The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The experts said his music wouldn’t last. But Rachmaninoff and his fans proved them wrong. Hear for yourself this Wednesday night at this summer’s final Concert on the Square

July 30, 2019
8 Comments

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

By Jacob Stockinger

The experts sure got it wrong.

Only 11 years after the death of Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff (below, 1873-1943) – also spelled Rachmaninov — the 1954 edition of the prestigious and authoritative “Grove Dictionary of Music” declared Rachmaninoff’s music to be “monotonous in texture … consist[ing] mainly of artificial and gushing tunes” and predicted that his popular success was “not likely to last.”

That opinion probably came from the same academicians who favored the atonal and serial composers at the time.

But Rachmaninoff’s music is so emotional, so beautiful and so easy for audiences to connect with that it can be a challenge to remember its serious backstory.

For example, much personal turmoil and anguish went into his Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor, Op. 18, which headlines this Wednesday night’s final summer Concert on the Square by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra.

(Other works on the program, to be performed at 7 p.m. on the King Street corner of the Capitol Square, are the Overture to “The Magic Flute” by Mozart, the Firebird” Suite by Igor Stravinsky, the “Cornish Rhapsody” for piano and orchestra by Hubert Bath.)

For more information – including rules, food and etiquette — about the concert, go to: https://wisconsinchamberorchestra.org/performances/concerts-on-the-square-6-4/

The perfectly chosen soloist is the Russia-born and Russia-trained pianist Ilya Yakushev (below), who has appeared several times with Andrew Sewell and the WCO as well as in solo recitals at Farley’s House of Pianos, where he will perform again this coming season as part of the Salon Piano Series.

Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 (1901) may well be the most popular piano concerto ever written, one that has often been used in many novels, movies and popular songs. Some would argue that Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 (1910) has surpassed it in the popularity and frequency of performance.

True or not, the second concerto is a triumph of the human spirit and individual creativity. (You can hear the dramatic and lyrical opening movement, played live by Yuja Wang at the Verbier Festival, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

It was written in 1900-01 after the composer’s first symphony had not succeeded with the critics and when personal problems had overwhelmed him (below, around 1910).

Rachmaninoff fell into a severe depression that lasted four years. During that time he had daily sessions with a psychotherapist whose cure used hypnosis and repeating to the composer that one day soon he would write a piano concerto that prove very good and very popular.

And so it was. The therapist was Dr. Nikolai Dahl (below) — and that is whom the concerto is dedicated to.

Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 is often considered the Mount Everest of piano concertos for the sheer physicality and stamina required to play it.

Yet the composer himself — who premiered, recorded and often performed both concertos — said he thought the second concerto, although shorter, was more demanding musically, if not technically.

For more information about Rachmaninoff and his Piano Concerto No. 2 as well as its place in popular culture, go to these two Wikipedia websites where you will be surprised and impressed:

For the Piano Concerto No. 2: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Piano_Concerto_No._2_(Rachmaninoff)

For general biographical details about Rachmaninoff: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sergei_Rachmaninoff


Posted in Classical music
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Classical music: Madison Opera’s “Seraglio” stood out for its singing and staging, its local sets and costumes, and provided a crowd-pleasing comic romp in trying times. Plus, Friday brings FREE piano and viola da gamba concerts

February 15, 2018
3 Comments

FRDAY ALERTS: This Friday’s FREE Noon Musicale at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, features Eric Miller playing the viola da gamba in a recital of early baroque music by Marais, Forquery, Sainte-Colombe, Abel, Hume and Ortiz. The concert runs from 12:15 to 1 p.m.

Then on Friday night at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall, the critically acclaimed guest pianist Marina Lomazov will perform a FREE recital of all-Russian music that includes “Pictures at an Exhibition” by Modest Mussorgsky. Lomazov’s recital is part of a larger event, “Keyboard Day,” that has a French focus and takes place all day Saturday at the UW-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music. See tomorrow’s post for more information about Saturday. For more about Lomazov, go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/guest-artist-marina-lomazov-piano/

By Jacob Stockinger

The Opera Guy filed this review of last weekend’s production by the Madison Opera:

By Larry Wells

On Sunday afternoon, I attended the second and final performance of Madison Opera’s production of Mozart’s “The Abduction from the Seraglio” in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center.

This comic romp utilized a beautiful set and wonderful costumes designed and constructed in-house. (Below, Matt Bueller as Osmin peers out the door of the palace, or seraglio, at David Walton as Belmont.)

The orchestra, drawn from the Madison Symphony Orchestra and ably led by maestro John DeMain, was situated backstage. This was an effective novelty, although the sound was somewhat muffled, at least from where I sat in mid-orchestra.

The dialogue was in English while the singing was in German with English supertitles. I looked over the lengthy original libretto and was thankful that it had been heavily abridged for this two-hour production.

It had also been updated to be both hip and politically correct about Islamic culture and Turkey, where the story takes place. But it made me idly wonder what the reaction would be if the music had been likewise updated to be more in tune with the times.

The production was all about the singing.

David Walton’s Belmonte (below right, with Amanda Woodbury as Konstanze) was beautifully sung, particularly in the second act. He has a Benjamin Britten tenor voice with remarkable breath control.

Eric Neuville’s Pedrillo was also admirably sung. Neuville is an accomplished comic actor, as well.

Ashly Neumann’s singing as Blonde (below center, with women of the Madison Opera Chorus) was clean, clear and bell-like.

Amanda Woodbury as Konstanze (below right with Brian Belz as Pasha Selim)  was virtuosic. She displayed vocal fireworks several times and was especially effective in her lament toward the end of the first act.

This quartet’s ensemble work in the second act was a vocal high point. (You can hear the quartet from a different production in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

But to me the most impressive singing and comic acting belonged to Matt Boehler as Osmin. His bass was simply majestic. (Below, from left, are Brian Belz as Pasha Selim; David Walton as Belmonte; Matt Boehler as Osmin; Eric Neuville as Pedrillo; Ashly Neumann as Blonde; and Amanda Woodbury as Konstanze.)

The well-prepared chorus appeared briefly in each act, adding some color and motion to the production.

Musically and visually the production was a success. The audience responded with 19 ovations during the performance – yes, I counted. Every time the orchestra reached a cadence and paused, the audience members applauded as if they were at a musical. With the incessant coughing throughout the performance, I felt like I was at a performance of “South Pacific” in a tuberculosis ward.

The audience leapt to its feet at the end, and this made me wonder what it was that they found so praiseworthy. The story itself is inconsequential and has little relevance to life today.

The singing was very good, but this is not La Scala.

The music itself, with the exception of a couple of sublime moments, does little more than foreshadow the mature Mozart of “The Magic Flute.”

I concluded that the opera is unalarming, unthreatening, and simple. This is perhaps what people long for in these trying times.

I do look forward to the Madison Opera’s production of Daniel Catan’s “Florencia en el Amazonas” this spring. Based on repeated hearings of the recording, I guarantee that Madison will be in for a treat. And there is nothing threatening or alarming or complex about the music, despite it being a work of the late 20th century.


Posted in Classical music
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Classical music: What is it like to play music with a spouse? Local wife-and-husband violinist and cellist open the winter Masterworks season of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra with the Brahms Double Concerto this Friday night

January 22, 2018
3 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

This Friday night at 7:30 p.m. — NOT 7 as first stated here mistakenly — in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center, 201 State Street, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below top) and music director-conductor Andrew Sewell (below bottom) will open the WCO’s winter Masterworks season.

The program is typical of Sewell’s eclecticism. It features well-known and lesser-known works from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.

It includes the Sinfonia in A minor by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach; the Chamber Symphony No. 1, Op. 9, by Arnold Schoenberg; and the Double Concerto for Violin and Cello in A Minor, Op. 102, by Johannes Brahms.

Tickets run $15-$80 with $10 student tickets available.

For more information about the concert, the performers, tickets and pre-concert dinners, call (608) 257-0638 or go to the website:

https://wisconsinchamberorchestra.org/performances/masterworks-i-3/

The highlight of the concert is sure to be the wife-and-husband team who are soloists in the Brahms concerto. They are violinist Soh-Hyun Park Altino, who teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music, and cellist Leonardo, or Leo, Altino, who teaches full-time at the Wheaton College Conservatory near Chicago and occasionally privately in Madison.  Together they have also recorded for the MSR Classics label the CD “En Voyage” with sonatas for violin and cello by Zoltan Kodaly, Maurice Ravel and Paul Desenne.

If a small ensemble such as a string quartet or piano trio has special personal dynamics to contend with, imagine how intense a husband-and-wife pairing can be.

What is it like for spouses to make music together?

That is what The Ear wanted to explore and the two soloists (below) graciously responded with the following Q&A:

Is playing together any different from playing separately or alone? How so?

Soh-Hyun: Playing together and separately are completely different experiences because of the types of listening that are involved. When we play together, our ears are immediately drawn to how our playing is matched or not in terms of articulation, shape, and decay of the notes and phrases.

We have different strengths and weaknesses that we’re now well aware of after 16 years of playing together, and we naturally rely on each other’s strengths in preparing for performances.  We have played together a lot in string quartets, piano trios  and also as a duo; I definitely feel at ease if Leo is part of the ensemble.

Leo: Absolutely! Allow me to explain it this way. Preparing for a concert is much like preparing a great meal. There are a lot of steps that go into it. You must have a clear idea or vision of what dishes you want to serve, how they complement each other, what ingredients to get, the quality of the ingredients, the proportions when combining, prepping the ingredients and on and on.

Playing together is like cooking with someone whom you’ve cooked with for decades. We anticipate each other’s moves a lot better. There is little explaining needed. We have performed together during the entirety of our marriage, and it has brought us closer together musically and emotionally. We come easily to agreement on musical issues, but we also agree philosophically – why we play and how we view each performance. We also support each other a lot and have become each other’s best teacher.

How do you resolve differences of interpretation and other issues in a given work or score?

Leo: We try each other’s ideas wholeheartedly. We make sure to give our best effort to each other’s ideas, make suggestions and try again if necessary, and often record ourselves playing so that we can be more objective. Then we make the decisions together. Sometimes, we simply go with the person with the stronger opinion about a passage.

Soh-Hyun: In the beginning of our relationship, we used to talk a lot to explain our interpretations and how to play them. Now we are convinced that the end results that we want in any passages are pretty similar; therefore, there is less talking and more trusting.

From time to time when our ideas do seem different, we go straight to recording ourselves and listen to it together. That usually stops any further arguments.  On a practical level, as parents of a seven-year-old, rehearsing together is often costly; we either need a babysitter or rehearse late in the evening. This encourages us to be efficient in our discussions and listen better in order to resolve our differences.

What role has making music together played in your relationship and your marriage?

Leo: Because we’ve played so much together, we have learned a lot about one another – how we think, what we value, each other’s pet peeves, etc. Music has helped us learn to talk – even resolve conflicts – about things that we each feel passionate about in a constructive way. (You can hear them play part of the Piano Trio No. 2 by Felix Mendelssohn in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Soh-Hyun: We are both teachers of music, and that means that we are in the business of helping others listen and play better. I think in the first several years of our relationship, I used to struggle a lot with receiving constructive criticism from Leo. I guess I felt as though I should have been able to fix the problems myself.

But now I feel lucky that I can have a free lesson whenever I want. It’s common that I will pop into the kitchen and say, “Which sounds better?” and play a few different versions of a passage. Leo gives me his preference and even tries out the passage holding my violin like a cello (which, by the way, I don’t always feel at ease about).

What else would you like to say about performing together, the Brahms Double Concerto, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra or any other topic?

Leo: This was the first piece we performed together after we got married. It’s wonderful to go back to it after all these years. Writing a concerto for two solo instruments is a big challenge for any composer. The way Brahms (below) wrote for the violin and cello is almost like describing the relationship between two people who know each other deeply. Each has a unique personality. The two argue, but ultimately discover how to have a unified voice.

For example, the concerto begins with a dramatic cadenza in the cello, which winds down at the end to prepare for the more introspective entrance of the violin. The two instruments exchange ideas, raise their voices, and soon culminate in a unified manner at the end of their cadenza to invite the orchestra in.

It is a powerful and beautiful piece. I also think that great composers like Brahms wrote pieces like this almost like a tone poem in that every voice has a very significant role. Often during the concerto, even while the soloists are playing, other instruments may have equal or more important parts.

BOTH: It’s an honor to perform the Double Concerto with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and conductor Andrew Sewell, and we’re really looking forward to our working together this week.


Posted in Classical music
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Classical music: Despite overly traditional staging, the Madison Opera’s “Carmen” beguiled and bewitched through the outstanding singing

November 7, 2017
16 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

The Opera Guy attended Sunday’s sold-out performance of “Carmen” by the Madison Opera and filed the following review, with photos by James Gill:

By Larry Wells

When I learned that Madison Opera was going to produce Bizet‘s “Carmen,” I was not surprised. It is annually one of the most frequently performed operas internationally, and it is a surefire vehicle for filling seats. It is safe.

On the other hand, once one watches repeated performances of an old favorite, the appeal can diminish. One advantage of an opera is that novel approaches to the production can prevent a warhorse from becoming stale.

I would love to say that the approach both musically and dramatically to this production of “Carmen” broke new ground, but it did not. In fact, the production was as traditional as could be. (Below is the main set, rented from the Lyric Opera of Kansas City.)

I attended a performance of “Carmen” in Tucson a couple of years ago, and the conductor Keitaro Harada breathed new life into the familiar music through interesting tempi and finely nuanced dynamics.

Maestro John DeMain (below, in a photo  by Prasad) conducted the Madison Symphony Orchestra in a perfectly fine and occasionally uplifting manner, but there was little new to learn from his approach. The purely instrumental entr’actes shimmered, but during the rest of the opera the singing was at the forefront.

Maestro Harada (below), whom Madison should be actively courting, is currently conducting “Carmen” in Sofia, and the accompanying publicity clip in the YouTube video at the bottom (bear with the Bulgarian commentary) shows that the production is unconventional in its approach although it clearly is still “Carmen.” I would have enjoyed something other than the ultra-traditional staging and sets experienced here in Madison.

At times the production was so hackneyed and hokey that I chuckled to myself – ersatz flamenco dancing, the fluttering of fans, all of the cigarette factory girls with cigarettes dangling from their lips, unconvincing fight scenes, annoying children running across the stage, dreary costumes that hardly reminded me of Seville. And I could go on.

Yet “Carmen” has a way of drawing one in despite oneself. The music is marvelous, and the singing was uniformly excellent.

The four principals were luminous both in their solo pieces and ensembles. Cecelia Violetta López as Micaëla (below right) was lustrous in her two arias as well as in her duet with Sean Panikkar’s Don José (below left).

Panikkar started the performance off with little flair, but from the time he became besotted with Carmen toward the end of the first act he was on fire. He then maintained a high degree of passion and zest in his vocal performance.

Corey Crider (below right) was a wonderful Escamillo, singing his toréador role with great élan despite his unfortunate costumes.

And Aleks Romano (below) as Carmen made the most of her complex character. Her singing was luscious, and her acting – particularly her use of her expressive eyes – was terrific.

Likewise, the lesser roles – Thomas Forde as Zuniga, Benjamin Liupaogo as Remendado, Erik Earl Larson as Dancaïre, a radiant Anna Polum as Fransquita, and Megan Le Romero as Mercédès – were equally well sung. The ensemble work in the quintet at the end of Act II and in the card scene was outstanding.

The chorus (below) sounded terrific throughout, although the women’s costumes and the stage direction made the choristers appear ludicrous as times.

When all is said and done, “Carmen” still beguiled me by drawing me into its characters’ complex psychologies and motivations. Likewise, its music still bewitched me in much the same way as Carmen inexplicably bewitched hapless Don José (below).

But I seem to always wish for more – more compelling productions, more daring music making, more risk-taking.

I do look forward to this coming spring’s production of “Florencia en el Amazonas.” The recording is captivating, and the opera’s performances have pleased a wide variety of audiences by all accounts. And it is something new. Hallelujah!

Did you go to “Carmen”? 

What did you think?

The Ear wants to hear.


    Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

    Join 1,201 other followers

    Blog Stats

    • 2,078,711 hits
%d bloggers like this: