The Well-Tempered Ear

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

March 2, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are your major current and upcoming projects?

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

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

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

Is the MSO program special to you?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


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Classical music: The seventh annual Make Music Madison is on Friday, June 21, and features 17 different FREE classical concerts as well as dozens of performances of jazz, folk, blues, hip-hop, swing and other genres

June 15, 2019
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REMINDER: TODAY, Saturday, June 15, at noon in Grace Episcopal Church, 116 West Washington Avenue, on the Capitol Square, the Ancora String Quartet will give a FREE performance as part of “Grace Presents.” The one-hour program includes the String Quartet in A Major, Op. 13, by Felix Mendelssohn; the String Quartet in B-flat Major, “La Malinconia” (Melancholy), Op. 18, No. 6, by Ludwig van Beethoven; and “Entr’acte” by the contemporary Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Caroline Shaw. The Ear heard an earlier performance of the same program by the Ancora, and highly recommends it.

By Jacob Stockinger

This coming Friday, June 21, is the Summer Solstice, which arrives at 10:54 a.m. CDT.

That means not only the first day of summer, but also the seventh annual Make Music Madison – a day-long FREE mostly outdoor festival of live performances.

The event, which is organized and staffed by volunteers and costs about $45,000,  will take place from easy morning until midnight. Madison will be joining more than 80 cities in the United States and more than 1,000 cities around the world for the global event. The estimated audience worldwide is in the tens of millions.

The local lineup is impressive.

More than 400 concerts at more than 100 venues will take place all around the Madison area.

Many genres of music besides classical will be featured: jazz, folk, ethnic, rock, blues, hip-hop, reggae, gospel, swing and more. (In the YouTube video at the bottom,  you can hear a compilation of different music and assessments from Make Music Madison participants in 2014.) 

And many forms of music, both instrumental and vocal, will be featured. (Below is the Madison Flute Club performing during last year’s event.)

Performers include professionals and amateurs, young people and adults, students and teachers, individuals and ensembles.

Some events will be more formal, while others will be jam sessions. Some events will have an open mic.

The Ear counts 17 different venues for classical music, including a public piano in the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Alumni Park, between the Memorial Union and the Red Gym. Also featured there is opera singer Prenicia Clifton (below).

You will also find classical music at Metcalfe’s market in the Hilldale Mall; the First Congregational United Church of Christ near Camp Randall Stadium;  branches of the Madison Public Library; and other places. You can hear the Suzuki Strings as well as violin, viola, cello, brass, winds, piano and guitar ensembles.

Unfortunately, though, specific programs and works are not listed, which might cut into the attendance at some performances. 

To whet your appetite, here is a link to the Make Music Madison home website, with lots of background, some fine photos, a complete listing of events and the names of major funding sources, which include the Madison Arts Commission, Isthmus, Dane Arts,  WORT FM 89.9, Wisconsin Public Radio. WSUM-FM 91.7 (the student radio at the University of Wisconsin-Madison) and La Voz de Latinoamerica Desde Wisconsin as well as individual private donors.

To help classical fans decide what to attend and what works in their weekday schedule, here is a map of concerts. Just click on “Classical” in “Filter Map,” which is first tab on the top right, to see classical events listed by genre, location and name:

http://www.makemusicmadison.org/listings/

Have you ever attended Make Music Madison?

What did you think of it? Did you have a good time? Did you hear good music and fine performances?

Do you have any words of advice, tips or recommendations for organizers, performers and listeners?

The Ear wants to hear.


Posted in Classical music
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