The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and soloist Ben Beilman deliver the best Beethoven Violin Concerto that The Ear has ever heard live

October 8, 2015
7 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Many people see the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below) as competitors.

WCO lobby

But that’s not how The Ear sees them.

The Ear sees symphony orchestras and chamber orchestras not as competitors but as complements.

The two can serve as role models for each other. A symphony orchestra can aim to achieve the transparency and clarity of the smaller group; the chamber orchestra can aim to achieve the richness and bigger sound of the larger ensemble.

Almost two weeks ago, that is exactly what the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below) and conductor John DeMain did with the “Leonore” Overture No. 3 by Ludwig van Beethoven, the Clarinet Concerto by Aaron Copland and especially the big, loud and brassy Ethel Merman-like Symphony No. 4 by Peter Ilych Tchaikovsky.

Here is how The Ear heard that performance:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2015/10/01/classical-music-heres-why-the-opening-concert-of-the-madison-symphony-orchestra-proved-a-stunning-success/

John DeMain and MSO from the stage Greg Anderson

So how did the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra do in meeting the challenge?

In a word — superbly.

The WCO did so last Friday night in the Overture Center’s Capitol Theater under its longtime music director Andrew Sewell.

The program started with one of those welcome rarities that Sewell has a knack for unearthing. This time the native New Zealander played the piece “Landfall in Unknown Seas” by Douglas Lilburn (below), whom Sewell described as the Kiwi Copland.

Well, maybe, though The Ear finds Aaron Copland’s music more interesting and emotionally moving than the clearly modern but tonal and accessible music by Lilburn, whose centennial is this year.

douglas lilburn

The piece — written to commemorate the tricentennial of the discovery of New Zealand — was hobbled with one of those puffily pretentious and over-the-top occasional celebratory poems, which was recited by actor James Ridge (below) of American Players Theatre in Spring Green. It treated navigation and discovery as metaphors of something much bigger than the discovery of New Zealand.

All in all, it proved an interesting but not arresting piece, a curiosity worth hearing but not repeating.

 

James Ridge

Then came the rarely played Symphony No. 2 in A minor by Camille Saint-Saens. It is a kind of Late Romantic pastiche that reminds one of the “Classical” Symphony by Sergei Prokofiev. One could hear strains of earlier composers such as Robert Schumann and Felix Mendelssohn in this charming work that once again is worth hearing but maybe not repeating or at least not soon.

To be fair, critic John W. Barker disagreed in his review for Isthmus:

http://www.isthmus.com/arts/stage/wisconsin-chamber-orchestra-opens-2015-season/

In both cases, Sewell (below) and the various sections of the WCO brought not only the kind of transparency or clarity that one expects from the WCO but also a robustness that made the orchestra seem bigger than it looked.

AndrewSewellnew

Yet it was in the second half where the WCO really showed its stuff.

The piece was the formidable Violin Concerto by Ludwig van Beethoven.

The soloist was the 25-year-old Benjamin Beilman (below), making his Madison debut.

Benjamin Beilman close up playing

Together, Beilman and Sewell delivered what is the finest and most exciting live performance of the famous and famously difficult concerto that The Ear has ever heard. It possessed intimacy as well as heroics. (You can hear Itzhak Perlman and Daniel Barenboim conducting the Berlin Philharmonic in the last movement in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

Sewell shaded the piece and brought both chamber orchestra transparency and symphony orchestra heft to the work. He also emphasized Beethoven’s mastery of counterpoint, a legacy from his days as a student of Franz Joseph Haydn. This time the often thorny Beethoven score seemed smoother and more decipherable.

Beilman, for his part, is already a master of the kind of small details that make a huge difference. He is also not afraid to play softly.

Beethoven (below) was a master crafter but not a great melody writer, and often the opening movement can often seem little more than a patchwork of scales and runs, chords and arpeggios.

beethoven BW grim

But not this time. Beilman made this often flat-sounding violin part exciting with the subtleties he brought to it. He found hidden melodies and camouflaged suggestions of a theme, all delivered with a great tone from his modern 2004 violin.

One unusual touch was the cadenzas. Beethoven didn’t write any for the violin. When he transcribed this work for the piano he composed piano cadenzas. And those were the basis of what Beilman, the top winner of the Montreal International Violin Competition and the recipient of an Avery Fisher Career Grant, used for his exciting cadenzas.

Tempi mattered too. This long, dense concerto moved right along, and when it was done, the performance drew an immediate standing ovation from the audience of 900 or so.

And here’s the thing: At no point did the chamber orchestra seem to lack the horsepower needed to drive this big and iconic piece of music. Sewell and Beilman were well matched in projecting a big, rich sound and intense interpretation that engaged and excited you from beginning to end.

The audience even drew two encores from Beilman, both solo pieces by Johann Sebastian Bach (below), the ultimate test of a violinist. One was the songful slow movement from the Solo Sonata in C Major; the other was the lively Gavotte from the Solo Partita in E Major that almost seems a mirror image of the last movement of the Beethoven concerto.(ATTENTION ALL SOLOISTS: Please announce your encores!)

Bach1

The first Bach movement, by the way, was also the piece that Beilman played at the wedding this summer where his sister married Joe Morris, the gifted principal clarinet of the Madison Symphony Orchestra who so stood out in the Copland concerto two weeks ago.

Plus, Beilman’s parents and grandparents hail from Madison.

So young Benjamin Beilman has roots in and ties to Madison.

Could that mean he will return soon?

The Ear sure hopes so.

 


Classical music: Here’s why the opening concert of the Madison Symphony Orchestra proved a stunning success.

October 1, 2015
6 Comments

ALERT: This Sunday afternoon the UW Chamber Orchestra, playing under conductor James Smith, will give a FREE concert at 2 p.m. in Mills Hall. The program includes the Serenade for Strings by Peter Ilych Tchaikovsky and the “Death and the Maiden” string quartet by Franz Schubert as arranged by Gustav Mahler.

By Jacob Stockinger

The critics and audiences all agreed: The season-opening concerts last weekend by the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below) proved a stunning success.

MSO playing

As The Ear heard it, here’s why.

Of course there are the usual reasons: One was the balanced program that MSO music director John DeMain chose to highlight his ensemble players without a guest soloist. It featured beautiful and dramatic music by Ludwig van Beethoven, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky and Aaron Copland.

Beethoven’s “Leonore” Overture No. 3 was crisp and dark, dramatic but not melodramatic, befitting the opera “Fidelio” that it was originally intended for.

If you missed the opening movement of Aaron Copland’s Clarinet Concerto — written for jazz great Benny Goodman — The Ear is sorry to report that you have already missed a high point of the new season.

It was that gorgeous and that elegiac, that moving and that unforgettable. It was nothing short of sublime. (You can hear the first movement in a YouTube video at the bottom)

Then there was the soloist — MSO principal clarinet Joe Morris (below), who showed in the Copland what an incredible talent he possesses, a talent that allowed him at 22 to beat out 45 other clarinetists in blind auditions for his post. His pitch and tone, his technique and expressiveness all make his playing the clarinet – not an easy instrument to master – seem as effortless as breathing.

Jennifer Morgan MSO oboe by Joe Morris

But The Ear found another reason for the concert’s success, one that he credits to longtime music director and conductor John DeMain, who is starting his 22nd season in Madison.

It has to do with the clarity and precision of the playing, the careful dynamic balances, tempi and the delineation of the structure of each work.

DeMain (below) made sure that each section of the orchestra and each part of every work could be heard distinctly, and that helped you to hear how one part or section, of the score or of the orchestra, related to others.

John DeMain full face by Prasad

No music event in Madison leaves The Ear with more food for thought than each summer’s Token Creek Chamber Music Festival.

And at the most recent one, co-founder and co-artistic director John Harbison who teaches at MIT and who, as a composer, has won both a Pulitzer Prize and a MacArthur genius grant, commented on the unsurpassed ability of Beethoven to allow listeners to understand the structure of the sound they were hearing in his compositions.

That, said Harbison (below), is a major reason why the music by Beethoven has survived and that of many of his contemporaries has not.

JohnHarbisonatpiano

Harbison’s analysis came to mind during the Madison Symphony Orchestra’s opening concert.

Since he took over, DeMain has brought each section up to an impressive level of performance The strings have been excellent for a long time; the winds and the percussion have also caught up.

But the brass really showed it stuff this time, especially in the Tchaikovsky Symphony No 4, which is a very brassy piece.

And DeMain (below) did something important. He illuminated structure by imparting order. He gave each section the kind of shading and space it needed by offering it time to breathe.

He allowed the audience to hear how parts related to the whole. He allowed you to get inside the score and the notes, to step inside the sound and hear the sense  it made and the logic it possessed.

John DeMain conducting 2

In short, John DeMain offered us music that was both deeply emotional and convincingly intelligent.

You felt that he was conducting you as well as the players.

The effect was to create clarity and color, distance and immediacy, all at the same time.

It’s not only the players who have grown during John DeMain’s 22-year tenure.

So has Maestro DeMain.

And, thanks to him and his players, so have we.

 


Classical music: The “Met Live in HD” starts its 10th season this coming Saturday with Verdi’s “Il Trovatore.” Plus, today is your last time to hear the acclaimed opening concert by the Madison Symphony Orchestra. Read the reviews here.

September 27, 2015
5 Comments

ALERT: Today at 2:30 p.m in Overture Hall is your last chance to hear the season-opening program of music by Ludwig van Beethoven, Aaron Copland and Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky by the Madison Symphony Orchestra. The performance won acclaim from local critics.

Here is a review by John W. Barker for Isthmus:

http://www.isthmus.com/arts/stage/madison-symphony-orchestra-opens-2015-season/

And here is a review by Jessica Courtier for The Capital Times:

http://host.madison.com/ct/news/local/individual-sections-shine-in-madison-symphony-orchestra-s-season-opener/article_3fd85244-6456-11e5-b949-ef2658626736.html

And here is Greg Hettmansberger’s review for Madison Magazine:

http://www.channel3000.com/madison-magazine/arts-culture/madison-symphony-celebrates-itself-rightly-so/35500642

By Jacob Stockinger

Next weekend sure is a train wreck for local music. Not that this past weekend wasn’t or that future weekends won’t be.

So much is happening that The Ear sometimes gets discouraged rather than excited. You begin to think not about what you will see or hear, but about what you will miss!

And then there are the major non-local events.

One such big one is the opening this coming Saturday, Oct. 3, of the 10th season of the series of “Live From the Met in HD,” the broadcast of live opera performances that are broadcast via satellite to thousands of cinemas around the globe.

Met Live IlTrovatore poster

The series has been one of the Metropolitan Opera’s outstanding success stories and money-makers over the past decade and of the controversial tenor of the Met’s general director Peter Gelb.

Here in Madison, you have a choice of two locations: Eastgate cinemas on the far east side and Point Cinemas on the far west side.

Here is a link to the Marcus Theatres web site where you can find out about other locations in the area, state and region:

https://www.marcustheatres.com/movies/met-ii-trovatore-live

The opening production is Giuseppe Verdi’s “Il Trovatore” (The Troubadour, 1853) with the famous Anvil Chorus (heard from a previous production at the bottom in a YouTube video). The staging and production of the opera with a Spanish theme is the dramatic and disturbing art of Francisco Goya.

Met Il Trovatore anvil

The cast features soprano Anna Netrebko and baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky.

The show will start on Saturday at 11:55 a.m. Running time, with one half-hour intermission, is about 2 hours and 45 minutes. Admission is $24 for adults and $22 for seniors 60 and over; and $18 for children 3 to 11. Tickets to the encore productions are $18.

Here is a link with the title of the 10 other productions – including works by Richard Wagner, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Gaetano Donizetti, Richard Strauss, Giacomo Puccini, Alban Berg and Georges Bizet for this season.

And you can follow links to plot synopses, cast notes and other information.

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


Classical music: Meet Joseph Morris, principal clarinet of the Madison Symphony Orchestra. He solos in a concerto by Aaron Copland this weekend.

September 22, 2015
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

Conductor John DeMain and the Madison Symphony Orchestra (MSO) will open the MSO’s 90th season this coming weekend.

The program includes the “Leonore” Overture No. 3 by Ludwig van Beethoven; the Clarinet Concerto by Aaron Copland with MSO principal clarinet Joseph Morris (below, in a photo by Cheryl Savan) as soloist; and the Symphony No. 4 by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky.

joe morris playing CR Cheryl Savan

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

One hour before each performance, Michael Allsen, UW-Whitewater Professor of Music, MSO Trombonist & MSO program notes annotator, will lead a 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/tchaikovsky

Single Tickets, $16 to $85 each, can be purchased at www.madisonsymphony.org/singletickets, through the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street, or by calling the Box Office at (608) 258-4141.

Groups of 15 or more can save 25 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 at 201 State Street. Students must show a valid student ID and can receive up to two $12 or $15 tickets. More information is at: www.madisonsymphony.org/studentrush. Students can receive 20% savings on seats in select areas of the hall on advance ticket purchases.

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

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

Find more information at http://www.madisonsymphony.org.

Clarinetist Joe Morris (below, in a photo by Jennifer Morgan) recently agreed to an email Q&A with The Ear:

Jennifer Morgan MSO oboe by Joe Morris

Could you briefly introduce yourself to readers and give some highlights of your education and career?

I grew up in Northern California before heading to Los Angeles where I did my undergraduate degree in Clarinet Performance at the University of Southern California Thornton School of Music. It was there that I began my studies with Yehuda Gilad (below), who has been, by far, the highlight of my musical education.

After graduating I continued my studies at the Colburn Conservatory of Music, where I received a Professional Studies Certificate in 2014.

Some highlights of my education included summers at the Aspen Music Festival, the National Repertory Orchestra and two summers at the Music Academy of the West studying with Richie Hawley.

I won the MSO’s Principal Clarinet audition out of 44 applicants in 2013 when I was 22 and still studying at Colburn.

This past winter, I joined the Sarasota Opera Orchestra in Florida as their Principal Clarinetist and I have spent the past two summers at the Clarinet Faculty at the Luzerne Music Center in the Adirondack region of New York.

Other highlights of the last few years have been returning to Colburn to perform John Adams’ Gnarly Buttons for solo clarinet and chamber orchestra with Mr. Adams conducting, and competing in the fifth Carl Nielsen International Clarinet Competition in Odense, Denmark.

Yehuda Gilad

How have your years in Madison with the MSO been?

I have enjoyed the past two seasons in Madison very much! Madison is a wonderful city and it has been very fun to get to explore all that it has to offer.

I love the sense of community in Madison and especially how that extends to the MSO (below). My colleagues in the orchestra are fantastic players as well as wonderful people. Everyone brings out the best in one another throughout the rehearsal and performance process.

It has also been a huge honor to receive the support of the MSO audiences who never cease to amaze me with their knowledge and enthusiasm for what we do on stage.

John DeMain and MSO from the stage Greg Anderson

What was your Aha! moment –- perhaps a performer or a specific performance or a piece of music — when you first knew you wanted to be a professional musician?

When I was 15, I spent a summer at the Interlochen Arts Camp (below) in Michigan. After a summer of intense study, I realized that I had to pursue music as a career. More than anything it was the shared experience with my peers, who felt the same intensity for music that I did, that brought me to that conclusion.

At the end of every summer at Interlochen the entire camp performs Franz Liszt’s Les Preludes together in an enormous musical collaboration. That specific performance will always remain in my memory as something that laid the foundation for my decision to go into music.

Interlochen Arts Academy

How do you compare the Copland Concerto to other well-known clarinet concertos by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Carl Nielsen and Gerald Finzi (which you performed with the Middleton Community Orchestra). And what would you like listeners to know about the Copland Clarinet Concerto in terms of its structure, technical difficulties, melodies and harmonies, whatever?

One thing that always interests me about works for the clarinet is whom the composer had in mind when they wrote it. For Mozart, that was Anton Stadler; for Nielsen, it was Aage Oxenvad; for Johannes Brahms, it was Richard Muhlfeld; and for Copland, it was Benny Goodman. And Benny Goodman’s style, especially as a big band jazz musician, is extremely apparent in this concerto.

It opens with a first movement that is more typically Copland (below top) than Goodman (below bottom) — with huge interval leaps in the solo line over truly gorgeous string writing. It reminds me of the opening passage of his “Appalachian Spring,” which, coincidentally, was the first piece I ever performed with the MSO.

Following the lyrical “first movement” is an extended cadenza where Goodman starts to take over as the piece morphs into something much more lively and jazz based. After the cadenza the orchestra comes back in for a sort of “second movement” that eventually comes to a very frenzied and glissando-laden finish.

(You can hear the first movement played by Benny Goodman with composer Aaron Copland conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

aaron copland

Benny Goodman

Apart from concertos and chamber music specifically written for the clarinet, what orchestral works have your favorite clarinet parts?

I love the way the clarinet timbre can emerge from the orchestra with a sort of floating quality in a lyrical passage. For that reason two of my favorite orchestral works for the clarinet are Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2 and Ottorino Respighi’s “Pines of Rome,” which the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below) will perform at its April 29-May 1 concerts.

What else would you like to say?

I’m very excited for this upcoming concerto both because of the opportunity to perform this concerto with my marvelous colleagues, and also to then get to sit in the orchestra with them all for Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4.

 


Classical music: The Madison Opera triumphed in Beethoven’s “Fidelio.”

November 28, 2014
6 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Loyal readers of this blog know very well the name of Mikko Utevsky. The young violist and conductor is a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin School of Music, where he studies with Pro Arte Quartet violist Sally Chisholm and plays in the UW Symphony Orchestra.

Utevsky, who has won awards and impressive reviews for his work in music education since his days at Madison’s East High School, is the founder and conductor of the Madison Area Youth Chamber Orchestra (MAYCO), which will perform its fifth season next summer. He was recently named the new Music Director of a local community orchestra, The Studio Orchestra. The ensemble has a website at (www.disso.org).

You can check out his many honors and projects by typing his name into the search engine on this blog site.

Utevsky offered The Ear a review of last weekend’s production of Ludwig van Beethoven’s opera ‘Fidelio” by the Madison Opera at the Overture Center.

I immediately took him up on the offer. After all, he is a fine and perceptive writer who, you may recall, blogged for this post when he was on tour two summers ago with the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO) tour to Vienna, Prague and Budapest.

Here is the review of “Fidelio” by Mikko Utevsky (below):

Mikko Utevsky with baton

By Mikko Utevsky

The Madison Opera has done it again.

Perhaps it is a mark of Katherine Smith (below, in a photo by James Gill) settling into her tenure as General Director.

Kathryn Smith Fly Rail Vertical Madison Opera

Perhaps it is the Madison Symphony Orchestra’s continual growth and development as a regional orchestra of versatility and repute.

Perhaps it is the luck of discovering singers at the outset of promising careers, whose success has not yet priced them out of the range of smaller companies.

Whatever the reason, last Sunday’s performance in Overture Hall of Ludwig van Beethoven’s only opera, the monumental “Fidelio,” was a true triumph for what can only be regarded as a company going places.

Briefly, “Fidelio” is the story of a woman, Leonore, who disguises herself as a boy — “Fidelio” meaning the “faithful one” — to infiltrate the prison where her husband Florestan is being wrongly held by his political rival, Don Pizarro.

When the King’s minister (Don Fernando sung by Liam Moran) announces a surprise visit, Pizarro (sung by Kelly Markgraf) decides to have Florestan killed to avoid the awkward explanation. At the last moment, Fidelio intercedes, and the arrival of Don Fernando saves the day.

The Madison Symphony Orchestra under artistic director John DeMain (below), in its usual reduced string complement, shone forth from the pit in more than its usual splendor this Sunday, with a firm, centered string sound and particularly powerful playing from the horns.

John DeMain conducting 2

Above it soared a cast of creditable balance, with a veritable jewel in the center: Alexandra LoBianco, in the title role of Leonore/Fidelio.

LoBianco, in her first turn as the titular trouser role of Fidelio/Leonore, was beyond reproach in every way. Her captivating Verdian soprano that seemed equally at home in every moment of the opera, rendered with proper dramatic heft the imposing vocal challenges of the part, including a powerful lower register.

The moment when she steps forward at last to defend her husband from the evil Don Pizarro sent chills down my spine. It is hard to believe she has not sung this before; given how completely the role fit her.

Alexandra LoBianco as Fidelio-Leonore by James Gill

Of the others, Clay Hilley’s (Florestan) powerful tenor sometimes substituted steel for warmth in navigating Beethoven’s punishingly high writing — a forgivable flaw in a role whose characterization leaves little room for luxury. His opening scene (“Gott! Welch Dunkel hier” or “God! How dark it is here!”) at the start of Act II was nevertheless absolutely spellbinding.

Clay Hilley as Florestan CR James Gill

The chorus (below top and at the bottom, conducted by James Levine, in a YouTube video) was superbly prepared by Chorus Master Anthony Cao (below), who has brought the group’s performance level up considerably in recent years. A timid beginning to the famed prisoner chorus “O welche Lust” was quickly surmounted, and more than made up for by the rousing “Heil sei dem Tag” in the second act.

Fidelio prisoners' chorus James Gill

Anthony Cao

Sensitive lighting by Christopher Maravich relieved some of the potential for monotony in a visually subdued staging, which featured sets from Michigan Opera Theater and costumes from the Utah Opera.

Both the sets and the costumes relied mostly on hues of brown. The sky showing above the walls of the prison shifted subtly to reflect the passage of time and the mood of the ensemble, providing as well a glimpse of the freedom held at arm’s length from most of the characters. The darkness of Florestan’s prison at the start of the second act was also evocatively rendered.

Fidelio set James GIll

The scene change from dungeon to daylight before the final scene was distractingly long — could we have had one of the three other overtures Beethoven wrote to this opera to fill the silence? Certainly the orchestra was one of the stars of this production; let them play on!

The staging by director Tara Faircloth (below), in her Madison Opera debut, maintained interest and rewarded careful attention with choice details, though the melodrama and confrontation scenes in the dungeon were rather weak.

Fidelio Tara Faircloth

Neither of these sapped the sheer power of Leonore’s unveiling, or of the 11th-hour trumpet call announcing the arrival of Florestan’s savior (below left, with Don Pizarro below right)  — moments that were absolutely electrifying and worth the price of admission on their own — but they did slow the pace of the act.

Fidelio     left Don Fernando and right is Don PIzarro CR James Gill

Unfortunately, the staging seemed to dodge the political difficulties of the plot, focusing merely on the abstract notion of “freedom” without exploring the implications of Don Fernando’s benevolent proclamations in the final scene.

In the current political climate, I would have hoped for a stronger thesis here — surely Beethoven (below) the revolutionary would have something to say today!

Beethoven big

For the most part, these are quibbles with an overwhelmingly excellent production of which the Madison Opera can be justifiably proud. I left the hall feeling uplifted, and I look forward to the rest of the season.

 


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