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 Chicago Gargoyle Brass and Organ Ensemble will take Madison listeners on a FREE concert of ‘Imaginary Journeys’ TONIGHT at 7 p.m.

October 27, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement for a concert that sounds in keeping with the spirit of Halloween:

The Chicago Gargoyle Brass and Organ Ensemble (below, in a photo by Thomas Mohr) will lead listeners on aural adventures through space, time and fantasy at its “Imaginary Journeys” concert TONIGHT, Oct. 27.

The concert is FREE and open to the public, and will take place at 7 p.m. at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, 5701 Raymond Road, in Madison.

For more information, call (608) 271-6633 or visit www.gslcwi.com or gargoylebrass.com.

The professional ensemble of brass quintet and pipe organ, with percussion, will perform the Madison premieres of new works and arrangements it recently commissioned for its novel array of instruments.

The concert’s namesake work, “Imaginary Journeys,” was written for the ensemble by Chicago-area composer Mark Lathan. It takes listeners on a rocket-powered interstellar adventure, inspired by recent astronomical discoveries.

“For this piece,” Lathan says, “I wanted to bring in some drama, somewhat in the manner of a film score.” Lathan earned a doctorate in music from the University of California at Los Angeles, where he received the Henry Mancini Award in Film Composition and studied film scoring with Jerry Goldsmith.

Another Madison premiere is Craig Garner’s brass-and-organ arrangement of Igor Stravinsky’s ever-popular Suite from “The Firebird,” a ballet based on Russian fairy tales. “The audience will hear an all-time favorite orchestral work like it’s never been heard before,” says Rodney Holmes, founder and artistic director of the Chicago Gargoyle Brass and Organ Ensemble.

Concertgoers will also hear the first local performances of “Short Fuse” for brass, organ and percussion by Chris Reyman (below), a jazz performance specialist teaching at the University of Texas at El Paso. Holmes says, “This piece shows off a very different face of what a pipe organ and brass can do.”

Other first hearings include Garner’s two-part instrumental suite from English Baroque composer Henry Purcell’s “Come Ye Sons of Art.”

The concert’s journey into the Baroque era includes brass and organ arrangements of movements from Johann Sebastian Bach’s chorale cantata “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott” (A Mighty Fortress Is Our God), BWV 80.

The concert’s imaginative works include “Earthscape” by David Marlatt (below, and heard in the YouTube video at the bottom) as well as pipe-organ versions of “Clair de lune” (Moonlight) by Claude Debussy and Louis Vierne.

Performers will include Madison-based organist Jared Stellmacher (below), an award-winning musician heard on the Chicago Gargoyle Brass and Organ Ensemble’s critically acclaimed 2015 debut CD “Flourishes, Tales and Symphonies.” He holds a master’s degree in music from Yale University.

Gargoyle ensemble players are trumpeters Lev Garbar and Andrew Hunter, horn player Amy Krueger, trombonist Ian Fitzwater, tuba player Jason Lyons, and percussionist Logan Fox. Conductor will be Jakob Noestvik.

About the Chicago Gargoyle Brass and Organ Ensemble

“The Chicago Gargoyle Brass and Organ Ensemble plays with warmth, elegance, and panache,” said U.S. music magazine Fanfare in a review of the ensemble’s debut CD. “[They] are perfect companions for the music lover in need of calming nourishment.”

The group takes its whimsical name from the stone figures atop gothic buildings at the University of the Chicago, where the now-professional ensemble got its start in 1992 as a brass quintet of faculty and students.

Under its founder and artistic director Rodney Holmes, it has evolved over the decades into an independent organization of classically trained musicians that focuses on commissioning and performing groundbreaking new works and arrangements for brass and pipe organ. More information can be found at gargoylebrass.com.


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Classical music: Prize-winning UW-Madison conductor Chad Hutchinson talks about the FREE and unusual all-American, all-20th century concert he will perform with the UW Symphony Orchestra this Friday night

October 9, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Chad Hutchinson (below) is starting his second season at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music by putting his own stamp on programming with an intriguing, all-American and all-20th-century concert that combines music for the concert hall with music for plays and films.

The FREE concert by the UW Symphony Orchestra is in Mills Hall this Friday night, Oct. 12, and starts at 8 p.m. with an informal pre-concert talk by Hutchinson (below) at 7:30 p.m.

Hutchison recently won one first prize and two second prizes from The American Prize for work he did – in opera conducting, orchestral conducting and orchestral programming — at the University of Minnesota and the University of South Dakota.

For more details, go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/uw-madison-symphony-orchestra-3/

The Ear asked Hutchinson how, after his first year, he feels about the UW-Madison.

He answered: “What makes the UW-Madison special is the camaraderie and support of the students, faculty and staff across the numerous disciplines within the Mead Witter School of Music.

“I’m thrilled to be back working with the orchestra (below), opera and conducting students and collaborating with the amazing faculty here. Seeing the “light bulb” moments when students realize and achieve a new level of competency for themselves and the ensemble is the best part of the profession.”

Here are his thoughts about the program:

“The UW-Madison Symphony Orchestra opens the 2018-2019 season with a program of three influential American composers. This concert will highlight the juxtaposition of traditional classical music and compositions heavily influenced by folk, jazz and the blues.

“A common thread throughout the concert is the idea of firsts and exploring new ideas as a composer.

“The Overture to “The School for Scandal” (1931) of Samuel Barber (below) was the first piece that he composed for full orchestra and is based on the Restoration comedy by Richard Sheridan.

“This performance will be the debut of one of the Symphony Orchestra’s new doctoral conducting students Ji-Hyun Yim (below). Ji-Hyun (Jenny) comes to Madison after completing a Master’s Degree in Orchestral Conducting from the University of North Texas.

“The second piece on the program is one that I have wanted to program for quite some time. The “Afro-American” Symphony (1930) of William Grant Still (below, in a photo by Carl Van Vechten), his first symphony, is widely regarded as the first large-scale piece of symphonic repertoire composed by an African-American and performed by a major symphony orchestra.

Each movement’s title is influenced by short poems by the 20th-century African-American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar (below, in 1890).

“Since the Barber and Still were composed within one year of each other in 1930-1931, I wanted to show the dichotomy of the straight-ahead classical world and the other side of classical music in the late 1920s and 1930s that was being heavily influenced by the more popular music of the time.

“Lastly, we feature the first and only film music that Bernstein composed. “On the Waterfront” (1954), an Oscar-winning film directed by Elia Kazan that starred Marlon Brando (below) and Eva Marie Saint, shows Bernstein writing simultaneously for the symphonic hall and the big screen.

“This work will feature UW-Madison professor of saxophone and composition Les Thimmig (below) and will showcase many soloists within the orchestra. While not programmed as often as his music from West Side Story or On the Town, I believe that Bernstein’s unique use of color, rhythm and melody in this work – heard in the YouTube video at the bottom — speak for themselves.”


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Classical music: The Mosaic Chamber Players perform an all-Schubert concert on Saturday night. On Sunday afternoon, Opera Props presents singers in a benefit concert to support the opera program at the UW-Madison

September 13, 2018
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ALERT: On this Sunday afternoon at 3 p.m., in the Madison Christian Community Church at 7118 Old Sauk Road on Madison’s far west side, Opera Props will present a benefit concert to raise money for the UW-Madison’s opera program and University Opera.

Student singers and piano accompanist Daniel Fung will perform arias and songs. But the spotlight will shine on University of Wisconsin-Madison alumna soprano Julia Rottmayer, who is a new faculty member at the UW-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music. (Sorry, no specific program is given and no names of composers and works are mentioned.)

Tickets are $30 in advance, $35 at the door with student tickets costing $10. Tickets include a reception with local Gail Ambrosius chocolate, fruit, cheese and wine. For more information, go to: https://www.uwoperaprops.org

By Jacob Stockinger

Why is The Ear increasingly drawn to the music of Franz Schubert (below) over, say, the music of his contemporary and idol Ludwig van Beethoven? It seems to be more than its sheer beauty and lyricism.  It also seems to possess a certain warmth or human quality that he finds irresistible, poignant and restorative, especially if it is true, as the Buddha said, life is suffering.

In any case, The Ear is not alone.

The Madison-based Mosaic Chamber Players (below, in a photo by John W. Barker) will open their new and ambitious season this coming Saturday night with a concert of music by Franz Schubert.

The all-Schubert concert is at 7:30 p.m. in the  chapel of the First Congregational United Church of Christ, 1609 University Avenue, near Camp Randall Stadium — NOT at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, as was incorrectly stated earlier in this blog post.

The program includes two Sonatinas for Violin and Piano in D Major, D. 384, and A minor, D. 385; the famous “Arpeggione” Sonata, D. 821, performed on the cello with piano; and the lovely and songful Adagio or “Notturno” (Nocturne) for Piano Trio, D. 897, which you can hear with violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter and pianist Daniil Trifonov, in the YouTube video at the bottom.

Tickets cost $15 for adults; $10 for seniors; and $5 for students. Cash and checks only will be accepted; no credit cards.

Members of the Mosaic Chamber Players are: founder and pianist Jess Salek (below top); violinist Wes Luke (below second), who plays with the Ancora String Quartet and Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra; violinist Laura Burns (below third), who also plays with the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the MSO’s Rhapsodie String Quartet; and cellist Kyle Price (below bottom), who founded the Caroga Lake Music Festival in New York State and is pursuing his doctoral degree at the UW-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music with distinction and who was a member of the graduate student Hunt Quartet while he studied for his master’s.

A reception will follow the concert.

For more information about the Mosaic Chamber Players and about their new season, which includes some very varied composers but no specific titles of works, go to: http://www.mosaicchamberplayers.com

What do you find so appealing and so special about the music of Schubert?

What is your favorite Schubert work?

Leave your thoughts in the COMMENT section with a link, if possible, to a YouTube video performance.

The Ear wants to hear.


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