The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Beethoven Year in Madison will include complete cycles of string quartets and piano trios as well as many other early, middle and late pieces. Here is a partial preview

September 21, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

As you may have already heard, 2020 is a Beethoven Year. It will mark the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth. (He lived from mid-December of 1770 to March 26, 1827.  Dec. 17 is sometimes given as his birthday but it is really the date of his baptism. No one knows for sure the actual date of his birth.)

Beethoven, who this year overtook Mozart as the most popular composer in a British radio poll, clearly speaks to people — as you can see at the bottom in the YouTube video of a flash mob performance of the “Ode to Joy.” It has had more than 16 million views.

Locally, not all Beethoven events have been announced yet. But some that promise to be memorable are already taking shape. Many programs include early, middle and late works. And you can be sure that, although nothing formal has been announced yet, there will be special programs on Wisconsin Public Television and especially Wisconsin Public Radio.

Here is a partial round-up:

The UW’s famed Pro Arte String Quartet (below, in a photo by Rick Langer), for example, will perform a FREE and complete cycle of Beethoven’s 16 string quartets in six concerts. It will start later this fall.

This is not the first time that the Pro Arte has done a Beethoven cycle. But it is especially fitting since that is the same Beethoven cycle that the Pro Arte was performing in Madison at the Wisconsin Union Theater in May of 1940 when World War II broke out and the quartet was stranded on tour in the U.S. after its homeland of Belgium was invaded and occupied by the Nazis.

That is when the ensemble was invited to become musical artists-in-residence at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and accepted – thereby establishing the first such association in the world that became a model for many other string quartets.

The Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society with the San Francisco Trio (below) plans on performing a cycle of piano trios next summer. No specific dates or programs have been announced yet.

The 20th anniversary of the Ancora String Quartet (below, in a photo by Barry Lewis) will coincide with the Beethoven Year. That is when the Ancorans will complete the cycle of 16 string quartets that they have been gradually programming over the years. Three quartets remain to be performed: Op. 59, No. 2 “Rasumovsky”, Op. 130 and Op. 131.

Adds violist Marika Fischer Hoyt: “We’ll perform Op. 130 in February (with the original final movement, NOT the “Grosse Fuge”), and we plan to do the remaining two quartets in the summer and fall of 2020.”

Here are some other Beethoven dates to keep in mind:

On Nov. 2 in Shannon Hall at the Wisconsin Union Theater, and as part of the WUT’s centennial celebration of its Concert Series, pianist Emanuel Ax (below, in a photo by Lisa-Marie Mazzucco), who since 1974 has played many solo recitals, chamber music recitals and piano concertos in Madison, will play Beethoven’s first three solo piano sonatas, Op. 2.

On Dec. 6 at the Wisconsin Union Theater, the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Piano Trio will perform the famous “Archduke” Trio, Op. 97. Also on the program are works by Felix Mendelssohn and Robert Schumann.

On Feb. 1, UW-Madison pianist Christopher Taylor, who has performed all 32 piano sonatas in Madison, will continue his cycle of Beethoven symphonies as transcribed for solo piano by Franz Liszt. He will perform Symphony No. 1 and the famed Symphony No. 9, the ground-breaking “Choral” Symphony with its “Ode to Joy.” No chorus will be involved, but there will be four solo singers. Taylor said he will then complete the cycle with Symphony No. 2 at some future time.

The Mosaic Chamber Players (below, in a photo by John W. Barker) will perform two all-Beethoven programs: on Feb. 21, a FREE program offers two sonatas for violin and piano (Op. 12, No. 3 and Op. 30, No. 2, and one sonata for cello and piano (Op. 5, No. 1); on June 13, a ticketed program features three piano trios (Op. 1, No. 1; Op. 70, No. 2; and Op. 121a “Kakadu” Variations).

On May 8, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below top, in a photo by Mike Gorski), under conductor Andrew Sewell (below bottom, in a photo by Alex Cruz), will perform the popular Symphony No. 6 “Pastoral” – a pioneering piece of program music — to commemorate the Beethoven Year.

There is one very conspicuous absence.

You will notice that there is nothing by Beethoven programmed for the new season of the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below, in a photo by Peter Rodgers).

But The Ear hears rumors that music director John DeMain (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson) is planning something special for the following season that might involve both symphonies and concertos, both original Beethoven works and perhaps “reimagined” ones.

(For example, pianist Jonathan Biss, who has just completed recording the piano sonata cycle and who performed with the MSO several years ago, has commissioned and will premiere five piano concertos related to or inspired by Beethoven’s five piano concertos.) Sorry, but as of now only rumors and not details are available for the MSO. Stay tuned!

The Ear would like to hear complete cycles of the violin sonatas and cello sonatas performed, and a couple of the piano concertos as well as the early symphonies and the famed Ninth Symphony with its “Ode to Joy” finale. He fondly remembers when DeMain and the MSO performed Symphonies Nos. 1 and 9 on the same program. Talk about bookending a career!

What Beethoven would you like to hear live?

What are your most favorite or least favorite Beethoven works?

Do you know of other Beethoven programs during the Beethoven Year? If so, please leave word in the Comment section.

And, of course, there is the inevitable question: Can you have too much Beethoven?


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Classical music: The Middleton Community Orchestra and UW duo-pianists showcase the remarkable music of Camille Saint-Saens and Mozart in the popular concert that closes its season

June 1, 2019
10 Comments

IF YOU LIKE A CERTAIN BLOG POST, PLEASE SPREAD THE WORD. FORWARD A LINK TO IT OR, SHARE or TAG IT (not just “Like” it) ON FACEBOOK. Performers can use the extra exposure to draw potential audience members to an event.

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. 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 mostly amateur Middleton Community Orchestra (below, in a  photo by Margaret Barker) closed its season Thursday night at the Middleton Performing Arts Center with a promising and well-received program.

The centerpiece featured two graduate student soloists from the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music, pianists Thomas Kasdorf (below right) and Satoko Hayami (below left), who joined in Mozart’s Concerto in E-flat Major, K. 365, for two pianos and orchestra. The two soloists were alert and polished collaborators. (You can hear the energetic and catchy final movement, used in the Academy Award-winning film “Amadeus,” in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Conductor Steve Kurr (below) set a bouncy pace but a rather fast and overpowering one, and with an orchestra — especially strings — quite overblown by the standards of Mozart’s day.

The MCO was blessed by the loan of a very special model of a Model B Steinway instrument, now owned and lovingly restored by Farley’s House of Pianos. This was paired against a Steinway of much later vintage, owned by the hall. But nowhere was there identification about which piano was which as they sat onstage, much less which pianist was playing which piano (and they switched between the two works utilizing them.) This was disappointing for it prevented making an informed comparison of the two instruments.

Camille Saint-Saens (1835-1921, below) is backhandedly treated as being on the margins of composer greatness. But his scope was remarkable, as witnessed by the two works that were the program’s bookends.

The opener was his humorous Suite, “Carnival of the Animals.” This set of 14 short pieces was written for one private performance, in chamber terms, one player per part. So the orchestra that was used — of 87 listed musicians, 60 of them were string players — became a crushing distortion. The two pianists were a bit formal, but ideally facile.

Saint-Saens made no provision for any kind of spoken text, certainly not in French. In the middle of the last century, the American poet of high-spirited doggerel, Ogden Nash, wrote wickedly funny verses with offbeat rhymes and puns to go with each movement.

It was these Nash verses that Wisconsin Public Radio host Norman Gilliland (below), who was only identified as the “narrator,” read with a good bit of tongue-in-cheek. Nowhere are these at all identified or credited in the bumbling program booklet.  (Many in the audience might have just thought that they were written by Gilliland himself.)

In many of the suite’s movements, Saint-Saens quoted or alluded to hit tunes by earlier composers, for parodistic purposes. Unfortunately, there are no program notes in the booklet, so these tidbits would easily go unnoticed by many listeners.

Saint-Saens composed, among his numerous orchestral works, a total of five symphonies, only three of which are numbered. I had originally been given to expect No. 2, a charming work I love, as the program closer. All but the last of them are early works in a graceful post-Classical style.

But No. 3 was composed much later in his life, and in a more expansive style. This is a frequently performed spectacle, unconventional in plan and in scoring. It adds the two pianists and an organ — hence the nickname the “Organ Symphony.”

Unfortunately, the hall has no organ of its own, so the substitute was a rig of electronic organ with its own booming speakers and exaggerated pedal notes. Again totally unmentioned is that this contraption was played by MCO sound technician Alex Ford (below, with the portable electronic organ keyboard from Austria with its computer-screen stops).

This kind of organ could never be integrated into the full orchestral texture and served only to allow the orchestra to play this grandiose score. Such ambition was backed by really splendid and well-balanced orchestral playing.

As intended, the large local audience, with many children and families, was wildly enthusiastic.


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Classical music: Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra offers FREE concert tickets to furloughed federal workers

January 17, 2019
1 Comment

IF YOU LIKE A CERTAIN BLOG POST, PLEASE SPREAD THE WORD. FORWARD A LINK TO IT OR, SHARE or TAG IT (not just “Like” it) ON FACEBOOK. Performers can use the extra exposure to draw potential audience members to an event. 

By Jacob Stockinger

Restaurants, food banks, retail stores and other organizations have responded with compassion and generosity to victims of the ongoing partial shutdown of the U.S. government.

Here is an announcement of a timely move that The Ear thinks is terrific news for budget-strapped workers who have to cut back on entertainment or discretionary expenses. It should be a model for other local groups as well as statewide, regional and national arts presenters.

The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below) is offering free tickets to furloughed federal workers for the Masterworks performance on Friday, Jan. 25, featuring the young cello prodigy and sensation, Miriam K. Smith.

Fresh from performances with the Cincinnati and Louisville symphonies, Smith (below) will perform the Cello Concerto No. 1 in A minor by Camille Saint-Saëns. (You can hear her perform a violin and cello duet by George Frideric Handel and Johan Halvorsen in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

If you want to know more about Smith, go to her website: https://miriamksmith.com

A forgotten gem by Domenico Cimarosa, Overture to The Secret Marriage, will open the concert, and the performance concludes with Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8, the sunniest of his even-numbered symphonies.

The concert, under the baton of WCO music director Andrew Sewell, will be held at 7:30 p.m. in the Capitol Theater at the Overture Center for the Arts, 201 State St.

If you are a furloughed federal employee, you can call the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra offices at (608) 257-0638, and mention your place of employment. Best available tickets are on a first-come, first-served basis. Tickets are limited to two per person.

Others who want to attend this concert can find information about the soloist, the program and tickets at: https://wisconsinchamberorchestra.org/performances/masterworks-i-4/


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Classical music: Visionary Venezuelan music educator José Antonio Abreu is dead at 78

March 28, 2018
1 Comment

ALERT: Because of Good Friday and Easter, there is no Friday Noon Musicale this week at the First Unitarian Society of Madison. The free concerts, from 12:15 to 1 p.m., will resume next week.

By Jacob Stockinger

By any measure José Antonio Abreu (below), who died on March 24 at age 78, was a titan — but a beloved and accessible titan.

He invented and nurtured the famous El Sistema program of music education for all students – especially poor students – in his native Venezuela.

First he worked hard to make the program grow and succeed throughout his homeland.

Then in recent years, he helped to spread his inspired model around the world.

A tireless educator, Abreu has altered how we think about music education and how we do it. As a result, many countries and cities as well as music schools and professional music organizations have adopted El Sistema.

If you have heard of him before, it is likely because of his most famous pupil, the superstar conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Gustavo Dudamel (below right).

Here are two excellent obituaries, with a lot of background and details about El Sistema in Venezuela and around the world, including the United States, about Abreu:

From The New York Times:

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/26/arts/jose-antonio-abreu-venezuelan-musical-visionary-dies-at-78.html

From The Washington Post:

https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/obituaries/jose-antonio-abreu-creator-of-renowned-venezuelan-youth-orchestra-dies-at-79/2018/03/25/bed38660-3030-11e8-8bdd-cdb33a5eef83_story.html?utm_term=.27fc894a6724

You can find many tributes to Abreu, including an 18-minute TED Talk by Abreu himself, on YouTube. Many of them are in Spanish and many offer a lot of music.

Here is something shorter and simpler to remember him by: the beautiful and stately “Pavane for a Dead Princess” by Maurice Ravel accompanying Abreu’s own words and those of others.


Classical music: The Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society offers an clever program that mixes outstanding performances of “primitivistic” modern music with rarely heard cabaret songs

June 19, 2017
9 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

This review is by guest contributor Kyle Johnson (below), who also took the performance photographs. As a pianist since elementary school, Kyle Johnson has devoted most of his life to music. Born and raised in Lexington, Kentucky, he is now a doctoral candidate in piano performance at the UW-Madison, where he studies with Christopher Taylor and specializes in modern and contemporary music. He participates in many festivals and events around the U.S. and Europe. Recently, he co-founded the Madison-based ensemble Sound Out Loud, an interactive contemporary music ensemble. For more information, visit: www.kyledjohnson.weebly.com

By Kyle Johnson

If the rule of real estate is “location, location, location,” perhaps the rule for concert planning is “programming, programming, programming.”

Until the finale of Friday night’s Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society performance, the directors lived up to that mantra.

The first half of the program was primarily devoted to greats of the modernist chamber music repertoire: Chansons madécasses (Madagascan Songs) by Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) and the Contrasts by Bela Bartok (1881-1945).

For the former, Emily Birsan, a Chicago-based soprano who was educated at the UW-Madison, provided a dynamic, sensuous rendition even in the score’s most economical, lithe moments.

At the end of the work, Ravel’s inclusion of piccolo (played by Stephanie Jutt) and cello harmonics (played by Jean-Michel Fonteneau at a much higher than the fingered pitch) created an evocatively primitive effect, as the songs detail life in newly colonized Madagascar

The final line of the piece, “The evening breeze rises; the moon begins to shine through the trees of the mountain. Go, and prepare the meal,” received nervous chuckles from several audience members.

(You can hear the Ravel songs performed by Christa Ludwig in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The effect was also a transition to the Contrasts (1938), a trio for clarinet, violin and piano that was commissioned by jazz great Benny Goodman. As the title aptly describes, the three-movement work cycles between jovial, intense and playful moods.

Most striking in this rendition — played by Axel Strauss on violin, Alan Kay on clarinet and Christopher Taylor on piano (below) — was the second movement, entitled “Relaxation.” Moments of hushed and moody tones created an atmosphere that historians have referred to as Bartok’s “night music.” 

The audience responded with excitement, applauding through two curtain calls, to the climactic and frenzied close of the piece.

The theme this year is “Alphabet Soup” for the 26 letters marking the BDDS’ 26th anniversary. So after intermission, BDDS directors Jutt and pianist Jeffrey Sikes introduced the audience to Madison’s four-time Spelling Bee Champion, Martius Bautista).

The soon-to-be eighth-grader at Edgewood Campus School tested his spelling of a variety of musical terms like crescendo (growing louder) and sforzando (marked emphasis) while Jeffrey Sykes played the theme from Jeopardy on the keyboard. Bautista (below) was successful and, when given a paper crown, turned to place it on the head of Samantha Crownover, who is celebrating her 20th year as executive director of the BDDS.

Sykes and Birsan served the audience a collection of cabaret songs by English composer Benjamin Britten, American composer William Bolcom and Austrian-American composer Arnold Schoenberg. The only thing missing from this portion of the program was chinking wine glasses and swirling smoke.

The programming of cabaret songs with the musical “primitivism” of Ravel and Bartok was a clever idea, and one that had similar roots at a recent concert at the UW-Madison, in which the Chansons madécasses were paired with Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire (while some consider Pierrot a feat of highbrow expressionism, a strong case can be made for its cabaret nature – however grotesque and dark it may be).

Anyone weary of Arnold Schoenberg’s oftentimes deterring development of 12-tone and atonal music need only look as far as his own cabaret songs, which are as melodious and lush as music heard in the great black-and-white musicals of early film.

The programming of the final work, Johannes Brahms’s Piano Trio No. 2 in C Major, Op. 87 (1880-1882) – played by the San Francisco Trio (below) — was problematic in a number of ways.

The monolithic nature of the work – a staple of high Romanticism you can hear in the YouTube video at the bottom – seemed off-putting, after the intimacy of works such as the Ravel songs, the Bartok Contrasts, and especially the cabaret numbers.

In a perfect world, Friday evening’s concert would have foregone an intermission and ended with the cabaret hodgepodge. The quirky and understated close would have certainly left the audience charmed and ever-enticed to attend the remainder of BDDS’s programs – the final weekend, of which, runs June 23-25.

For more information about the concluding BDDS weekend and its dates, times, venues, programs and performers, go to:

http://bachdancing.org


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