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 hosts an early music show once a month on Sunday morning on WORT FM 89.9 FM. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.
By John W. Barker
The program opened with a rarely performed symphony, No. 30 in D Major, K. 202, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Mozart did not muster in this score anything like the ideas he delivered in his symphonies on either side of this one.
Still, it is an engaging piece, and maestro Sewell always shows great sympathy for the Austrian Classical-era composers of the late 18th century, so the performance was nicely molded.
The guest soloist this time was Croatian-born guitarist Ana Vidovic (below). She was originally scheduled to play the Second Guitar Concerto by Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, but for some reason she switched late on to the more substantial Concierto de Aranjuez by the 20th-century Spanish composer Joaquín Rodrigo.
Unfortunately, Vidovic followed other guitarists of today who feel they must fortify their performances with electronic amplification, so she brought her own rig with her. The result was a boomy, hollow sound, completely artificial, pitted in fake balance against the natural world of the orchestral writing that was rendered, by the way, with charm and delicacy.
The composer (below) was very careful about not allowing the orchestra to overwhelm the intimate guitar, and generations of guitar players have been able to perform this and parallel concertos without benefit of sonic hype.
Alas, the combination of technology with egotism! Vidovic is obviously a musician of genuine artistry, but she quite sabotaged her playing by use of this six-string howitzer. And the knobs were still on through an encore, a trivial Cavatina by one Stanley Meyer.
The evening was richly redeemed by the main work. Sewell has, in recent years, been working his way into the symphonies of the 19th century, late Romantic Austrian composer Anton Bruckner—a composer usually tackled by large orchestras. But he has brought off the first two numbered symphonies with aplomb, and now was the turn of the Third.
This is a work with a complex history of versions and revisions. Sewell bravely chose to use the 1874 revision of the original 1873 version, rather than the ill-fated revision of 1877 or the once-standard bowdlerization of 1889.
Sewell could command only 20 string players, but they proved quite sufficient, even with the occasional divisions of the violins. The reduced lushness resulting allowed inner parts to come through, and the rest of the orchestra played magnificently. Sewell understands Bruckner’s individual rhetoric, with its stop-and-start pacings and dramatic shifts between tremendous power and great delicacy.
Sewell (below) is indeed a born Bruckner conductor. The second movement in particular I have never heard played so eloquently. (You can hear the second movement of the 1874 edition in the YouTube video at the bottom.) I don’t know if Sewell plans to probe still further into Bruckner’s symphonies, but I am ready to follow him eagerly if he does.
Far from being put off by the often-maligned music of Bruckner, the very large audience gave the performance a justly deserved standing ovation. This was, I think, a genuine landmark in the WCO’s history.
ALERT: In yesterday’s post about the upcoming house concert of keyboard music by Trevor Stephenson, The Ear listed the wrong date in the headline. It was corrected, but The Ear apologizes and feels a correction is still needed for those who missed it: The concert is on Friday, Jan. 6, at 7 p.m. For more information, go to:
By Jacob Stockinger
It comes as welcome and heart-warming news at a time when so much news is negative, accusatory and depressing.
Maestro James Smith (below, in a photo by Michael Anderson) — who has been conducting the UW-Madison Symphony Orchestra, the UW-Madison Chamber Orchestra and the University Opera as well as the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras for 32 years — has received a fine piece of community recognition.
Smith has just received the monthly “Making a Difference” award from NBC TV Channel 15, which also broadcast once again three times WYSO’s traditional concert “Sounds of the Season” on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.
Here is the 3-1/2 minute video, which includes an interview with Smith as well as testimony from a former student who has gone on to have a professional career in music, about the NBC award:
Such recognition is nothing new for Smith, who has won many honors as well as the esteem of his colleagues, his students and his audiences.
Six years ago, The Ear named Smith as ‘Musician of the Year’ for 2010:
Here is that post:
More recently, The Ear talked about Smith’s upcoming retirement and his post-retirement plans in a post about four major people who will retire this spring from the UW-Madison School of Music:
The Ear loves Smith’s reply when he was asked by anchor John Stofflet of NBC for advice to his successor:
“Learn from the students,” said Smith, a trained professional and concertizing clarinetist who turned to conducting.
The Ear, who was a longtime teacher himself, knows the truth of that answer.
Thank you and bravo, Maestro Smith.
ALERT: Today is Veterans Day. What piece of classical music should be played to mark the event? The Ear suggests the War Requiem by Benjamin Britten. Leave your choice in the COMMENT section.
By Jacob Stockinger
Today’s post features a guest review of Madison Opera’s “Romeo and Juliet” by Larry Wells. Wells has been enjoying opera since he was a youngster. He subscribed to the San Francisco Opera for nearly 20 years, where he last saw “Romeo and Juliet,” sung by Alfredo Kraus and Ruth Ann Swenson.
More recently he lived in Tokyo and attended many memorable performances there over nearly 20 years. These included Richard Strauss rarities such as “Die Ägyptische Helena” and “Die Liebe der Danae” as well as the world’s strangest Ring Cycle by Richard Wagner and a space-age production of Puccini’s “Turandot,” featuring Alessandra Marc singing “In questa reggia” while encased in an inverted cone.
By Larry Wells
Last Sunday’s matinee performance of Charles Gounod’s “Romeo and Juliet” by Madison Opera at the Overture Center was a feast for the eyes. The costumes, sets, lighting and staging were consistently arresting. (Performance photos are by James Gill.)
But we go to the opera for music and drama.
The tragedy of Romeo and Juliet is well known. Gounod’s opera substitutes the tragedy with melodrama, and therein lies one of the work’s flaws. Despite sword fights, posturings and threats as well as one of opera’s lengthiest death scenes, one leaves the theater thinking that a vast amount of theatrical resources have been squandered on something insubstantial.
However, despite its dramatic flaws, the opera’s music has somehow endured. And Sunday’s performance milked the most out of the music that could have been expected.
The star of the show was the Madison Symphony Orchestra under the expert direction of Maestro John DeMain (below). He knows how to pace a performance, how to build an exciting climax and how to highlight a solo instrument.
He is an incredibly intelligent conductor, and we are fortunate to have him in Madison. I want to make special mention of the beautiful harp playing, which, according to the program, was accomplished by Jenny DeRoche.
The second star on the stage was the Madison Opera Chorus (below). The chorus plays a significant part in many of the opera’s scenes, and the singing was stirring when it needed to be and tender when it was called for.
As for the soloists, highest praise must go to UW-Madison alumna soprano Emily Birsan (below right) for her portrayal of Juliet. Her solo arias, particularly her big number in the first act as well as her subsequent lament, were stunning.
Her Romeo, tenor John Irvin (below left), sounded a little forced during his forte moments, but he sang magnificently in his quiet farewell to Juliet after their balcony scene. (You can hear the famous balcony scene, sung by Roberto Alagna and Angela Gheorghiu in the YouTube video at the bottom.)
Their voices blended beautifully in the opera’s multiple duets. And the wedding quartet, where they were joined by Allisanne Apple’s nurse (below, rear right) and Liam Moran’s Friar Lawrence (below, middle center), was a highlight of the performance.
The opera abounds with minor characters, all of which were ably portrayed. Special mention should be made of Stephanie Lauricella (below, far right) for her fantastic moments as Romeo’s page; Madison’s Allisanne Apple for her amusing portrayal of Juliet’s nurse Gertrude; Sidney Outlaw (below, second from left) as a robust Mercutio; and Philip Skinner as a powerful Lord Capulet.
I have wondered why this opera is still performed. Its music is lovely but unmemorable, and its dramatic impact is tenuous.
I left the performance thinking that it had been a good afternoon at the theater – certainly more interesting than the Packers’ game – but wishing that one of a couple dozen more meaty operas had been performed in its place.
Since we are celebrating the 400th anniversary of the death of Shakespeare, how much more interesting would have been Benjamin Britten’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream”?
By Jacob Stockinger
He played in a string quartet and a symphony orchestra before founding and directing a chamber orchestra that rose to the top ranks of the music world. Then he became a world-famous conductor of larger ensembles, including the Minnesota Orchestra.
He was Sir Neville Marriner (below, in old age), and he died at 92 on Oct. 2.
Perhaps because Marriner, who pioneered period practices on modern instruments when playing music of the Baroque and Classical eras, was famous for recording the soundtrack to the Academy Award-winning film “Amadeus,” his death was announced the same day on radio news programs – something that doesn’t happen often and speaks to his popularity and influence.
By all accounts, in the world of many egotistical maestros, Marriner remained modest. For this friendly titan, music mattered most and he was busy conducting right up until the end. Apparently, Marriner was a wonderful man to know and to work with.
Chances are good that by now you have already heard about Marriner’s death. So The Ear is offering some homages that repeat the details of his career and his passing. (Below is a photo of the young Neville Marriner.)
First are two moving testimonies from Marriner’s friend, the British critic Norman Lebrecht, published on Lebrecht’s blog Slipped Disc:
Here is the announcement of his death from the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields (heard playing the Adagio by Tomaso Albinoni in the YouTube video at the bottom), which Marriner founded and led for many years:
Here is an exhaustive obituary from The New York Times:
And here is another obituary from The Washington Post:
Here is a good overview with some audio-visual samples, from the Deceptive Cadence blog on NPR or National Public Radio:
And here is a good summary from famed radio station WQXR-FM in New York City:
Sir Neville Marriner was a prolific recording artist, with more than 500 recordings to his credit. The Ear fondly remembers an LP that had the Serenades for Strings by the Czech composer Antonin Dvorak and the “Holberg” Suite by Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg, which has been reissued as a “Legends” CD by Decca. The playing was warmly heart-felt and superb.
The Ear also loved his complete set of piano concertos by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, done with pianist Alfred Brendel.
What are your favorite Marriner recordings?
The Ear wants to hear.
By Jacob Stockinger
The Ear has received the following announcement from the Madison Symphony Orchestra:
The Madison Symphony Orchestra (MSO, below), with Music Director John DeMain conducting, opens its 91st season – and its 23rd season under Maestro DeMain — with three works by 20th-century composers.
Science, music and stunning visuals come together with Gustav Holst’s The Planets accompanied by a spectacular, high-definition film featuring NASA imagery. (Below is a photo of Jupiter, “The Bringer of Jollity” to Holst. The musical depiction of Jupiter — performed by James Levine conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra — is in the YouTube video at the bottom.
The concerts are in Overture Hall on this Friday., Sept. 23, at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, Sept. 24, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Sept. 25, at 2:30 p.m.
A national hero in his homeland, Enescu rarely included hints of his Romanian heritage in his music, except when he composed the Romanian Rhapsodies as a teenager. Romanian Rhapsody No. 1 captures a series of Romanian folk songs, including melodies of increasingly wild Gypsy dances. This is MSO’s first performance of this work.
In the Chaconne, American composer John Corigliano (below) draws the audience in with a foreboding and haunting signature tune, which he wrote for the powerful film about music, The Red Violin. His film score for the movie earned him an Academy Award in 1999 for his original music. This will be the first time MSO has performed this Oscar-winning work, and features MSO Concertmaster Naha Greenholtz.
Greenholtz (below) has captivated audiences as Concertmaster of the MSO and the Quad City Symphony Orchestra. A Canadian violinist, Greenholtz was born in Kyoto, Japan, where she began her violin studies at age three.
Since her solo debut at 14, she continues to perform internationally, most notably with: the Oregon Symphony, Calgary Philharmonic, National Ballet of Canada, Omaha Symphony, and Memphis Symphony.
The Planets is known as Holst’s most popular work. The musical movements were inspired by characteristics connected with astrology’s seven planets. For instance, ominous sounding Mars, the Bringer of War, is followed by the calmly flowing Venus, the Bringer of Peace. (Below top is Mars and below bottom is Venus.)
The performances will be accompanied by a high-definition film projecting celestial images above the main stage.
According to New York Times senior critic Anthony Tommasini, the film shows “photographs from rovers and satellites, radar images and computer-generated graphics … combining to give the audience the impression of circling individual planets and sometimes flying over their awesomely barren landscapes.” (Below is a close-up of the surface of Mars.)
The Madison Symphony Women’s Chorus (below top, in a photo by Greg Anderson), under the direction of Beverly Taylor, will be part of the final movement of The Planets, and the Overture Concert Organ (below bottom) is featured at several moments in the piece.
This is the first time MSO’s performance of The Planets will be accompanied by the high-definition film.
One hour before each performance, Randal Swiggum, the artistic director of the Elgin Youth Symphony Orchestra Artistic, will lead a 30-minute Prelude Discussion in Overture Hall to enhance concertgoers’ understanding and listening experience.
For more background on the music, please view the Program Notes at: http://www.allsenmusic.com/NOTES/1617/1.Sep16.html or madisonsymphony.org/planets.
Before all of the concerts and at intermission, Friends of University of Wisconsin–Madison Astronomy will have an interactive display in the lobby concertgoers can experience.
The Symphony recommends that concert attendees arrive early for each performance to make sure they have time to pass through Overture Center’s security stations, and so they can experience the pre-concert talk and the astronomy exhibit (free for all ticket-holders).
Single Tickets are $16 to $87 each and are on sale now at madisonsymphony.org/planets, through the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street, or by calling the Box Office at (608) 258-4141.
Groups of 15 or more can save 25% by calling the MSO office at (608) 257-3734. For more information visit, madisonsymphony.org/groups.
Student rush tickets can be purchased in person on the day of the concert at the Overture Box Center Office at 201 State Street. Students must show a valid student ID and can receive up to two $12 or $15 tickets. More information is at: madisonsymphony.org/studentrush.
Seniors age 62 and up receive 20% savings on advance and day-of-concert ticket purchases in select areas of the hall.
Discounted seats are subject to availability, and discounts may not be combined.
Major funding for the September concerts is provided by: NBC15, Diane Ballweg, Capitol Lakes, Friends of University of Wisconsin–Madison Astronomy, The Gialamas Company, Inc., and Nicholas and Elaine Mischler. Additional funding is provided by: Analucia and Mark Allie, for their beloved “Doc” Richard Greiner; Judith and Nick Topitzes, and the Wisconsin Arts Board with funds from the State of Wisconsin and the National Endowment for the Arts.
By Jacob Stockinger
The time has finally come!
It has been, in fact, long overdue.
The candidacy of Hillary Clinton as the Democratic nominee to be President of the United States is a historic first.
And it is generating a lot of buzz about breaking glass ceilings in politics and elsewhere.
So it seemed very timely when The New York Times reported on women conductors at a conference-festival in Lucerne, Switzerland. The pioneering American woman conductor Marin Alsop (below), who heads the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, is among them.
Among the younger generation included is the Finnish conductor Susanna Malkki (below), who is taking over as the Chief Conductor of the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra this month. (You can hear her discuss her inaugural season in the YouTube video at the bottom.)
Here is a link to the story and interviews with four female conductors. They offer some terrific advice and many memorable anecdotes:
By Jacob Stockinger
Of course, the maestros – who were asked to name their Top 3 symphonies to generate a master list — might well disagree with the public. One suspects that conductors like BIG, difficult and complex works that challenge them.
Now making such rankings and lists is certainly a subjective experience, some say, silly.
Still, it can be informative as well as fun.
Do you agree with the maestros?
What modern and contemporary symphonies would you name?
What great symphony, from any period, do you think is missing from the Top 10 and would you add?
By Jacob Stockinger
In an age of jet-set, millionaire celebrity maestros, The Ear finds that the modest Fischer – a pianist by training who is also the music director of the Konzerthaus in Berlin, Germany — shows a refreshing lack of ego and ambition.
Fisher — who has also challenged the conservative right-wing government of Hungary –seems to have a healthy perspective on making music, which depends on taking the long view, with the acclaimed Budapest Festival Orchestra (below), which he founded and still leads.
In short, Ivan Fischer seems a model non-superstar musician.
The Ear hopes you agree.
Here is a terrific profile that appeared in The Guardian newspaper in the UK:
By Jacob Stockinger
The Ear has some catching up to do on several fronts.
Well, that is what happens in a city with such a busy musical life and in a year with so many news items.
And it also happens when you give priority to previews, then reviews and then trend stories, as The Ear likes to do.
Plus, there are only seven days in the week, which usually means just seven posts.
Anyway, one neglected or belated item is a generous piece — a recollection homage — that was kindly sent to The Ear by Beverly Taylor, the longtime director of choral activities at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music and the assistant music director of the Madison Symphony Orchestra and Chorus.
Her remarks concern the death at 86 in late May of Swiss-born conductor Gustav Meier (below, in a photo by Doug Elbinger), who trained several other Madison-area musicians as well as her. Born in Switzerland, Meier was a quiet celebrity who trained many students at Yale University, the Eastman School of Music and the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor and who led the Lansing Symphony Orchestra for 27 years.
Taylor (below) writes:
“Did you know Gustav Meier died in this year of losing so many?
“Maybe the others were more famous, but he was my teacher, mentor and friend from 1990 on, and we visited regularly. I even coached the Beethoven Ninth with him a year ago, before our performance here.
“I wanted you to know how many people he influenced. I wouldn’t have had the life I’d had without his help. He was a GENEROUS musician and he was beloved.”
Here is a link to a fascinating obituary, one that is well worth reading, in the Lansing, Michigan newspaper that Taylor shared:
By Jacob Stockinger
That is the radio station by the way, that brings us “Exploring Music with Bill McGlaughlin,” which airs every weekday night 8-9 p.m. on Wisconsin Public Radio. The insightful McGlaughlin himself is a former conductor, and The Ear suspects he had something to do with the quiz.
WFMT is the same radio station with The Beethoven Satellite Network that brings us host Peter Van De Graaff who chooses and comments on classical music overnight. A performing baritone singer who has sung George Frideric Handel’s “Messiah” with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra several times, the discerning Van De Graaff might also have had something to do with figuring out different and distinctive conducting styles.
Anyway, the WFMT staff devised a quiz and put it on the radio station’s official blog.
You answer questions and then you see which great symphony orchestra conductor you would mostly likely be.
Among the names mentioned are Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Leonard Bernstein (whom The Ear was pegged as!) and the three below (from left): Marin Alsop, Pierre Boulez and Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who heads the Philadelphia Orchestra and last week was named the new music director of the Metropolitan Opera.
Here is a link to the quiz and to the comments that its results have inspired:
Take the quiz and let The Ear and other readers know the results and what you thought of the quiz.
The Ear wants to hear.