The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: This Saturday and Sunday, the Token Creek Festival explores how an unrequited love for Clara Schumann helped make Brahms and his music autumnal

August 22, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Johannes Brahms (below) remains the only composer whose complete catalogue of chamber music is still in constant use. This is due to his fastidiously high standards, and to his ideal temperament for music played by smaller groups of players.

His music is universally admired for its combination of sheer craft and deep emotional impact, ranging from the most muted private conversation to the most passionate and revealing passages he ever composed.

But putting aside his own personal temperament as well as his melancholy melodies, his bittersweet harmonies, and his masterful use of strings and woodwinds, what gives Brahms’ music that quality of sadness that so many listeners and critics describe as “autumnal”?

No discussion of Brahms can take place without engaging with the most important person in his life — Clara Schumann (below, in a  Getty photo), who was born Clara Wieck and became a virtuoso pianist and a composer whose 200th birth anniversary is being celebrated this year.

Brahms was deeply in love with Clara. But unfortunately she was married to Robert Schumann (below right with Clara), one of Brahms’ closest friends and most loyal promoters. Even after a mentally ill Robert Schumann died of suicide at 46, Clara remained loyal to his memory. For the rest of her long life, she performed, edited and promoted his music and rejected Brahms as a lover or second husband.

Almost overnight, Clara’s rejection seemed to cause Brahms to turn from a handsome young man (below top) to the more familiar figure of an overweight, cigar-smoking, bearded and prematurely old curmudgeon (below bottom).

Clara Schumann’s hidden presence is involved with all of the pieces on the Token Creek Festival program, which will be performed at 4 p.m. this Saturday and Sunday, Aug. 24 and 25, in the festival’s refurbished barn (below) at 4037 Highway 19 in DeForest.

The program includes the Violin Sonata No. 1 in G major, illustrated with a performance of Brahms’ “Regenlied” (the “Rain Song” that precedes it and introduces the theme of the sonata); the Sonata No. 1 for Cello and Piano in E minor; and the Piano Quartet No 3 in C minor, a piece that retains its distinctive charge of unresolvable emotion. (You can hear that unresolved emotion in the beautiful slow movement of the Piano Quartet No. 3 in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Performers are violinist Rose Mary Harbison, co-artistic director of the Token Creek Festival; violist Lila Brown; cellist Rhonda Rider; pianist Janice Weber; and Edgewood College mezzo-soprano Kathleen Otterson.

THE REST OF THE FEST

Upcoming programs include “Words & Music,” a belated 80th birthday tribute to artistic co-director John Harbison, on Wednesday night, Aug. 28 at 7:30 p.m. The intimate program will include readings by poet Lloyd Schwartz, the premiere of new Harbison songs, plus works by Johann Sebastian Bach, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Arnold Schoenberg.

The festival closes with “The Piano” program on Saturday and Sunday, Aug. 31 and Sept. 1, both at 4 p.m. The festival welcomes back pianists Robert Levin and Ya-Fei Chuang, playing together and as soloists.

Their program explores the question of the composer-performer, here composers who were also formidable pianists:  Mozart, Maurice Ravel and Franz Liszt. Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4, arranged by the composer for chamber ensemble, and excerpts of John Harbison’s Sonata No. 2, written for Levin, complete the program.

For tickets ($32) and more information, go to www.tokencreekfestival.org or call (608) 241-2525.


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Classical music: After a year recovering from an injury, Chinese superstar pianist Lang Lang says he has become a more serious musician

August 11, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Chinese pianist Lang Lang (below) has long been popular, a best-selling superstar and one of the most bankable players in the business.

Yet such was his flamboyant showmanship and self-indulgence that many of his colleagues and critics did not take him very seriously. Many thought of him more as the Liberace of the classical concert stage.

But then a serious injury to his left arm, tendonitis from over-practicing and straining, forced Lang Lang to take a year off to recover.

During that time he married. He worked with young children and music students, even funding a new piano lab. And he released a new CD (“Piano Book”) of short pieces that he has loved since his student days. (You can see Lang Lang coaching a young pianist about a Mozart sonata that played a pivotal role in his life during a master class in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Lang Lang now says that during that recovery period he rethought everything about his career and has made some major changes from practicing to performing.

And what seems to have emerged, at age 37, is a new approach that emphasizes more seriousness and regularity coupled with greater respect for the music he plays.

Time will tell – in both live and recorded performances — how much has really changed in Lang Lang’s approach to making music.

Nonetheless, the dramatic change was recounted recently in a comprehensive story in The New York Times, which even goes back to trace the pianist’s career, including failures, from his early childhood (below) in China.

Read it and see what you think.

https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/24/arts/music/lang-lang-piano.html

Then tell us in the Comment section if it has changed how you think about Lang Lang.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: The Middleton Community Orchestra impresses in a concert of “non-holiday” music for the holidays. Plus, what music is best to greet the Winter Solstice today?

December 21, 2018
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ALERT: Today we turn a  corner when the Winter Solstice arrives at 4:23 p.m. Days will start getting longer. What music would you celebrate it with? Antonio Vivaldi’s “Winter” section of “The Four Seasons”? Franz Schubert’s “Winterreise” or “Winter Journey”? Let The Ear know in the COMMENT section with a YouTube link if possible. Here comes the sun!

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. He also took the performance photos.

By John W. Barker

On Wednesday night at the Middleton Performing Arts Center, the mostly amateur Middleton Community Orchestra (below) proudly presented an alternative Christmas program of music, none of which had any connection whatsoever with that otherwise inescapable holiday.

It was a program of great variety, full of novelties.

It began soberly with Gustav Mahler’s early song cycle, the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer). This venture into German orchestral song (with a folk song background) provided symphonic inspiration for his First Symphony, the so-called “Titan,” so it unites many strains in the composer’s work.

Baritone Paul Rowe (below), of the UW-Madison’s music faculty, sang these songs. Rowe has a strong feeling for German, and he used clear diction to capture the dramatic meanings of the four song texts.

A contrast then, and a particular novelty, was the appearance of Matthew Coley (below), of the percussion ensemble Clocks in Motion, playing the cimbalom, the intensely Hungarian version of the hammered dulcimer. 

He was joined by the orchestra for a fancy arrangement of the Hungarian dance, the popular Czardas by Vittorio Monti. (You can hear Matthew Coley play the same piece on the cimbalom in the YouTube video at the bottom.) He followed this with an encore, a hand-me-down arrangement of a movement from one of Johann Sebastian Bach’s solo cello suites.

More contrast came with the mini-ballet score by Darius Milhaud Le Boeuf sur le toit (The Ox on the Roof) of 1919. This was one of the French composer’s trailblazing introductions of American jazz styles into European music.

It really works best with a small orchestra, so Middleton’s was a bit overblown for the assignment. But the elaborate solo role for violin was taken by Naha Greenholtz — concertmaster of the Madison Symphony Orchestra and wife of the evening’s guest conductor, Kyle Knox, who is the music director of Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras and the Associate Conductor of the Madison Symphony Orchestra. There are some fiendish passages in the solo work, and Greenholtz brought them off with unfailing flair.

The final part of the program was devoted to the orchestral suite that Zoltan Kodaly derived from his Singspiel of 1926, Hary Janos, in which a comic Hungarian soldier upstages even Napoleon.

This is a satiric and highly colorful assemblage that offers wonderful opportunities for all of the instruments and sections to show off. And Coley was back with his cimbalom for Hungarian spice. The players clearly were having a great frolic, and conductor Knox drew the best out of them in a bravura performance.

Ah yes! Christmas without “Christmas” music. A wonderful idea to refresh the ears in December!


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Classical music: The amateur Middleton Community Orchestra performs a non-traditional “holiday” concert of Mahler and Kodaly this Wednesday night

December 17, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

During the holiday season, many — maybe even most — classical music groups program music that goes with the theme of the holidays from Christmas and Hanukkah to Kwanzaa and the New Year.

But some groups wisely give listeners a respite from holiday fare.

That happened one week ago when the University of Wisconsin-Madison Choral Union and the UW Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of Beverly Taylor, performed a memorable program that featured the brassy “Te Deum” by Zoltan Kodaly and especially the calming Requiem by Maurice Duruflé.

Something similar will happen again this Wednesday night, Dec. 19, at 7:30 p.m. in the comfortable Middleton Performing Arts Center, attached to Middleton High School, 2100 Bristol St.

That is when the mostly amateur but critically acclaimed Middleton Community Orchestra (below, in a photo by Brian Ruppert) will perform its “holiday” concert that is holiday-ish more as a matter of timing than of content or theme, since you won’t hear any carols or sing-alongs or the usual or traditional holiday fare. The Ear thinks it’s a smart approach and a welcome break.

The non-holiday “holiday” program includes “Songs of a Wayfarer” by Gustav Mahler, sung by UW-Madison baritone Paul Rowe (below).

Also on the program is “Le Boeuf sur le Toit” (The Steer on the Roof) by Darius Milhaud with violinist soloist Naha Greenholtz (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson), who is the concertmaster of the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

Matthew Coley (below top), a member of the acclaimed Madison-based percussion group “Clocks in Motion,” will perform two pieces of Hungarian music that use the rarely heard cimbalom (below bottom): the “Czardas” by Vittorio Monti and the “Hary Janos Suite” by Kodaly. (You can hear Monti’s familiar “Czardas” in a version for violin and piano in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Kyle Knox (below), who is the new music director of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras and the new associate conductor of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, and who is also the husband of Naha Greenholtz, will once again be the guest conductor.

Admission is $15 for the general public with students and young people getting in for free. Tickets can be bought at the Willy Street Co-op West and at the door. The box office opens at 6:30 p.m. and doors to the hall open at 7 p.m.

As usual, there will be a meet-and-greet reception (below) – complete with Christmas cookies, you can be sure – at the end of the concert.

For more information about future MCO concerts, reviews of past concerts and details about how to join the orchestra or support it, go to: http://middletoncommunityorchestra.org/home


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Classical music: Madison Opera offers preview events leading up to performances of “Cavalleria Rusticana” and “I Pagliacci” on Nov. 2 and 4

October 13, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following information to post:

The Madison Opera presents the classic double-bill of Cavalleria Rusticana and I Pagliacci, by Pietro Mascagni and Ruggero Leoncavallo respectively, on Friday, Nov. 2 ,at 8 p.m. and Sunday, Nov. 4, at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall.

“Cav and Pag” – as they are traditionally known because they are usually presented together — feature some of the most emotionally dramatic music in the repertoire, these two operas offer the ultimate portrayal of passion and jealousy on stage.

Both operas are set in rural Italy and follow characters whose human emotions lead to tragic endings. (The sets, below, used in Madison, come from the New Orleans Opera.)

Cavalleria Rusticana (“Rustic Chivalry”) tells the story of Turridu, who has abandoned his lover, Santuzza, to rekindle an affair with his now-married former girlfriend. As Easter Sunday unfolds, Santuzza and Turridu engage in a battle of emotions that will end with violent consequences.

I Pagliacci (“The Clowns”) tells of a small theatrical troupe arriving in a village for a performance.  Nedda, wife of the troupe’s leader Canio, agrees to run off with her lover, Silvio, that evening.  Another troupe member, Tonio, tells Canio, who responds violently.

But the show must go on, and as Nedda and Canio enact the play-within-a-play, reality bleeds over onstage and tragedy follows. (You can hear the famous aria “Vesti la giubba” sung by Luciano Pavarotti in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

“When people think of the phrase ‘Italian opera,’ it’s Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci that often come to mind,” says Kathryn Smith (below, in a  photo by James Gill), Madison Opera’s general director.  “The intense emotions of both the characters and the music they sing has never been equaled. I vividly remember the first time I saw Cavalleria and was overwhelmed by the power of it. I am so delighted to produce these operas in Madison for the first time in over 30 years, with this fantastic cast and production team.”

Cavalleria Rusticana by Pietro Mascagni (below) was written for a one-act opera competition in 1890. Based on a short story and play of the same name, it was an immediate smash hit, with 185 productions around the world within three years, making Mascagni an international icon of Italian music.

Ruggero Leoncavallo (below) wrote I Pagliacci two years later in direct response, hoping for a similar success with a one-act opera about real people caught up in an emotional web. Like Mascagni, he had an immediate success, and the two operas have been paired together intermittently for much of the 20th century.

Madison Opera’s cast features both returning artists and debuts.

Making her debut in the role of Santuzza in Cavalleria Rusticana is soprano Michelle Johnson, who has been praised for her “extraordinary breath control and flawless articulation.”

Also making her Madison Opera debut is soprano Talise Trevigne in the role of Nedda in Pagliacci; Trevigne has received acclaim for her “luxuriant vocalism [and] unwavering commitment to character.”

Returning to Madison Opera are tenor Scott Piper(below top) in the dual roles of Turridu/Canio and baritone Michael Mayes(below bttom) in the dual roles of Alfio/Tonio. Piper was last seen in Madison as Cavaradossi in the 2013 production of Puccini’s Tosca; Mayes returns to Madison after his electrifying performance as Joseph De Rocher in Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking in 2014.

Rounding out the Cavalleria Rusticana cast are Kirsten Larson as Lola and Danielle Wright as Mamma Lucia, both in their Madison Opera debuts.

Pagliacci will also feature baritone Benjamin Taylor in his Madison Opera debut as Silvio and Madison favorite Robert Goodrich as Beppe.

Kristine McIntyre (below) returns to direct, after her highly acclaimed production of Daniel Catan’s Florencia en el Amazonas last season.

Conducting this production will be Joseph Mechavich (below), who made his Madison Opera debut with Mozart’s Don Giovanni and most recently conducted Opera in the Park 2017. Says Mechavich, “Seeing Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci is the ultimate in an Italian operatic experience.  Audiences will have a visceral reaction to synthesis of music and drama.”

Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci both have magnificent choral writing, from the celebrated Easter Hymn in Cavalleria Rusticana to the Chorus of the Bells in Pagliacci, as well as sumptuous orchestral music.

Rounding out the musical forces are the Madison Opera Chorus, members of the Madison Youth Choirs, and the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

Events leading up to the opera can help the community learn more about Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci. Community preview will be offer an entertaining look at “reality opera” – the “verismo” school, which produced works like Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci.

Cinematheque and Madison Opera will co-sponsor a showing of the 1928 silent film Laugh, Clown, Laugh on Oct. 22.  Opera Up Close provides an in-depth discussion of the operas, including a cast roundtable, on Oct. 28.

RELATED EVENTS

Laugh, Clown, Laugh (1928); Saturday, Oct. 20, 7 p.m.; UW Cinematheque, 4070 Vilas Hall (http://cinema.wisc.edu)

FREE and open to the public; doors open 30 minutes before showtime

Lon Chaney (below), the “Man of a Thousand Faces,” plays Tito, a smiling-on-the-outside circus clown heading for heartbreak after he becomes smitten with the fetching Simonetta (Loretta Young). This reworking of the Pagliacci story offers a great showcase for the two leads and talented director Herbert Brenon. The silent film will feature live piano accompaniment by David Drazin and will be preceded by Acrobatty Bunny (1946), starring Bugs Bunny.

Opera Up Close; Sunday, Oct. 28, 1-3 p.m.; the Margaret C. Winston Opera Center, 335 West Mifflin Street

$20 general admission; free for full-season subscribers; $10 for two-show subscribers

Join Madison Opera for a multimedia behind-the-scenes preview of Cavalleria Rusticana & Pagliacci.  General Director Kathryn Smith will discuss the composers and the history of these two pieces. Principal artists, stage director Kristine McIntyre and conductor Joseph Mechavich will participate in a roundtable discussion about Madison’s production and their own takes on these masterpieces.

Pre-Opera Talks: Friday, Nov. 2, at 7 p.m. and Sunday, Nov. 4, at 1:30 p.m. in the Wisconsin Studio at Overture Center, free to ticket holders. Attend an entertaining half-hour introduction to “Cavalleria Rusticana” and “Pagliacci” one hour prior to curtain.

Post-Opera Q&A: Friday, Nov. 2, and Sunday, Nov. 4, following the performance in the Wisconsin Studio at Overture Center, free to ticket holders

You’ve seen the operas and loved them. But are you perhaps wondering about …?  Join General Director Kathryn Smith immediately after the performances to ask questions about what you have just seen.

More information — including a blog that has interviews with the cast members — is available at www.madisonopera.org


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