The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Festival Choir of Madison performs under famed choral conductor Joseph Flummerfelt this Saturday night.

May 6, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following timely and important announcement:

The Festival Choir of Madison (below) and its new artistic director Sergei Pavlov – who teaches at Edgewood College — will close the current season with a special concert this Saturday night, May 7, at 7:30 p.m. at the Christ Presbyterian Church, located at 944 East Gorham Street in downtown Madison.

Festival Choir of Madison at FUS

The performance features one of the legendary American choral conductors, Maestro Joseph Flummerfelt (below right, with Sergei Pavlov). You can hear a long Q&A interview with Joseph Flummerfelt in the YouTube video at the bottom.

Sergei Pavlov (l) with Joseph Flummerfelt

The program with the Festival Choir includes music by German composers Felix Mendelssohn and Johannes Brahms, British composer Herbert Howells, Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff, Polish composer Henryk Gorecki and Scottish composer James MacMillan. Sorry, no word on individual works to be performed.

Tickets for the evening concert are available at the door and cost between $9 and $15.

Since 1971, Joseph Flummerfelt (below) has been responsible for most of the choral work of the New York Philharmonic, working closely with its music directors Leonard Bernstein, Zubin Mehta, Pierre Boulez, Kurt Masur, Lorin Maazel and Alan Gilbert. Until 2004 he was Director of Choral Activities in the Westminster Choir College in Princeton, New Jersey.

Joseph Flummerfelt conducting side

Joseph Flummerfelt (below) with the Westminster Symphonic Choir and New York Choral Artists has been featured in 45 recordings, including a Grammy Award-winning CD of the Symphony No. 3 by Gustav Mahler with Leonard Bernstein. His collaboration with the great American composer Samuel Barber includes the Grammy Award-winning recording of Barber’s opera “Anthony and Cleopatra.”

Joseph Flummerfelt conducting frontal

In 2004 Flummerfelt was awarded a Grammy for the New York Choral Artists’ recording of “On the Transmigration of Souls,” a Pulitzer Prize-winning composition written by John Adams in memory of the victims of the terrorist attacks on 9/11.

A master teacher, Flummerfelt’s many former students occupy a number of major choral positions throughout the world. Yannick Nezet-Seguin (below) — the current music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra and guest conductor of the Metropolitan Opera, who, as a teenager, studied with Dr. Flummerfelt in two advanced conducting summer workshops — cites him as one of the two major influences in his life as a conductor. A 2009 New York Times article said, “Mr. Nezet-Seguin called those sessions with Flummerfelt the only significant conducting lessons he ever had.”

Yannick Nezet-Seguin close up

Flummerfelt has a special connection with Madison as well. As an undergraduate student in De Pauw University in Indiana, he was deeply inspired by a performance of a visiting choir, and the conductor of this group was Robert Fountain, the legendary Director of Choral Programs at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music.

Also on Saturday, May 7 at 11 a.m. there will be a question/answer session for all who would like to meet the Maestro Flummerfelt. The host is Edgewood College, and the session will be at the Washburn Heritage Room in the Regina Building. This is a FREE event.


Classical music: Let us now praise string teacher Janet Jensen, who retires after almost 50 years at the UW-Madison. Her final concert with the All-University Strings is Saturday afternoon at 4 in Mills Hall.

April 29, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

Loyal readers know that The Ear is a big supporter of music education and amateur music-making.

All the more reason to honor Janet Jensen (below), then, who is retiring as the string pedagogue at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music.

Faculty

Jensen has spent almost 50 years teaching strings not only to specialists but also to music educators and amateur student musicians.

Her final concert with the All-University Strings (below) is this Saturday afternoon at 4 p.m. in Mills Hall. It will also feature the Sonora Strings from the Suzuki Strings of Madison plus soloists John Povolny and Lili Kim as well as guest conductors Mikko Rankin Utevsky and Brandi Pease.

The FREE concert will feature string music by Johann Sebastian Bach (the Brandenburg Concerto No. 3, which you can hear in a YouTube video at the bottom); Antonio Vivaldi; John Rutter; Ernest Bloch; Edvard Grieg; Leonard Bernstein; and others.

Student musicians play violin during a UW Symphony Orchestra rehearsal at Mills Hall in the Mosse Humanities building. The orchestra is one of several groups to be featured during "The Chancellor Presents UW Performing Artists of the Future," a music, drama and dance event to be held Saturday, Feb. 25, at Overture Hall. ©UW-Madison University Communications 608/262-0067 Photo by: Jeff Miller Date: 02/06 File#: D100 digital camera frame 3063

©UW-Madison University Communications. Photo by Jeff Miller

In a prepared statement, Jensen (below, in a photo by Katrin Talbot) said:

“This concert marks the 25th anniversary of my leadership. It also marks my retirement from the School of Music, where I’ve been a student, staff member and faculty member – an association spanning nearly 50 years.

Janet Jensen Katrin Talbot

“In my dual faculty roles of Professor of String Pedagogy and Associate Director I have had the opportunity to serve many populations – colleagues, music majors and non-majors – but I’ve found particular authenticity in the All-University String Orchestras and in bringing majors and non-majors together.

“That sense of authenticity derives from several sources. A former, and maybe future, public school music teacher, I realized that musical groups for non-music majors in fact serve the teachers, mentors and programs that produced them.

UW Symphony Strings cellos

“I’m a product of public education and the beneficiary of tenets of the Wisconsin Idea and University Extension programs, so it also became clear to me that such musical groups extend UW’s impact beyond the campus to the state borders and beyond.

“Deeply influenced by the values inherent in community music programs and life-long learning in music, I realized that providing a musical setting that could be balanced with multiple degrees and academic loads would better ensure that non-majors would opt to keep music in their lives — and, as they themselves become voters, parents and advocates, in the lives of others.”

Here is a link to a website posting with the compete program plus a very informative and even moving set of remarks by Jensen who discusses the program, her personal background and her commitment to a broad music education:

http://www.music.wisc.edu/event/all-university-strings-2/


Classical music: Mixing old and new music. Violinist Hilary Hahn talks about the works she commissioned and will play alongside classics when she performs Sunday night at the Wisconsin Union Theater

April 20, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger 

There are many great violinists playing today. But arguably the most important and innovative is 36-year-old Hilary Hahn (below), the thoughtful virtuoso who returns to perform a MUST-HEAR recital in Shannon Hall of the Wisconsin Union Theater at 7:30 p.m. this coming Sunday night.

The last two recitals there by Hahn were two of the most memorable live chamber music performances The Ear has ever heard.

Hilary Hahn 2016

Tickets are $27.50 to $50.50. UW-Madison students are $10.

Here is a link to information about tickets, the program and audio samples:

http://uniontheater.wisc.edu/Season15-16/hilary-hahn.html

During her 20-year career, Hahn – who often mixes the old and new both in live performances and on recordings — has consistently turned in astounding performances of the violin repertoire, including classics. Those works include concertos and sonatas by Johann Sebastian Bach, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, Felix Mendelssohn, Niccolo Paganini, Johannes Brahms, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Charles Ives, Jean Sibelius, Edward Elgar, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Samuel Barber, Igor Stravinsky, Arnold Schoenberg, Sergei Prokofiev, Dmitri Shostakovich, Leonard Bernstein and others.

But she also frequently commissions and adds new works to the repertoire, including a concerto by Edgar Meyer and a Pulitzer Prize-winning concerto by Jennifer Higdon, who teaches composition at the Curtis Institute of music where Hahn studied. Plus, she is a talented and charming “postcard” blogger and interviewer.

Both sides of Hilary Hahn’s artistry – the classic and the contemporary — will be on display during her Madison recital. The very busy Hahn (below, in a photo by Peter Miller) recently agreed to do an email Q&A with The Ear:

Hilary Hahn 2016 CR Peter Miller

You have long been known as an innovative artist. What are your new and upcoming projects, including recordings and commissions?

I’m in the middle of a 14-month-long artist residency at the Vienna Konzerthaus. It’s my first such experience, so I feel like a kid in a candy store, getting to try out ideas sequentially that I would otherwise have to stretch over several years.

I’m excited to include among my residency performing as soloist with five different orchestras in the same hall, as well as giving a recital there and developing local initiatives to bring the community and classical music even closer together. Next year, I will be in residence in Seattle and Lyon. It’s been fun seeing what residency activities I want to carry over and what I can add that is specific to each city.

As far as commissions go, over this season and next, I’m world-premiering and touring a significant new contribution to the solo violin repertoire, Six Partitas by Antón García Abril (below), written for me.

That is a meaningful project for me, because I sensed that Mr. García Abril would write a fantastic set of pieces if I could convince him to take on the assignment. He decided to do it and the music turned out to be more wonderful and inspiring to play than I could have imagined. It feels like those phrases breathe with me and the notes fit in my hands.

In addition, I am in the process of wrapping up the original trajectory of my project, In 27 Pieces: the Hilary Hahn Encores. After some concerts on this upcoming tour, as encores, my recital partner Cory Smythe and I will be giving world premieres of the Honorable Mentions from my Encores contest.

Finally, in the fall, the complete edition of the sheet music for all 27 original works will be published as a single edition, with my fingerings, bowings and performance notes.

Anton García Abril BW

Is there an underlying unity or purpose to your program of works by Mozart, Bach, García Abril, Copland and Davidson?

I hope the listeners will find their own versions of unity and purpose in the program. The pieces weren’t assembled randomly, but then again, everyone listens differently.

García Abril’s Six Partitas, of which I will play No. 1, entitled “Heart,” are solo polyphonic works. The violin alone carries multiple melodic lines, as well as providing its own harmonies. Johann Sebastian Bach (below top) wrote his polyphonic Six Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin in 1720. I felt it was important to carry forward this particular type of composition into the present day, so I commissioned Mr. García Abril (below bottom, in a photo by Julio Ficha) to create this set of works. (You can hear Hilary Hahn interview Anton Garcia Abril in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

His writing for violin is compelling, fluid, emotional, clever and expressively rich in a way that I felt needed to be explored further. Especially as this is the premiere tour of his Partita No. 1, I wanted to juxtapose the new work with one of Bach’s, namely the Third Sonata with its complex and multifaceted fugue.

As for the duo pieces on the program, the compositional styles — though they span 250 years — have a certain openness in common: the writing is not densely layered, leaving lots of room for imagination.

Bach1

Anton García Abril CR Julio Ficha

What about the works by Mozart and Copland?

Mozart’s set of sonatas for keyboard and violin is one of the most extensive for this instrumentation, and since I was a student, I’ve been adding at least one to my repertoire annually. It’s wonderful to explore such a prolific composer’s work over a long stretch of time. This particular sonata vacillates among stormy drama, lyricism and playfulness.

The piece by Aaron Copland (below) is gorgeous, revealing. In this sonata, Copland’s musical language is clearly recognizable, but the texture is more sparse than in his famous larger-ensemble works, making it boldly direct and engrossing to listen to.

aaron copland

And the music by Tina Davidson?

The work by Tina Davidson (below) follows on the tonality of the Copland, but the composer’s treatment of the music goes in an entirely different direction. “Blue Curve of the Earth” was written in Wyoming during an artist residency, and was inspired by a photo of the edge of the Earth from space. The music is dreamy yet dimensional, angular yet lush. “Blue Curve of the Earth” is from the Encores project.

Tina Davidson

What would you like the public to know about composers Antón García Abril and Tina Davidson and their violin music or music in general?

I like to picture where pieces were written; the surroundings can add another dimension to the music. Environment influences the creative process. The studio is the private stage. Antón works in a studio outside of Madrid that his son, the architect by the same name, designed for him. Tina is based out of a refashioned church in Pennsylvania, with vaulted ceilings and a garden.

Both write beautifully for voice. Since violin can be a lyrical instrument and is tonally varied, capable of both sustaining and articulating, the ability to write expressively for voice transfers to the violin. Also, I have the impression that both composers start from a strong conceptual point with their works. When I play their music, the big line is the first thing that jumps out at me; the myriad fine details support the gestures.

Hilary Hahn playing 2 horizontal

If you play an encore or two, will they be from the ones you commissioned a couple of years ago and won a Grammy for?

That’s the plan! I feel very close to those pieces. Great encores exist from previous centuries, too; I never rule out the classics.

Why did you commission 27 short encores?

I began to notice that new encore pieces were not being showcased as much as other types of contemporary works. Shorter pieces remain a crucial part of every violinist’s education and repertoire, and I believed that potential new favorites should be encouraged and performed as well.

How successful have they been with the public and with other artists?

The public embraced the project. The music contained within the Encores is varied and imaginative. Each composer had a different concept of what an encore can add to today’s musical landscape.

I think every listener can find at least one work that is particularly poignant. I want the audience to discover these pieces for themselves. It is thrilling to listen to music that you have never heard before and, uninfluenced by other people’s opinions, be free to feel your own response.

This project is something I’ve been working on for a long time; I would estimate that my direct involvement in all of the different parts will wind up having a 15-year arc. What I have learned on musical and creative levels from working with the composers will stay with me for my whole career, and the logistical lessons from organizing such a big project will influence my future work.

Most importantly, I hope the Encores themselves will continue in the active repertoire beyond my lifetime. That will be up to other performers, of course.

Hilary Hahn Encores CD cover

You have played here several times, both concertos and solo recitals. Is there anything you would like to say about performing in Madison and about Madison audiences?

I really enjoy Madison itself. It’s in a beautiful part of the country. I’ll never forget the first time I visited, in the winter, when the city was covered by snow and one of the sidewalks featured a table topped by a tower of knit hats and sweaters. As for the Madison audience, their curiosity and involvement are energizing.

Is there anything else you would like to say?

Hello, everyone!


Classical music: Conservative Republican presidential candidate and Evangelical Christian Ted Cruz wants to ban the tritone – or Devil’s chord – from classical music. NOT. Then again, maybe he does

March 21, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

Today is the first day when you can vote early via absentee ballot for the presidential primary election in Wisconsin on Tuesday, April 5, when you can also vote to fill a seat on the state Supreme Court.

And tomorrow, Tuesday, brings more presidential primaries for both Republicans and Democrats in the Western states of Arizona and Utah. Plus, there will also be Democratic caucuses in Idaho.

So the following political piece — a pseudo-news report — seems timely and appropriate, especially given the drive by establishment Republicans to rally and choose the ultra-conservative U.S. Senator Ted Cruz from Texas (below) as a way to stop New York City businessman Donald Trump.

Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, speaks at the Defending the American Dream summit hosted by Americans for Prosperity at the Greater Columbus Convention Center in Columbus, Ohio, Saturday, Aug. 22, 2015. (AP Photo/Paul Vernon)

Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, speaks at the Defending the American Dream summit hosted by Americans for Prosperity at the Greater Columbus Convention Center in Columbus, Ohio, Saturday, Aug. 22, 2015. (AP Photo/Paul Vernon)

Sure, it’s a satire.

But it is a very well done satire — about something that was indeed banned in the Renaissance and Baroque eras by the Roman Catholic  Church.

But like so much satire, it is fun that also cuts close to the bone and contains more than a grain of truth about Cruz and about his many “first day on the job” promises if he gets elected president.

Cruz, the son of an evangelical minister, is such a devout and intolerant Christian fundamentalist, it is almost as if he is waging his own jihad, much like the Islamic terrorist state ISIS, on any culture he considers unChristian and heretical to his personal faith and what he considers to be the inerrant and literal truth of the Bible.

Hmm. Does that qualify him as an extremist or radical?

To The Ear, what is really and truly scary is Cruz — not the music.

And it is hard to say who is more threatening as a potential president: Donald Trump or Ted Cruz?

Well, make up your own mind, fellow music-lovers.

Here is the satire from submediant.com. It’s a good read with lots of details, specific composers and food for thought.

http://www.submediant.com/2016/03/15/citing-evangelical-faith-ted-cruz-calls-to-ban-satanic-tritone/

And here is a YouTube lesson in music theory that offers an explanation with examples of the Satanic tritone:


Classical music: Why couldn’t the New York Philharmonic find an American conductor? Meet Dutchman Jaap van Sweden, its next music director. Plus, Sunday Afternoon Live From the Chazen, is NEXT SUNDAY — NOT TODAY — and tonight’s concert of new music by UW-Madison professor Les Thimmig has been CANCELLED

January 31, 2016
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ALERT 1: The Sunday Afternoon Live performance by the Wisconsin Brass Quintet at the Chazen Museum of Art is NEXT SUNDAY, NOT TODAY. The Ear apologizes for the mistake.

 ALERT 2: Tonight’s concert of new music for woodwinds and piano by UW-Madison professor Les Thimmig and pianist Jessica Johnson has been CANCELLED.

By Jacob Stockinger

This week the New York Philharmonic announced its next music director and conductor who will succeed Alan Gilbert, starting in 2018.

He is Jaap van Sweden (below, in a photo by Todd Heiser for The New York Times , a 55-year-old Dutchman, acclaimed for his technical prowess, who now is the music director of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and the Hong Kong Philharmonic.

Jaap van Sweden CR Todd Heisler NYT

There are a lot of stories The Ear could link to.

Here is a short summary from NPR (National Public Radio) with audio clips of his conducting:

http://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2016/01/27/464563264/jaap-van-zweden-named-new-music-director-of-the-new-york-philharmonic

But he found the coverage by the New York Times quite comprehensive and, on balance, fair.

It featured a main news story with some important feature elements, including the critical acclaim van Sweden received for conducting music by Gustav Mahler and Ludwig van Beethoven. (Below, you can see van Sweden conducting the New York Philharmonic in 2014 in a photo by Hiroyuki Ito for The New York Times).

Jaap van Sweden conducting the NY PHIL cr Horiyuki Ito NYT

And it also featured a column or commentary by senior classical music critic Anthony Tommasini, who spoke in Madison on the occasion of the centennial of the Pro Arte Quartet that was held at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music.

Overall, Tommasini’s notebook entry is a fine and insightful piece, even if it gets tiring to hear Tommasini climb up on his high horse and whine yet again about the neglect of new music and contemporary composers – which does not seem fully justified based on the record of this particular conductor.

Tommasini – who himself was trained as a composer — clearly would have preferred former Los Angeles Philharmonic conductor and composer Esa-Pekka Salonen (below) as the new music director and conductor. Hmmm – could they be friends?

Esa Pekka Salonen

For his part, it may sound provincial but The Ear is more concerned that the very same symphony orchestra that made history in American culture for hiring the first American-born and American-trained maestro – Leonard Bernstein (below), who also just happened to put Jaap van Sweden on the path to a conducting career – is once again turning to Europe rather to the many fine conducting talents in this country.

Leonard Bernstein CR Jack Mitchell

Why was no American conductor chosen. One who comes to mind is Marin Alsop of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (below top) and the Sao Paulo State Symphony Orchestra in Brazil who is also a Bernstein protege. And then there is David Robertson of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and chief conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra in Australia(below bottom).

Seems odd that Marin Alsop is good enough for Brazil and David Robertson is good enough for Australia — but not for New York?

The Ear wants to ask the Philharmonic’s board of directors: Do you really find all American conductors to be that inferior to Jaap van Sweden?

Maybe there were practical considerations — salary, contracts, availability, refusals — that made hiring an American conductor impossible. But the stories suggest that the choice of van Sweden was made early on and the fix seemed in. Too bad. It still seems like a great opportunity that was lost.

Marin Alsop big

David Robertson

You can decide for yourself.

Here is the news story by Michael Cooper:

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/28/arts/music/new-york-philharmonic-taps-jaap-van-zweden-as-its-next-maestro.html?_r=0

And here is Tommasini’s column:

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/28/arts/jaap-van-zweden-and-the-future-of-the-new-york-philharmonic.html

Do you know the work of Jaap van Sweden?

Have you heard him in live or recorded performances?

What do you think?

Here is a sample of Jaap van Sweden conducting Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 in a YouTube video at the bottom.

Leave your opinion in the COMMENT section.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Civil rights pioneer Martin Luther King Jr. was the Abraham Lincoln of his age – a Great Emancipator. To celebrate his birthday, here is Aaron Copland’s “A Lincoln Portrait.”

January 18, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

Today we celebrate the birthday of the civil rights pioneer Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

The Ear thinks of him as The Great Emancipator of the modern age.

As the Abraham Lincoln of our age.

Just as Lincoln freed slaves, Martin Luther King Jr. (below) helped free so many members of different social groups from discrimination.

martin luther king 2

Blacks, of course.

But also women.

Latinos.

Asians.

Gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people.

Disabled people.

The poor.

The old and elderly.

So it seems fitting, then, to listen to Aaron Copland’s “A Lincoln Portrait.”

The Ear loves the way that the Gertrude Stein-like repetitions of Lincoln’s own words build into a moving testament of the need for both compassion and democracy – a combination that today’s right-wing freedom-spouting and Constitution-citing bigots might do well to cultivate.

So we can listen about one man and think about the other.

Here is a great version, in a YouTube video at the bottom, with actor Henry Fonda as the narrator. There are other fine versions, including one with Leonard Bernstein conducting and composer Aaron Copland speaking the narration. But this version is the one that most moves The Ear.

And please leave your COMMENTS about this offering or other music appropriate to mark Martin Luther King Jr. Day for others to read.


Classical music: The “Eroica” Symphony gets a heroic reading from the amateur Middleton Community Orchestra in a popular all-Beethoven program that also featured an outstanding performance of the “Choral Fantasy.”

December 22, 2015
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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.

John-Barker

By John W. Barker

Happily avoiding all the holiday falderal this month, the Middleton Community Orchestra (below) gave Ludwig Beethoven a slightly delayed birthday tribute in the form of an unusual concert program on last Friday night that drew a full house.

Middleton Community Orchestra press photo1

Led by the bold and enterprising conductor Steve Kurr (below center), the orchestra plunged straightway into no less than Beethoven’s epochal Symphony No. 3, the “Eroica.”

NOTE: For more background, here is a link to The Ear’s interview with Steve Kurr about this program: 

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2015/12/14/classical-music-conductor-steve-kurr-talks-about-the-all-beethoven-program-that-the-middleton-community-orchestra-performs-this-friday-night-with-pianist-thomas-kasdorf-and-the-madison-symphony-choru/

MCO Beethoven Kurr and orchestra

The 50-minute long “Eroica” is a work that transformed the symphonic genre, and it continues to challenge performers. Provocative sounds, passages of complex counterpoint and assertions of tonal power—all these call for a disciplined and confident performance.

Kurr brought that off handsomely, to his and his players’ great credit. I had the feeling that he asked of these players more than they had first thought they could give, and he drew it out of them, to their obvious pride and satisfaction.

To be sure, there were some occasional smudges here and there, but the ensemble standards were otherwise consistently high. I am always interested to hear, in an orchestra that does not have overwhelming strings, the more balanced audibility of the winds, especially the woodwinds.

Here it was the brass (complete with four horns) that offered particular heroics. At times Kurr perhaps allowed them too much freedom when only filling out chords; but where they deserved prominence they sounded magnificent—notably in the scherzo’s trio section. In all, the overall mix really brought out the daring  use by Beethoven (below) of pungent dissonances and harmonic shocks.

Beethoven big

Kurr took the opening movement at a particularly brisk speed, while the second movement, the profound funeral march, was paced much more slowly than most conductors would take it — but to truly eloquent effect. (You can hear the astonishing Funeral March movement performed by the Vienna Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

I found the symphony’s finale sometimes was given a rather foursquare quality, but the enthusiasm maintained momentum.

It was a difficult act to follow. But the choice of the other item on the program was a brilliant one, bringing us a remarkable Beethoven work that is rarely ever heard in concerts.

How often can an orchestra afford to assemble a brilliant pianist, six vocal soloists and a chorus — all for one 25-minute work? But those are the demands of Beethoven’s “Choral Fantasy,” a product of a time when concerts often brought together a whole circus of performers.

In a special way, this novelty made a perfect pairing with the “Eroica.” In the two works, we catch Beethoven in his two great instances of self-borrowing to the end of evolving perfection.

The finale of the “Eroica” was the fourth and final destination for a set of variations on a contradance tune. In its turn, the Fantasy, after opening with an improvisatory exercise for the pianist, turns into a concerto-like set of variations on a tune, which is finally taken up by solo vocalists and then the chorus.

That tune represents the second of three stages in what eventually became the triumphant “Ode to Joy” melody of the famous finale of the Ninth Symphony.

The brilliant and versatile Thomas Kasdorf (below), a familiar soloist around these parts who was raised in Middleton and studied at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music — was the energetic pianist.

thomas kasdorf 2:jpg

Six young singers were the solo battery, and a corporal’s guard from the Madison Symphony Chorus (below top and bottom) provided the brief but telling final justification for calling this a “Choral Fantasy.”

MCO Beethoven MSO Chorus left

MCO Beethoven MSO Chorus right

(The singers, below but not in order, were sopranos Allison Vollinger and Kirsten Larson; alto Jessica Lee Kasinski; tenor Richard Statz; baritone Gavon Waid; and bass Robert Dindorff.)

MCO Beethoven 3 women singers

MCO Beethoven 3 male singers

The orchestra played its role with gusto, and it’s wonderful how, by the end, it almost sounds as if we are moving into the Ninth Symphony.

This was an exhilarating concert, and a wonderful achievement for all involved.

 


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: If a perfect debut concert exists, new UW-Madison faculty violinist Soh-Hyun Park Altino gave it last Friday night. Plus, a concert of music for two harpsichords takes place Saturday night.

November 19, 2015
6 Comments

ALERT: On this Saturday night at 7 p.m. in the Madison Christian Community Church, 7118 Old Sauk Road, on Madison’s far west side, Northwestern University music Professor Stephen Alltop and Madison Bach Musicians’ artistic director Trevor Stephenson will present a program of masterworks for two harpsichords including: Johann Sebastian Bach’s Concerto in C major (BWV 1061); selections from Jean-Philippe Rameau’s elegant “Pièces de clavecin en concerts“; and a very zingy transcription of Luigi Boccherini’s famous “Fandango.” Plus, Stephen Alltop will perform selections from Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier” and Trevor Stephenson will play three sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti. Tickets are $20 and are available at the door.

By Jacob Stockinger

Last Friday night saw the bloody terrorist attacks and murders in Paris, France. And we were all understandably preoccupied then with those events.

That would not have seemed an auspicious time for a new music faculty member to make a debut.

Yet that is exactly what the new UW-Madison violin professor Soh-Hyun Park Altino (below, in a photo by Caroline Bittencourt) did. And it turned out to be a remarkable event: a pitch-perfect concert for the occasion.

Soh-Hyun Park Altino CR caroline bittencourt

Let’s start by saying that Park Altino is a complete violinist and has everything: pitch, tone, speed, depth and stage presence. But hers is the quiet and self-effacing kind of virtuosity. There were no show-off works by Paganini or Sarrasate on the program.

The concert opened in dimmed lighting, as she played (below) the Solo Sonata No. 3 in C Major by Johann Sebastian Bach. She dedicated the opening movement –- which you can hear played by Arthur Grumiaux in a YouTube video at the bottom –- to the people of Paris and said that the slow movement reminded her of a mysterious prayer or meditation.

She was right.

Simultaneously alone and together: Is there a better summing up of how we were feeling that night? And her mastery in voicing the difficult fugue was impressive as well as moving.

Let others play and hear once again Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” or “La Marseillaise.” The Ear will long remember that Bach played in that context. Thank you, Professor Park Altino.

Soh-Hyun Park Altino playing solo Bach

Then she turned effortlessly from grave seriousness and talked about the Sonata No. 2 by Charles Ives (below) and how it borrows from hymn tunes and songs from popular culture. And with laughs she then related all that background to herself when she was growing up in Korea and forming her image of America from popular culture and TV shows such “The Little House on the Prairie,” “Anne of Green Gables” and from cartoons such as “Popeye.”

She was both informative and charming as she Ives-ified Korea and Koreanized Ives. And she totally connected with the audience. If you were there, you could tell. You felt it.

Charles Ives BIG

After intermission came a charming and relatively unknown miniature: the Romance in A Major, Op. 23, by the American composer Amy Beach (below). How refreshing it was to hear an immigrant musician enlighten us natives about our own musical history. It is all about new perspectives. Are you listening, Donald Trump, Ben Carson, Ted Cruz and other isolationists, anti-immigrationists and xenophobes?

Amy Beach BW 1

And then came a masterpiece by Johannes Brahms.

She chose the Sonata No. 2 in A major, Op. 100. It is not as dramatic as the other two violin sonatas, but relies instead on slow tempi to convey the geniality of its beautiful melodies and harmonies.

It proved the perfect ending to the perfect recital on that dreadful night of massacres and loss, fear and terror. It proved what so much music can do and should be doing, especially these days: offering a balm for the heart and soul.

Her program and playing brought to mind the inspiring words of Leonard Bernstein, who had to conduct a program right after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, which happened 52 years ago this Sunday:

“We musicians, like everyone else, are numb with sorrow at this murder, and with rage at the senselessness of the crime. But this sorrow and rage will not inflame us to seek retribution; rather they will inflame our art. Our music will never again be quite the same. This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.”

It must be also be said that Park Altino had the perfect partner in Martha Fischer, who heads the collaborative piano program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music.

Even during the most difficult and thorny piano parts, such as in the Ives sonata, Fischer never upset the balance, never departed from the right dynamics, never lost a sense of transparency and always saw eye-to-eye with the violinist in interpretation. She possessed complete technical and interpretive mastery.

The two musicians really proved to be co-equal partners. They make a great pairing or partnership, and it was clear from their stage presence that they like performing with each other and are on the same wavelength.  With their seamless playing, they showed exactly the difference between accompanying and collaborating.

Soh-Hyun Park Altino and Martha Fischer

That makes The Ear very happy. He loves the combination of violin and piano, and now he hopes he has a lot more of it to look forward to from these same two performers -– works he once hoped to hear from the outstanding partnership of Pro Arte Quartet first violinist David Perry and UW-Madison virtuoso pianist Christopher Taylor, which started but never fully materialized.

So many works come to mind. The violin and keyboard sonatas by Johann Sebastian Bach, Vivaldi, Corelli and Tartini. (The Ear admits it: He prefers the piano to the harpsichord in Baroque works.) The violin sonatas, perhaps even in complete cycles, of Mozart and Beethoven. The various violin works by Schubert, perhaps in the annual Schubertiades. Sonatas by Schumann and Brahms. Sonatas by Faure, Debussy, Ravel and Poulenc. Sonatas and rhapsodies by Bartok. Sonatas by Prokofiev and Shostakovich.

And then there are the possibilities of her performing violin concertos with the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (apparently its music director, Andrew Sewell, is a close friend of hers) and the UW Symphony Orchestra.

The possibilities make The Ear swoon with anticipation.

So when you see that Soh-Hyun Park Altino will play again, be sure to mark your calendars and datebooks. You do not want to miss her.

Ever.

 


Classical music: Cellist Sara Sant’Ambrogio talks about the human quality of French music. She performs Saint-Saens’ Cello Concerto No. 1 on an all-French program with the Madison Symphony Orchestra this weekend.

November 16, 2015
9 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

The award-winning cellist Sara Sant’Ambrogio (below) makes her solo debut with the Madison Symphony Orchestra (MSO) in an all-French program this coming weekend.

sara sant'ambrogio 1

Sant’Ambrogio will solo in Camille Saint-Saëns’ stormy Cello Concerto No. 1 in A Minor, a first-time performance of the work by the MSO under its music director and conductor John DeMain.

The opening piece, Maurice Ravel’s sensuous Valses Nobles et Sentimentales, showcases the classical simplicity and ultimate decadence of the waltz, and the colors of all the instruments in the orchestra.

ravel

Finally, the MSO will perform the groundbreaking Symphonie Fantastique by Romantic composer Hector Berlioz (below). It is an unorthodox five-movement work that vividly captures an artist’s tortured infatuation and the haunted hallucinations of an opium trip.

berlioz

The concerts are in Overture Hall on Friday night at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday night at 8 p.m.; and Sunday afternoon at 2:30 p.m. in the Overture Center, 201 State Street.

Sara Sant’Ambrogio is an internationally-renowned soloist and founding member of the Eroica Trio (below). She launched her international career when she was a winner at the Eighth International Tchaikovsky Violoncello Competition in Moscow, Russia. She holds degrees from the Curtis Institute of Music and The Juilliard School, and won a Grammy Award for Best Chamber Music Performance for Leonard Bernstein‘s “Arias and Barcarolles.” She last appeared with the Madison Symphony Orchestra in 2001 as part of the Eroica Trio.

EroicaTrio4

Written in 1872, Saint-Saëns’ Cello Concerto No. 1 was instantly regarded as a masterpiece by the Paris public. Saint-Saëns rejected the standard concerto form in this work by interlinking the piece’s three movements into one continuous musical expanse, held together by the rich lyrical power of the cello.

The composer found the Cello Concerto No.1 difficult to write, so much so that he vowed never to compose for cello again; Saint-Saëns broke this vow 30 years later with his Cello Concerto No. 2.

One hour before each performance, John DeMain, music director and principal conductor of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, will lead a FREE 30-minute Prelude Discussion in Overture Hall to enhance concertgoers’ understanding and listening experience.

More background on the music can also be found in the Program Notes at http://www.madisonsymphony.org/santambrogio

Single Tickets are $16 to $85 each, available at     www.madisonsymphony.org/singletickets and through the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street or call the Box Office at (608) 258-4141.

Groups of 15 or more can save 25 percent by calling the MSO office at (608) 257-3734. For more information visit, www.madisonsymphony.org/groups

Student rush tickets can be purchased in person on the day of the concert at the Overture Box Office. Students must show a valid student ID and can receive up to two $12 or $15 tickets. More information is at: www.madisonsymphony.org/studentrush. Students can receive 20 percent savings on seats in select areas of the hall on advance ticket purchases.

Seniors age 62 and up receive 20 percent savings on advance and day-of-concert ticket purchases in select areas of the hall.

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

Find more information at www.madisonsymphony.org.

Major funding for the November concerts is provided by Barbara Ryder, DeEtte Beilfuss-Eager and Leonard P. Eager, Jr., in memory of Karen “Lovey” Johnson, and Rosemarie Blancke. Additional funding is provided by Martha and Charles Casey, Sunseed Research, LLC, and the Wisconsin Arts Board with funds from the State of Wisconsin and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Sara Sant’Ambrogio (below) recently agreed to an email Q&A with The Ear:

sara sant'ambrogio

Could you briefly bring readers up to date on your career since 2001 when you last appeared with the Madison Symphony Orchestra as part of the Eroica Trio and performed the Triple Concerto for piano trio? What are current and future major plans and projects?

Wow, a lot has happened since 2001! I had a son, Sebastian, who just turned 11. I’ve recorded for solo CDs, the complete Bach solo suites, the Chopin collection and “Dreaming,” which has had a number of tracks used in movie soundtracks such as the HBO movie “A Matter of Taste.” I’ve recorded another Eroica Trio CD, “An American Journey,” which was nominated for a Grammy award.

I’ve toured China and all over Asia, and also the Arabian peninsula, which was amazing and mind-blowing. Petra in Jordan was like being in an Indiana Jones movie. It has been a truly amazing 14 years!

There seems to be a revival or rediscovery going on of the works of the French composer Camille Saint-Saëns. Why do you think that is?

Saint-Saens (below) has been grossly underrated in my view. His music has a wonderful mix of gorgeous melodies that speak to the human condition, sparkling virtuous pyrotechnics and a joie de vivre, which is just infectious! What’s not to love!

camille saint-saens younger

You are performing on an all-French program with Berlioz’ “Symphonie Fantastique” and Ravel’s “Valses Nobles et Sentimentales.” What elements or traits do identify as being typically French in classical music, and does Saint-Saëns fit the mold?

I think there is a lushness to French music that Saint-Saens shares. There is also a very human quality to the best of French music.

What would you like to say about the piece you will be performing in Madison, the Cello Concerto No. 1? What is typical or unusual about it?  What in particular would you like the public to listen to and notice?

Just to have a blast! The Saint-Saens starts with a bang and never lets up till the joyous end! (Note: You can hear it played by the late Russian cellist, conductor and human rights activist Mstislav Rostropovich in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

What else would you like to say?

I can’t wait to come back and play in Madison again. I had such a fantastic time playing there last time with my trio that the town loomed so large in my imagination, I had no idea until this interview that it had been 14 years since I was last there.

 


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