The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: This weekend, the Madison Symphony Orchestra celebrates Valentine’s Day with violinist Pinchas Zukerman and cellist Amanda Forsyth in the Romantic “Double Concerto” by Brahms

February 10, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

This coming weekend, the Madison Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of John DeMain, will celebrate Valentine’s Day.

The program “Romantic Encounter” examines the brashness of French composer Hector Berlioz’s Le Corsaire” Overture, as well as the thundering seriousness of American composer Aaron Copland’s Symphony No. 3.

The husband-and-wife duo (below) of violinist Pinchas Zukerman, and cellist Amanda Forsyth make their return to Madison to reprise their performance of German composer Johannes Brahms’ Double Concerto for Violin and Cello in A minor. (You can hear the passionate slow movement in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Performances will be held in Overture Hall, 201 State Street, on Friday, Feb. 14, at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, Feb. 15, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Feb. 16, at 2:30 p.m.

Tickets are $19 to $95. See below for details.

Says maestro DeMain (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson) about the world-renowned duo: “The married team of Pinchas Zukerman and Amanda Forsyth return to recreate their exciting interpretation of the Brahms Double Concerto for violin, cello and orchestra.

“One of Berlioz’s finest overtures, the exhilarating Le Corsaire opens the concert. And Aaron Copland’s majestic, powerful and lyrical Third Symphony — which is one of Copland’s great masterpieces and includes his Fanfare for the Common Man — is heard on the second half of the program.”

Eight minutes long, Berlioz’s swashbuckling Le Corsaire” was composed in Nice, France, after the final break-up of his marriage. The composer resided in a tower above the sea, which explains the ruined fortification’s depiction in his overture. “Corsaire” translates to “a ship used for piracy,” but this meaning is not related to the work.

 The Double Concerto was Brahms’ final work for orchestra. He composed the concerto for his old but estranged friend, violinist Joseph Joachim, as well as for cellist Robert Hausmann. With few recent precedents, the closest comparison to this work would be the Baroque concerto grosso, in which a soloist or small group is contrasted with an entire ensemble.

Copland’s monumental Symphony No. 3 was commissioned by conductor Serge Koussevitsky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The work perfectly reflects the spirit of post-war America and impressively holds the title of “Greatest American Symphony.” In writing this piece, Copland (below) borrowed from himself by incorporating his triumphant Fanfare for the Common Man.

ABOUT PINCHAS ZUKERMAN

With a celebrated career encompassing five decades, Pinchas Zukerman reigns as one of today’s most sought-after and versatile musicians — violin and viola soloist, conductor and chamber musician. He is renowned as a virtuoso, admired for the expressive lyricism of his playing, singular beauty of tone, and impeccable musicianship, which can be heard throughout his discography of over 100 albums.

Born in Tel Aviv, Zukerman came to the United States where he studied at the Juilliard School with Ivan Galamian as a recipient of the American-Israel Cultural Foundation scholarship. He received the National Medal of Arts from President Ronald Reagan and is a recipient of the Isaac Stern Award for Artistic Excellence in Classical Music.

ABOUT AMANDA FORSYTH

The Canadian and Juno Award-winning Amanda Forsyth is considered one of North America’s most dynamic cellists. She has achieved her international reputation as soloist, chamber musician and was principal cello of Canada’s National Arts Centre Orchestra from 1999 to 2015. Her intense richness of tone, remarkable technique and exceptional musicality combine to enthrall audiences and critics alike.

PROGRAM NOTES, TICKETS AND EVENT DETAILS

The lobby opens 90 minutes prior to each concert. The MSO recommends that concert attendees arrive early for each performance to make sure they have time to pass through Overture Center’s security stations, and so they can experience the Prelude Discussion that takes place one hour before each concert.

Program notes are available at: http://www.allsenmusic.com/NOTES/1920/5.Feb20.html

Discounted seats are subject to availability, and discounts may not be combined.  

Major funding for the February concert has been provided by NBC 15; The Madison Concourse Hotel and Governor’s Club; Marvin J. Levy; Fred and Mary Mohs; Nancy Mohs; and David and Kato Perlman.

Additional funding has been provided by Robert Benjamin and John Fields; Boardman and Clark LLP; Forte; Barbara Melchert and Gale Meyer; and the Wisconsin Arts Board with funds from the State of Wisconsin and the National Endowment for the Arts.

 


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Classical music Q&A: American pianist Jonathan Biss talks about writing his e-book on Beethoven as he starts recording all 32 of Beethoven’s piano sonatas, and thinks about writing future books and making more recordings. Part 2 of 2.

March 2, 2012
4 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

I first heard him on recordings. Then I heard him on TV when his teacher Leon Fleisher received the National Medal of the Arts at the Kennedy Center. And then I heard him live in Madison in a thoroughly sublime and poetic performance of a Mozart concerto with the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

In every instance, my reaction was the same: American pianist Jonathan Biss (below, in a photo by Jillian Edelstein) is supremely talented, one of the young classical musicians to watch and listen to in coming years.

That impression is reinforced by the recent release of first volume of Beethoven sonatas for the Onyx label, which features a mixed recital or program format of four sonatas from the early to the late periods.

It is an outstanding release, and should receive many awards. I generally do not favor such complete cycles believing that individual pianists respond to individual sonatas better than to all the others.

It is an ambitious and historic feat, to be sure. Still, it is hard to believe it took more than 100 years for the first complete Beethoven sonata cycle (done by Artur Schnabel, below) who taught Biss’ teacher Fleisher) and that since then many others have been done: Alfred Brendel (three times!) Vladimir Ashkenazy, Richard Goode, Stephen Bishop Kovacevich, John Kimura Parker and Paul Lewis, with some other cycles by Garrick Ohlsson and Maurizio Pollini in the works but yet to be completed.

But right now my money is on Biss’ cycle. I find his Beethoven completely absorbing and totally convincing. It offers a quiet virtuosity in music that is extremely hard to play. Yet his astonishing technique never draws attention to itself, but instead always serves the music.

Moreover, his Beethoven is thoroughly musical. Biss neither smoothes over the rough spots nor overemphasizes the spikiness. Instead, each melody, harmony and rhythm seems thoroughly thought out, seems to come from somewhere and then go to somewhere. At all times, Biss’ playing has coherence, conviction and consistency. I love his playing, which has clarity and is never over-pedaled. His readings make both intellectual sense and emotional sense. When I listen to Biss’ Beethoven, I am aware of paying attention to Beethoven, not to Biss.

As if great playing isn’t enough, Biss is articulate and writes well. His e-book  “Beethoven’s Shadow” ($1.99 at Amazon.com) is informative and instructive as well as enjoyable. Only a few other performing pianists in history can write as well – Charles Rosen comes immediately to mind, but Rosen writes for a more specialized or learned reader. Biss is more accessible.

The Beethoven sonata cycle will take the 31-year-old Biss almost a decade to complete: 9 CDs over 9 years, to be released one per year. That should show some development and growth, and only adds to the excitement and pleasure.

Biss (below, in a photo by Jamie Jung), an extremely busy concertizing artist, recently took time to do an email Q&A about his Beethoven book and Beethoven sonata recording for The Ear.

Here it is in two parts – the first yesterday, the second part today.

Will the program-like sequencing of sonatas (early, middle and early late) on the first CD (below) be how the entire cycle is recorded? Or will you go with a largely chronological order in the future? How do you choose which sonatas to play with which other ones?  What kind of links to you look for?

Each disc will cover as much ground – in terms of date of composition, style, and character – as possible. Because the pace of recording is so slow, I really want each CD to offer a narrative of Beethoven’s evolution. I find it fascinating, because his language changed so very much, and yet the most basic characteristics of his music – the strength, the grit, the searching – are there all the way through.

Beyond that, the links I look for are not ones I could put into words. For example, I do feel a strong kinship between Opus 26 (“Funeral March”) and the “Les Adieux,” even though they have virtually no surface detail in common. In the end, no matter what else is going on, that voice is unmistakable.

Can you briefly go through what distinguishes for you each of the four sonatas you chose for the inaugural CD and what major points you would like the listener to hear in each one?

Op. 10, No. 1: For me, this sonata is all about extremes of pacing. The outer movements are all about restlessness, whereas the slow movement has this quality of incessant expansiveness. The juxtaposition is extremely moving, and when the last movement starts to break down, just before its conclusion, losing steam and approaching the world of the middle movement, the effect is just wonderfully disorienting.

Op. 22: I always come back to the same verb for this piece: it crackles. Beethoven (bel0w) himself loved it, and it has a wit and energy that really do make it irresistible, even though on the surface, it is probably the least adventurous of the four sonatas on the disc. Also remarkable is the operatic nature of the slow movement, which opens with what may be the single longest uninterrupted phrase Beethoven ever wrote – it takes a minute and a half to play, and forms the entire “A” section of the movement.

Op. 26 “Funeral March”: Part of my special fondness for this piece comes from the fact that I was 10 when I learned it! But mostly it comes down to the piece’s weird charm. It’s from 1801 – one of his most experimental years – and hardly anything in it conforms to the model of the sonata he had established to this point. (A slow-ish set of variations to start the work? Really?) The funeral march – played at Beethoven’s own funeral procession – is relentlessly unsentimental, and all the more moving for it.

Op. 81a: Surely this work – the “Les Adieux”  (at bottom) – needs no special pleading. (Not that any of them do, really.) It has probably become famous foremost because it is the closest Beethoven ever came to writing programmatic music. But what is most extraordinary about it is its concentration. It is is compact, built on very little material, and the ambiguous nature of its first two movements gives way to rapturous displays of delight Beethoven ever wrote.

Will you continue to record other works and composers in between the yearly Beethoven releases? For Onyx? Or do you still record for EMI aside from the Beethoven cycle?

Obviously, as far as recording goes, the Beethoven cycle is foremost in my mind at the moment! I do have some other projects in the planning stages – a chamber music disc and a live recital CD. My main recording relationship at this point is with Onyx.

What non-Beethoven CDs are in the works for the future? Solo, chamber works and concertos?

Nothing is 100 percent at the moment, but it looks like I’ll be making a recording of the Schumann and Brahms quintets sometime in the next year; and my next non-Beethoven recital disc will probably be a mix of Schumann and 20th century works. But it’s all still fluid – the planning of the Beethoven is taking up a whole lot of my brain space.

You have recorded a lot of Schumann (below, in a photo from 1850) as well as Mozart and Schubert? Might you write similar essays for other composers and works?

I would love to, for all the same reasons I was moved to write about Beethoven. In fact, that’s the exact list of composers that I feel compelled to explore in a similar way.

The problem is finding the time – without another sabbatical looming, I’m going to need to get a lot better at multi-tasking if there’s any chance of my doing any serious writing.

Are there other composers you feel a special affinity for and whose music you like to play and record? Who are they?

There are many composers I’m drawn to – aside from the ones I’ve mentioned. Haydn, Chopin, Janacek, Brahms and Bartok would all be high on the list, and I’ve played quite a lot of all of their music.

But recording is such a curious activity, which demands so much concentration and conviction. I think I just want a few more concert hall experiences with each before I cross that bridge. Being a pianist means making tough choices – there is too much great music to get to all of it! It’s a very lucky problem to have …


Classical music Q&A: American pianist Jonathan Biss talks about writing his e-book on Beethoven as he starts recording all 32 of Beethoven’s piano sonatas, and thinks about writing future books and making more recordings. Here is Part 1 of 2.

March 1, 2012
2 Comments

ALERT/REMINDER: TODAY FROM 5 TO 7 P.M., A FREE AND PUBLIC RECEPTION WILL BE HELD AT THE DANE COUNTY AIRPORT FOR THE MAJOR EXHIBIT, TO RUN THROUGH SEPT. 3, BY THE UW TANDEM PRESS AND THE PRO ARTE QUARTET CENTENNIAL COMMITTEE TO MARK THE CENTENNIALS OF BOTH THE UW PRO ARTE STRING QUARTET AND THE WISCONSIN IDEA. THE QUARTET WILL PERFORM LIVE AND THERE WILL BE FOOD AND REFRESHMENTS.

By Jacob Stockinger

I first heard him on recordings. Then I heard him on TV when his teacher Leon Fleisher received the National Medal of the Arts at the Kennedy Center. And then I heard him live in Madison in a thoroughly sublime and poetic performance of a Mozart concerto with the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

In every instance, my reaction was the same: American pianist Jonathan Biss (below) is supremely talented, one of the young classical musicians it is important to watch and listen to in coming years.

That impression is only reinforced by the recent release of his first volume of Beethoven sonatas for the Onyx label, which features a mixed recital or program format of four sonatas from the early to the early late periods.

It is an outstanding release, and should receive many awards. I generally do not favor such complete cycles, believing that individual pianists respond to certain individual sonatas better than to all the others.

It is an ambitious and historic feat, to be sure. Still, it is hard to believe it took more than 100 years for the first complete Beethoven sonata cycle (done by Artur Schnabel, below) who taught Biss’ teacher Fleisher) and that since then many others have been done: Alfred Brendel (three times!) Vladimir Ashkenazy, Richard Goode, Stephen Bishop Kovacevich, John Kimura Parker and Paul Lewis, with some other cycles by Garrick Ohlsson and Maurizio Pollini in the works but yet to be completed.

But right now my money is on Biss’ cycle. I find his Beethoven completely absorbing and totally convincing. It offers a quiet virtuosity in music that is extremely hard to play. Yet his astonishing technique never draws attention to itself, but instead always serves the music.

Moreover, his Beethoven is thoroughly musical. Biss neither smoothes over the rough spots nor overemphasizes the spikiness. Instead, each melody, harmony and rhythm seems thoroughly thought out, seems to come from somewhere and then go to somewhere. At all times, Biss’ playing has coherence, conviction and consistency. I love his playing, which has clarity and is never over-pedaled. His readings make both intellectual sense and emotional sense. When I listen to Biss’ Beethoven, I am aware of paying attention to Beethoven, not to Biss.

As if great playing isn’t enough, Biss is articulate and writes well. His e-book  “Beethoven’s Shadow” ($1.99 at Amazon.com) is informative and instructive as well as enjoyable. Only a few other performing pianists in history can write as well – Charles Rosen comes immediately to mind, but Rosen writes for a more specialized or learned reader. Biss is more accessible.

The Beethoven sonata cycle will take the 31-year-old Biss almost a decade to complete: 9 CDs over 9 years, to be released one per year. That should show some development and growth, and only adds to the excitement and pleasure.

Biss, an extremely busy concertizing artist, recently took time to do an email Q&A about his Beethoven book and Beethoven sonata recording for The Ear.

Here it is in two parts – the first today, the second part tomorrow.

Why and how did you end up writing the 19,000 word essay “Beethoven’s Shadow” to coincide with the release of the first CD in your 9-year, 9-CD Beethoven sonata cycle for Onyx? What do you hope to communicate with it?

Honestly, from the moment the idea was suggested to me, it was attractive. First of all, I’ve always been interested in writing, both as a creative outlet that is different than playing; and as a way of engaging with music that is broader than preparing for and worrying about the next concert, which obviously I spend much of my time and energy doing.

Then, because the Beethoven sonatas play such an enormous role in my life – in both the most practical and the most spiritual ways – it seemed like now that I was beginning this recording odyssey, it was a good moment to take stock, and try to clarify some of my ideas about this music.

And lastly, a lucky coincidence made it possible: I was approached about writing a Kindle Single in April, and I was already (for years, actually) scheduled to take June through September off; I called it my “sabbatical.” So I had much more mental energy – and much more freedom to stay up until 5 in the morning, pacing around my coffee table – to devote to writing than I normally do.

In a nutshell, what attracts you to Beethoven and to such a mammoth project as recording the cycle of 32 sonatas?

I spent four months of my life trying to explain this, and it remains a very difficult question to answer!

There is the breadth of the expression in these works – they are so different from each other, in language, in character, in affect – which means that they cover an extraordinary amount of territory.

There is the perhaps unequalled skill for development – Beethoven puts his materials through paces that reveal qualities in them we are not initially aware of.

There is the idealism – Beethoven has the uncanny ability to speed up or slow down time at will, and can conjure up the infinite in the process; his music really does imagine a more perfect world.

Perhaps most of all, Beethoven (below) has the strongest and most insistent personality of any great composer. We continue to listen to his music because we simply cannot stop listening.

What do you think you have to say about such iconic works that is new or special?

I feel very strongly that this is not the right way for a performer to approach great music. In the end, any musician’s relationship to a piece of music is, almost by definition, unique. But if you make a concerted effort to try to do something new or different, than you are observing yourself making music, rather than living it.

This kind of self-consciousness is the enemy of music-making; the point is to be as open as possible to your experience of the music, and to try to allow your relationship with it to evolve naturally and perpetually. And with Beethoven, there is an infinite amount in the music to be experienced.

TOMORROW: JONATHAN BISS TALKS ABOUT THE SONATAS ON VOLUME 1 AND HIS FUTURE RECORDING PLANS



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