bu2yAfccvsugEtsA

You can read all of them by yourself. But the Ear wants to single out several of special interest.

NEW MUSIC: TONIGHT

If you are a fan of new music, there are two concerts you should consider listenIing to.

TONIGHT, April 8, at 7:30 p.m. and then at 8:30 p.m. are two concerts of new music.

The first concert is by the Contemporary Chamber Ensemble.

Titled “Colors” (below is the poster) the concert features music by Debussy, Lang, San Martin, UW-Madison professor Laura Schwendinger and Edgard Varese.

The performance are by faculty performers violist Sally Chisholm, flutist Conor Nelson and pianist Christopher Taylor, as well as alumni and students Eric Tran, Eric Delgado, Heidi Keener, Ben Therrell and Ben Yats.

Here is a link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t5Gxe7yTWpI

Then at 8:30 p.m., a studio recital by composition students (below) at the UW-Madison will take place. No names of performers or pieces are listed. But here is the link that is given: https://youtu.be/WmTBoLD9IQc

BEETHOVEN QUARTET CYCLE 7: FRIDAY NIGHT

At 7:30 p.m. is the seventh installment of the cycle, which is part of the Pro Arte Quartet’s yearlong retrospective of Beethoven’s string quartets to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth.

Members are David Perry and Suzanne Beia, violins; Sally Chisholm, viola; and Parry Karp, cello.

The program has two late quartets: the famous last one, Op. 135, in F major (1826) with the :”Muss es sein” (Must It Be?) motif, which can be heard in the YouTube video at the bottom of the final movement played by the Cypress String Quartet;  and the famous “Grosse Fuge” quartet and ending in B-flat Major, Opp. 130 and 133 (1825-6).

The Ear — who particularly likes Beethoven’s return to clarity and classicism in his final quartet — has listened to all the installments and they have all been superb. There’s no reason to expect anything different with this installment.

UW professor of musicology Charles Dill will give short introductory talks before each quartet. You can find extended program notes about the quartet and the program here: https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/pro-arte-quartet-beethoven-string-quartet-cycle-program-7/

And here is the link to the live-streamed concert from the Mead Witter Foundation Concert Hall in the Hamel Music Center: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IIW_5NVgGaA

UNIVERSITY OPERA SINGS SONGS OF RACIAL AND SOCIAL JUSTICE: SATURDAY AND SUNDAY

This spring, University Opera follows up its groundbreaking video production on the life and times of composer Marc Blitzstein with another video.

What’s Past is Prologue: The Unfinished American Conversation, a program of staged and filmed songs and song cycles with social and racial justice themes, will be released on the Mead Witter School of Music YouTube channel at https://youtu.be/7Up_OXD6K2U this Saturday, April 10, at 7:30 p.m., with an encore stream this Sunday, April 11, at 2 p.m. David Ronis, Director of University Opera, is the director, and Thomas Kasdorf is the musical director, who accompanies the singers on piano.

For more background, go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/university-opera-presents-whats-past-is-prologue-the-unfinished-american-conversation/

For the performance, go to: https://youtu.be/7Up_OXD6K2U


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Here is a collaborative obituary for music critic, radio host, performer and gay pioneer Jess Anderson, who died in January at 85

March 7, 2021
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By Jacob Stockinger

In late January of this year, Jess Anderson (below) — a longtime friend, devoted musician and respected music critic – died at 85.

The Ear promised then that when more was known or written, it would be posted on this blog.

That time has come.

Jess was a polymath, a Renaissance Man, as the comments below attest to time and again.

For the past several years, he suffered from advancing dementia and moved from his home of 56 years to an assisted living facility. He had contracted COVID-19, but died from a severe fall from which he never regained consciousness.

Jess did not write his own obituary and he had no family member to do it. So a close friend – Ed Wegert (below) – invited several of the people who knew Jess and worked with him, to co-author a collaborative obituary. We are all grateful to Ed for the effort the obituary took and for his caring for Jess in his final years.

In addition, the obituary has some wonderful, not-to-be-overlooked photos of Jess young and old, at home, with friends, sitting at the piano and at his custom-built harpsichord.

It appears in the March issue of Our Lives, a free statewide LGBTQ magazine that is distributed through grocery stores and other retail outlets as well as free subscriptions. Here is a link to the magazine’s home webpage for details about it: https://ourliveswisconsin.com.

That Jess was an exceptional and multi-talented person is obvious even from the distinguished names of the accomplished people who contributed to the obituary:

They include:

Chester Biscardi (below), who is an acclaimed prize-winning composer, UW-Madison graduate, composer and teacher of composition at Sarah Lawrence College.

John Harbison (below), the MacArthur “genius grant” recipient and Pulitzer Prize-winning composer who teaches at MIT and co-directs the nearby Token Creek Chamber Music Festival in the summer.

Rose Mary Harbison (below), who attended the UW-Madison with Jess and became a professional performing and teaching violinist who co-directs the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival.

Steve Miller (below), a close friend who became a bookmaker and is now a professor at the University of Alabama.

The Ear, who knew Jess over many decades, was also invited to contribute.

Here is a link to the joint obituary in Our Lives magazine, a free LGBTQ periodical that you can find in local grocery store and other retail outlets: https://ourliveswisconsin.com/article/remembering-jess-anderson/?fbclid=IwAR027dzv2YqRUNlYF1cF6JyXnEcQxAwcprPYbtBQCs3rYt0Nu847W_xbjpk

Feel free to leave your own thoughts about and memories of Jess in the comment section.

It also seems a fitting tribute to play the final chorus from The St. John Passion of Johann Sebastian Bach. You can hear it in the YouTube video below. It is, if memory serves me well, the same piece of sublime music that Jess played when he signed off from hosting his Sunday morning early music show for many years on WORT-FM 89.9.

 


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Today is the Winter Solstice. Here is a piece to make you look forward to longer days, warmth and the Summer Solstice next year

December 21, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

Today – Monday, Dec. 21 — is the Winter Solstice, the longest night and shortest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. It arrives at 4:02 a.m. CST.

The Ear expects that Wisconsin Public Radio, among other media outlets, will be marking the event with traditional, often austere, winter music. That includes “Winter” from Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons”; maybe some songs from Schubert’s “Winterreise” (Winter Journey); Peter Tchaikovsky’s “The Seasons” and “The Nutcracker”; and, of course, plenty of winter holiday music, including carols and the Baroque oratorios, cantatas and concertos by Bach, Handel, Telemann, Corelli and others.

But many people – strained by the coronavirus pandemic –are already eagerly looking forward to the days growing longer, which will culminate in the Summer Solstice at 10:31 p.m. CST on Sunday, June 21, 2021.

Who needs to celebrate the season’s cold and darkness? So The Ear thought that we could all use a little sonic sunlight, tonal warmth and musical hope, especially at the end of this Plague Year.

There are standards and favorites such as Mozart’s “Eine kleine Nachtmusik” and Vivaldi’s “Summer.” 

But to The Ear that work that really lifts one’s spirits, and captures the kind of joyful abandon and youthful energy of the mid-summer event, complete with animal noises and romance, is the “Overture to a Midsummer Night’s Dream” by a 17-year-old Felix Mendelssohn (below).

You can hear it below in a YouTube performance by the Gewandhaus Orchestra of Leipzig conducted by the late, great German conductor Kurt Masur, whose son, Ken-David Masur, is the new music director and conductor of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra.

The Ear hopes you enjoy it.

What music would you like to hear or play to mark the Winter Solstice?

Leave a suggestion with your reason and, if possible, YouTube link in the Comment section.

The Ear wants to hear.

 


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Pianist Jeremy Denk combines first-rate playing with innovative programs. He performs a virtual online recital this Friday night for the Wisconsin Union Theater

December 9, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

Jeremy Denk (below) is not only one of the top pianists on the concert stage today. He is also one of the most interesting and thoughtful pianists when it comes to original, innovative and eclectic programming.

Denk will display his talents again when he performs his third solo recital in Madison this Friday night, Dec. 11, for the Wisconsin Union Theater.

The concert of music by Robert Schumann, Clara Schumann, Johannes Brahms and Missy Mazzoli is at 7:30 p.m. and will be preceded by a public Q&A at 7 p.m. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, both the discussion and the concert will be virtual and online.

Access to the online posting is $20 for the general public, $17 for Wisconsin Union members, and $10 for students.

Denk’s performance, which is part of the Theater’s 101st Annual Concert Series, will include “Papillons” (Butterflies), Op. 2, by Robert Schumann; Three Romances, Op. 21, by Clara Schumann; “Bolts of Loving Thunder” by the contemporary American composer Missy Mazzoli (below); and Four Pieces for Piano, Op. 119, by Johannes Brahms. (You can hear Denk play the lyrically introspective first intermezzo of Brahms’ late Op. 119 in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

To purchase tickets to Denk’s performance, visit https://union.wisc.edu/events-and-activities/event-calendar/event/jeremy-denk/

Ticket buyers will receive an email from the box office approximately 2 hours before the event begins that will contain their link to view the performance. Anyone who purchases a ticket within 2 hours of the event’s start time will receive their email within 15 minutes of purchase. 

To The Ear, Denk’s well-planned and fascinating program seems like a probing contrast-and-compare, narrative exploration of the musical styles and close personal relationships – a kind of love triangle — between Robert and Clara Schumann (below top); between Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms, whom Robert Schumann championed; and between Brahms and Clara Schumann, who also championed Brahms (below bottom) but rejected him as a lover and suitor after the premature death of her husband Robert.

One of America’s foremost pianists, Denk is a winner of a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship, and the Avery Fisher Prize, and was recently elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

In the United States, Denk has performed with the Chicago Symphony, New York Philharmonic, Los Angeles Philharmonic, San Francisco Symphony and Cleveland Orchestra and frequently performs at Carnegie Hall. Internationally, he has toured with the world-famous Academy of St. Martin in the Fields and performed at Royal Albert Hall as part of the BBC Proms. 

Denk’s talents include writing about music. Some of his stories about music have been featured on the front page of The New York Times Book Review as well as in The New Yorker, The New Republic and The Guardian. Many of those writings form the basis for a forthcoming book.

His passion for composing both music and writing compositions is evident in his music-based blog “Think Denk” — “to think” in German is “denizen” — which dates back to 2005.

“Jeremy Denk is one of the greatest pianists of our generation,” says WUT director Elizabeth Snodgrass. “While many pianists specialize in a particular period or composer, Jeremy is a musical omnivore whose wide-ranging interests span centuries and styles, and he is exceptional at playing all of them. As The New York Times said, he is  ‘a pianist you want to hear no matter what he performs.’” 

Proof of that can be found in the program “c. 1300-c. 2000” he toured with and recorded last year for Nonesuch, which features a sampling tour of 700 years of keyboard compositions.

Said a critic for the Boston Globe: “Denk has “an unerring sense of the music’s dramatic structure and a great actor’s intuition for timing.” 


This performance was made possible by the David and Kato Perlman Chamber Music Endowment Fund.

Learn more about Jeremy Denk at: Facebook | Twitter | Instagram | Website

For more information and a video clip of Denk playing different Brahms, go to: https://union.wisc.edu/events-and-activities/event-calendar/event/jeremy-denk/

 


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UW-Madison’s new Marvin Rabin String Quartet makes its premiere when it performs a FREE online concert this Friday night

November 4, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

This Friday night, Nov. 6, will see the premiere concert by the new Marvin Rabin String Quartet at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Mead Witter School of Music.

The concert takes place virtually and online on the music school’s YouTube channel. It is scheduled to start at 6:30 p.m. and run to 8 p.m.

Here is the direct link: https://youtu.be/ObJMMA220Jw

The new string quartet — which replaces The Hunt Quartet — is named in honor of the late Dr. Marvin J. Rabin, who was an internationally acclaimed music educator and Professor Emeritus at UW-Madison.

Rabin (below) is best known as the founder of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras.

The members of the Marvin Rabin String Quartet are graduate students at the UW-Madison.

Members are (below from top left) are: Fabio Saggin, viola; Ben Therrell, cello; Ava Shadmani, violin; and Rachel Reese-Kollmeyer, violin.

They will perform the virtual concert in the Mead Witter Foundation Concert Hall of the Hamel Music Center.

There is NO in-person attendance

The program is:

String Quartet in B-flat major, Op. 18, No. 6 by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

Two Armenian Miniatures for String Quartet –“The Red Shawl” (heard in the YouTube video at the bottom) and “Echmiadzin Dance” – by the Armenian priest Komitas (1869-1935, see 1902 photo below) as arranged by S. Aslamazyan

Here is Komitas’ Wikipedia entry: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Komitas

15-MINUTE INTERMISSION

String Quartet in E minor, Op. 44, No. 2 by Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)

 


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The Pro Arte Quartet plays the fourth installment of its FREE Beethoven string quartet cycle online TONIGHT at 7:30 CDT

October 23, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

The historic Pro Arte Quartet, in residence at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music, will perform the fourth installment of its FREE Beethoven string quartet cycle TONIGHT — Friday, Oct. 23 — at 7:30 p.m. CDT. (It should be posted for about a day, but will not be archived due to copyright considerations.)

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the live concert will take place online and will be live-streamed without an audience from the Mead Witter Foundation Concert Hall in the new Hamel Music Center.

You can stream it live from https://youtu.be/IhmNRNiI3RM

The whole series of concerts are part of the Pro Arte Quartet’s yearlong retrospective to celebrate the Beethoven Year. This December marks the 250th anniversary of the birth of the composer (below).

Members of the Pro Arte Quartet (below, in a photo by Rick Langer) are: David Perry and Suzanne Beia, violins; Sally Chisholm, viola; and Parry Karp, cello.

A pre-concert lecture by UW-Madison musicology Professor Charles Dill (below, in a photo by Katrin Talbot) starts at 7:30 p.m. CDT.

The program consists of one early and one late quartet: the string Quartet in C Minor, Op. 18 No. 4 (1798-1800), and you can hear the first movement played by the Dover Quartet in the YouTube video at the bottom; and the String Quartet in E-Flat Major, Op. 127 (1825).

The Pro Arte Quartet is one of the world’s most distinguished string quartets. Founded by conservatory students in Brussels in 1912, it became one of the most celebrated ensembles in Europe in the first half of the 20th century and was named Court Quartet to the Queen of Belgium.

Its world reputation blossomed in 1919 when the quartet (below, in 1928) began the first of many tours that enticed notable composers such as Bartok, Barber, Milhaud, Honegger, Martin and Casella to write new works for the ensemble.

The Pro Arte Quartet performs throughout the United States, Europe, and Asia and continues to champion both standard repertoire and new music.

Since being stranded in the U.S. when Belgium was invaded by Hitler and the Nazis in World War II, the group is an ensemble-in-residence at the Mead Witter School of Music and resident quartet of the Chazen Museum of Art.

The quartet, the longest active string quartet in the history of music, has performed at the White House and, during the centennial celebration, played for the King’s Counselor in Belgium.

Recent projects include the complete quartets of Bartok and Shostakovich and, in collaboration with the Orion and Emerson String Quartets, the complete quartets of Beethoven.

Regular chamber music collaborators that perform with Pro Arte include Samuel Rhodes and Nobuko Imai, viola; Bonnie Hampton, cello; and the late Leon Fleischer and Christopher Taylor, piano. 

Together since 1995, the quartet has recorded works of Mendelssohn, Dvorak, Rhodes, Shapey, Sessions, Fennelly, Diesendruck, Lehrdahl and the centennial commissions.

For more information and background, go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/pro-arte-quartet-beethoven-string-quartet-cycle-program-iv/

For more about the challenges and modifications – including wearing masks and social distancing — of doing the Beethoven cycle for the virtual online performances and about the other dates and programs in the cycle, go to: https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2020/09/29/classical-music-uw-madisons-pro-arte-quartet-to-resume-its-free-beethoven-cycle-virtual-and-online-this-friday-night-with-two-other-programs-this-semester/

 


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Classical music: UW-Madison’s Pro Arte Quartet resumes its FREE Beethoven cycle virtual and online this Friday night with two other programs this semester

September 29, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

The University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Pro Arte Quartet (below, performing the first all-Beethoven program in Collins Recital Hall) will resume its complete cycle of Beethoven’s 16 string quartets online and virtually this coming Friday night.

This third concert is free, and as you might have read in previous reviews, The Ear found the first two to be outstanding performances that also mixed works from early, middle and late periods.

The cycle is being undertaken to mark the Beethoven Year, which culminates this December with the 250th anniversary of the birth of the composer (below).

Cellist Parry Karp (below) – the longest-standing member of the quartet and the person who often speaks for the quartet – sent the following note for posting:

“I thought I should bring the public up to date with the Pro Arte Quartet’s Beethoven cycle. Obviously things have had to change because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Before the pandemic, we were doing three quartets per concert. Since we now need to give the performances virtually and online, we have decided to perform two quartets per concert. Sitting at a computer for two hours at a time seemed a bit too much!

“We will be continuing the Beethoven cycle starting this Friday, Oct. 2, at 7:30 p.m. CDT. The program will consist of the early String Quartet in A Major, Op. 18 No. 5; and the late String Quartet in A Minor, Op. 132, with the famous “Sacred Hymn of Thanksgiving” (heard played by the Alban Berg Quartet in the YouTube video at the bottom).

The link to watch that concert is at: https://youtu.be/Mf-Mpt3EyNk

“Charles Dill (below, in a photo by Katrin Talbot), professor of musicology at the UW-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music, will give a short lecture about each quartet before the Pro Arte Quartet performs.

“Although the concerts will be taking place in the bigger Mead Witter Foundation Concert Hall in the new Hamel Music Center, the hall will be closed to the public for reasons of safety and public health.

“We will be playing with masks and with more separation or social distance from each other, which is a challenge and takes some adjusting to. It will also be odd to perform without a live audience.

“Unfortunately, because of copyright questions and royalties from the music editions we are using, the online concerts will not be archived for later viewing

“The other two concerts in the Pro Arte Quartet’s Beethoven cycle this semester will be on Friday, Oct. 23, at 7:30 p.m. CDT and Friday, Nov. 20, at 7:30 p.m. CST.

“We plan to complete the Beethoven cycle during the spring semester of 2021.

The programs for this semester are listed below.”

SEMESTER I SCHEDULE

Beethoven String Quartet Cycle will be performed by the Pro Arte Quartet with pre-performance lectures of the quartets by Professor Charles Dill

Pro Arte Quartet members (below in photo by Rick Langer) are: violinists David Perry and Suzanne Beia; violist Sally Chisholm; and cellist Parry Karp.

For history and background about the Pro Arte Quartet, which is the oldest active string quartet in the history of music, go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/pro-arte-quartet/.

PROGRAM 3

This Friday, Oct. 2, 2020 at 7:30 p.m. CDT in the Mead Witter Foundation Concert Hall.

String Quartet in A Major, Op. 18 No. 5 (1798-1800); and String Quartet in A Minor, Op. 132 (1825)

PROGRAM 4: Friday, Oct. 23, 2020, at 7:30 p.m. CDT in the Mead Witter Foundation Concert Hall

String Quartet in C Minor, Op. 18 No. 4 (1798-1800); and the String Quartet in E-Flat Major, Op. 127 (1825)

PROGRAM 5: Friday, Nov. 20, 2020 at 7:30 p.m. CST in the Mead Witter Foundation Concert Hall

String Quartet in D Major, Op. 18 No. 3 (1798-1800); String Quartet in E Minor, Op. 59 No. 2 (1806)

 


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Classical music: The prize-winning critic Alex Ross grieves to Brahms. What composer and piece would you choose to mourn the tragedies of the past week?

May 30, 2020
6 Comments

PLEASE HELP THE EAR. IF YOU LIKE A CERTAIN BLOG POST, SPREAD THE WORD. FORWARD A LINK TO IT OR, SHARE IT or TAG IT (not just “Like” it) ON FACEBOOK. Performers can use the extra exposure to draw potential audience members to an event. And you might even attract new readers and subscribers to the blog.

By Jacob Stockinger

This past week feels like a week that deserves mass grieving.

Of course, there was the life-changing, historic landmark of surpassing, in only a few months, more than 100,000 deaths from COVID-19 during the coronavirus pandemic in the United States.

There were the spikes in new COVID-19 cases and deaths following the opening up from lockdowns and the mass gatherings over the Memorial Day holiday weekend, such as the party at the Lake of the Ozarks (below) in Missouri.

Then there was the tragic, racist death — an alleged murder — of George Floyd by the police and the ensuing rioting, violence and additional death in Minneapolis as well as the seven shootings among protesters in Louisville.

And depending of your political point of view, there were the incidents of White House threats against social media, especially Twitter, for simply telling the truth or at least directing viewers to it.

So what can one say about these sad events and sad times with music?

Well, not too long ago Alex Ross (below), the prize-winning and internationally respected music critic for The New Yorker magazine, wrote an engaging and moving essay about why he finds Brahms to be the perfect composer for grieving and mourning.

He mentions other composers as possibilities, including Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert.

But Ross still finds Brahms more suited for several reasons. He even cites a favorite performance of a Brahms short, late Intermezzo by the Romanian pianist Radu Lupu. (You can hear that performance in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Here is a link: https://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/grieving-with-brahms

What composers – and what pieces or performances – do you find best for grieving? For marking loss?

Read the essay, listen to the music.

Then let us know in the comment section what music – perhaps Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings? – that you would want to listen to during sad occasions.

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: Acclaimed native son Kenneth Woods returns this weekend to conduct the Madison Symphony Orchestra. He talks to The Ear about what Madison meant to him and his international career

March 2, 2020
2 Comments

PLEASE HELP THE EAR. IF YOU LIKE A CERTAIN BLOG POST, SPREAD THE WORD. FORWARD A LINK TO IT OR, SHARE IT or TAG IT (not just “Like” it) ON FACEBOOK. Performers can use the extra exposure to draw potential audience members to an event. And you might even attract new readers and subscribers to the blog.

By Jacob Stockinger

This weekend, native Madisonian Kenneth Woods (below) returns from his home in the UK to conduct three performances of the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

The concerts feature two MSO debuts: the prize-winning young Canadian violinist Blake Pouliot performing Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor; and the acclaimed guest conductor, Kenneth Woods, leading the orchestra for the MSO premiere of Haydn’s Symphony No. 96, “Miracle” plus Richard Strauss’ tone poem Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life).

Performances will be held in Overture Hall on Friday night, March 6, at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday night, March 7, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday afternoon, March 8, at 2:30 p.m.

Single tickets are $19-$95 each and are on sale now, along with discounted tickets, at: https://madisonsymphony.org/event/the-miracle/; through the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street; or by calling the Box Office at (608) 258-4141. Fees apply to online and phone sales.

You can view program notes for this concert online at http://bit.ly/msomar2020programnotes

A Prelude Discussion by Randal Swiggum will take place one hour before each concert.

Guest conductor Kenneth Woods is a busy and versatile musician. He is the Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra and the artistic director of both the Colorado MahlerFest and the Elgar Festival in England. (You can hear Woods conducting Carl Maria von Weber’s “Oberon” Overture in the YouTube video at the bottom.) 

Woods has won accolades for rediscovering and recording the music of the Austrian-British composer Hans Gàl. Woods, who has played guitar in a rock band, is also a professional cellist who solos with orchestras and plays chamber music. He writes a respected blog. And he currently plays and records in the Briggs Piano Trio for Avie Records.

For much more information about Kenneth Woods, including his blog “A View From the Podium,” go to: https://kennethwoods.net/blog1/

Woods recently spoke via email to The Ear about what Madison has meant to him and to his international career.

How did living in Madison play a role in your decision to become a professional musician?

Madison offered me a chance to hear music at an early age. I was taken to watch a rehearsal of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestra as a very young kid, maybe three or four years old. That made a huge impression on me, especially seeing the rehearsal process. Later, my parents took us to all the UW Symphony Orchestra concerts for years.

There’s really no reason not to take young kids to concerts! For me, a love of live music led to a love of recorded music, listening to records at home, and from there, to an interest in playing music as a kid.

We were lucky to have a very strong music program in the Madison public schools when I was growing up here. The orchestras at Memorial High School played some really impressive repertoire under Tom Buchhauser (below top, in a photo by Jon Harlow). The UW Summer Music Clinic made being a musician social – it was a great immersion with one’s peers.

Most important, however, was probably the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO). Playing under Jim Smith (below bottom) was the most fantastic education in orchestral playing one could hope for. He and Tom are a big part of why I became a conductor.

Madison in those days wasn’t a super-pressurized scene, like one might encounter around the big pre-college programs in New York or LA. But what I might have missed in terms of conservatory-level instrumentalists in every corridor, one made up in terms of feeling like you could find your own path. By the time I was in high school, I pretty much knew music was that path.

How did your experiences in Madison help prepare you for that career?

I learned so much about rehearsing from Jim Smith. In his first year, we worked on Dvorak’s 8th Symphony pretty much all year. Every week, he opened our ears to new facets of the music. I’ve never forgotten that.

I went off to Indiana University to do my Bachelor’s degree, but returned to Madison for a Master’s, when I studied cello with UW-Madison professor Parry Karp (below top).

Those were wonderful years for me. I learned an enormous amount from Parry as both a cello teacher and chamber music coach (and especially as a person).

I played in fantastic chamber groups, did lots of wacky new music and had solo opportunities. UW Symphony Orchestra conductor David Becker (below bottom) even gave me my first meaningful chance to rehearse an orchestra when he had me take a couple of rehearsals on the Copland Clarinet Concerto.

And I played in both the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra. I came away from that time with both new skills and new confidence.

What does returning to your hometown to conduct the Madison Symphony Orchestra mean to you?

It’s both very exciting and a little surreal. Under the leadership of John DeMain (below top, in a photo by Greg Anderson), the MSO (below bottom, in a photo by Peter Rodgers) has come so far since the time I was in it. And the new hall is such a treasure for all of Wisconsin – it’s practically a different orchestra.

I still have many friends and former mentors in the orchestra and it’s going to be wonderful to see them all and make music together again after so long.

But it’s more than a homecoming. It’s a chance to celebrate where we’ve all been and what we’ve all done the last 20 years or so. My musical life has mostly been in the UK for a long time, so to re-connect with my musical roots here is rather magical.

What are your major current and upcoming projects?

The English Symphony Orchestra (below) represents the biggest chunk of my musical life. This year we’re celebrating Beethoven’s 250th birthday and the orchestra’s 40th anniversary.

The ESO has a special commitment to new and unknown music, and right now we’re in the midst of something called the 21st Century Symphony Project, which involves commissioning, premiering and recording nine new symphonies by diverse composers. It’s one of the most ambitious commissioning projects I’ve ever heard of, let alone been involved in.

I’m also excited about this year’s Colorado MahlerFest in Boulder, where we’re focusing on Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 “Resurrection” this May, which will crown a week of music exploring themes of color and visual art with music by Wagner, Messiaen and British composer Philip Sawyers.

Is the MSO program special to you?

I must say that it was incredibly generous of John DeMain to offer me such a fantastic program. Not every music director is gentleman enough to let a guest have Ein Heldenleben.

What would you like the public to know about your approach to music and about the specific works by Haydn, Mendelssohn and Richard Strauss?

Haydn’s music is maybe the richest discovery of my adult life. I didn’t get it as a kid, largely because most performances I heard were so dull.

His music is so varied, and his personality so complex, one mustn’t try to reduce him down to a simplistic figure. The late symphonies, of which this is one of the finest, are inexhaustible sources of wisdom, beauty, humor and sanity.

The Mendelssohn is really an astonishing piece. I’ve probably conducted it as much as any piece of music, with so many different soloists, all of whom had hugely different temperaments, personalities, sounds and approaches.

I’ve played it with some of the greatest violinists in the world and with young students. Somehow, whoever is playing, it always leaves me, and the audience, smiling. I’m pretty sure we can continue that streak with Blake Pouliot (below, in a photo by Jeff Fasano).

The Strauss is a rich, personal, wise, funny and moving work. It’s always a challenge, particularly bringing out all the astonishing detail in the score, but it’s also a real joy to perform. If the Mendelssohn always leaves me smiling, the Strauss always leaves me smiling with a tear in my eye.

 


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