By Jacob Stockinger
The Ear supposes that Leonard Bernstein’s Serenade for violin and orchestra qualifies as program music since it aims to translate Plato’s famous dialogue about love — “Symposium” — into music. (At the bottom, is a YouTube video of Joshua Bell performing the work with the New York Philharmonic under conductor Alan Gilbert in 2013.)
This much is sure. The 1954 work by Bernstein — to be performed by the Madison Symphony Orchestra concertmaster Naha Greenholtz (below) — is part of what makes this weekend’s one of the most interesting programs, maybe THE most interesting, of the season from the Madison Symphony Orchestra.
The combination of Romantic and post-WW II modern music includes the performance of a major symphony that is beloved around the world: the Ninth Symphony by Ludwig van Beethoven, also known as the “Choral” and Ode to Joy” symphony.
That was the symphony that Leonard Bernstein himself famously conducted in Germany to celebrate to fall of the Berlin Wall. So, what better offering is there to accompany it than something composed by Bernstein?
(John DeMain talked about the Beethoven symphony in a Q&A here earlier this week. Here is a link to that post: https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2015/05/04/classical-music-maestro-john-demain-talks-about-the-challenges-and-rewards-of-beethovens-ninth-the-choral-or-ode-to-joy-sympho/ )
Love and joy: Can there be a better way to finish out a season?
The program will be performed under the baton of longtime MSO music director John DeMain, who studied and worked with Leonard Bernstein. It will feature the Madison Symphony Chorus, as prepared by MSO assistant conductor Beverly Taylor, who heads the UW-Madison choral department.
Guest vocal soloists are: soprano Melody Moore; contralto Gwendolyn Brown; tenor Eric Barry; and bass Morris Robinson.
Tickets are $12-$84.
For details, go to https://www.madisonsymphony.org or call the Overture Center Box Office at (608) 258-4141.
For more information, including audio samples and a link to program notes by MSO bass trombonist and UW-Whitewater professor Michael Allsen, visit: http://www.madisonsymphony.org/beethoven
Concertmaster Naha Greenholtz (below) recently agreed to do an email Q&A about Leonard Bernstein’s “Serenade” with The Ear:
How would you compare Leonard Bernstein’s work to the great historical violin concertos by Bach, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Tchaikovsky and Sibelius? What about to modern and contemporary violin concertos by, say, Samuel Barber and Philip Glass, Sergei Prokofiev and Dmitri Shostakovich? Are there any you would draw parallels or contrasts to?
The five-movement format in Bernstein’s “Serenade” differentiates it substantially from some of the 18th and 19th century classics. While there’s no literal program, there is the suggestion of a basic narrative in Bernstein’s re-imagination of Plato’s communal dialogue. This element alone connects the work more closely to the late 19th and 20th century sub-genre of “program music.” (Below is a portrait of Leonard Bernstein composing at the piano in 1955, around the time of the “Serenade.”)
In its familiar tonal language — combing modal and traditional harmonic elements — it has some resemblance to the Barber concerto. I don’t think middle-of-the-century American composers like Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber and Leonard Bernstein were consciously adhering to style parameters.
That said, there is a distinctive “American-ness” to their works. Much the same way music by Dmitri Shostakovich and Sergei Prokofiev has a “Russian” sound, without necessarily being nationalistic. It’s subtler than that. It is more like these composers shared some common aesthetic DNA due to their national and cultural origins.
Where do you place it among Bernstein’s body of works? Is he generally underappreciated as a composer compared to his work as a conductor and his music for the Broadway theater?
To the latter question, this is certainly true. He was such a charismatic public figure in music, especially in his work as an educator, conductor and composer of popular music. In light of this, I think his remarkable contributions to “art” music are easily overlooked.
In the Serenade he manages to blend many stylistic elements. I hear the Devil’s Dance from Igor Stravinsky’s “Histoire du Soldat” and, in the fourth movement, glimpses of Gustav Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. The instrumentation is a nod to Bela Bartok in his “Music for Strings Percussion and Celeste” and the tonal language shows Paul Hindemith’s influence.
But despite all of that, Bernstein’s unique language is apparent within the first five seconds of the piece when the rising augmented 4th resolves up a half step. That’s what is so remarkable about Bernstein (below, in a photo by Jack Mitchell) — he manages to blend disparate elements of other great artists without losing his own intrinsic style.
How does Bernstein express the idea of Platonic dialogue?
Each of the movements is loosely based on the themes of the seven speakers in the work by Plato (below is an ancient sculptural depiction of the philosopher). The concerto begins with the soloist alone in a rhetorical statement and the piece unfolds as each orator presents his perspective on the topic of love. By the end of the fifth movement, drinking seems to have taken over the gathering, leading to a thrilling depiction of a boisterous dinner party.
How is the idea of love as a carnal and spiritual subject that the guests discuss get expressed?
On describing the duality of love, as a force that cuts both ways, Bernstein is explicit. For example in the third movement Erixymathus, he uses the soloist and orchestra as warring factions. The orchestra explodes with a three-note jab. Then the soloist introduces a quasi-tone row that’s passed back and forth with contrasting intensity. Further into the movement, he piles these themes on top of each other in a frenetic fugue that expresses the mystery and ecstasy of love.
In contrast, the next movement Agathon features the same three-note motive that opened the previous movement, but stretched to 10 times its initial length, utterly transforming it into a spiritual and intimate aria. Bernstein does this all over the piece, taking material from previous movements and showing them in a new light. (Below is a fresco depiction of the Symposium.)
What do you think of the work itself and how its fits with Beethoven’s Ninth? Have you played it before or is it new to you?
Until last year I’d only known the Serenade by recording, so I was thrilled when John suggested we perform it here with the MSO.
It’s strangely neglected in the solo violin repertoire. Maybe that is because of the unconventional five-movement format, or that the title “after Plato’s Symposium” is somehow intimidating or off-putting.
It’s clearly one of Bernstein’s great orchestral works and is a firework of a showpiece for the violin. As far as pairing with Beethoven’s Ninth, the themes of brotherhood and platonic love feature prominently in both works.
How challenging is it to play and what are the challenges both technically and interpretively? What would you like the audience to pay special attention to?
I find all music challenging. Mozart is simpler in terms of notes and patterns than, say, Shostakovich or Bernstein, but in its own way it is just as hard to play and requires just as much diligent work to pull off.
The Bernstein is full of musical challenges and requires lots of imagination and characterization to communicate the narrative of Plato’s dialogue.
That being said, it’s a major 20th-century solo work so it’s also chock full of technical hurdles. Isaac Stern (below, in 1977) – for whom this piece was written — has left us fingering and bowing suggestions, so I know the thorny passages are at least theoretically possible!
In any event, I’m really looking forward to these performances and think these will be fantastic concerts for anyone who loves great music.
By Jacob Stockinger
You may recall that Alan Gilbert (below), the conductor of the New York Philharmonic, surprised the music world when he recently announced he would step down at the end of the 2017 season after only eight seasons on the job.
Speculation about a successor — with Marin Alsop (below top) of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and Finnish native Esa-Pekka Salonen (below bottom) former director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, topping the lists — began immediately.
Right now, The Ear leans toward Marin Alsop. It would be great to see a woman in such a high-profile post. It would also be fitting for a protege of Leonard Bernstein to ascend to the podium where American-born and American-trained conductors first made their name. Buy American!
The sensational Venezuelan-born and Venezuelan-trained superstar Gustavo Dudamel (below) seems to have taken himself out of the competition by agreeing to stay longer in LA. But every performer has his or her price, so his story may not yet be over in terms of going to New York.
But Gilbert’s move also raises the issue: What qualities should one look for in a world-class music director and conductor?
These days, it involves a whole lot more than holding the baton and leading the players.
Here is a link to the story:
Read and see what you agree and disagree with.
And also let us know who you think would be a good choice to be the next music director and conductor of the New York Philharmonic.
The Ear wants to hear.
By Jacob Stockinger
Perhaps you have read about the rapidly escalating cost of great musical instruments.
That puts a lot of younger or less well-known, cash-strapped players in a difficult spot.
For quite a while, banks and other financial institutions as well as museums and historical institutions such as the Smithsonian Institution have been putting the investment-quality instruments on loan to younger players whose playing deserves the instrument.
But individuals can do so too.
Take the case of the pioneering conductor Marin Alsop (below), a protégée of Leonard Bernstein who now heads the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the Sao Paulo State Symphony in Brazil, and who is being mentioned as a prominent candidate to follow Alan Gilbert when he steps downs from the podium of the New York Philharmonic in 2017.
When both her parents, who were distinguished professional musicians, died last year, they left behind valuable string instruments — a violin and a cello.
Alsop didn’t want to sell the instruments.
But she also didn’t want them to lie unused and defeat their original purpose.
So Alsop (below, in a photo by Gabriella Dumczek of The New York Times) decided to turn the violin and cello into living memorials by placing them on loan with players in her Baltimore orchestra -– a move that has benefitted everyone and the instruments as well.
Here is a story from The New York Times:
It gives you ideas about what might be done on the local level, where some very fine instruments – including pianos — could benefit some very young but very fine local players who otherwise couldn’t afford to have them.
By Jacob Stockinger
Just a holiday reminder.
Today is New Year’s Day. That brings the annual “Great Performances” presentation of the “New Year’s Day From Vienna” celebration — with waltzes, polkas, gallops and more by the Johann Strauss Family – on PBS and NPR (National Public Radio).
It will all be performed in the Golden Hall (below top) by the Vienna Philharmonic with former Los Angeles Philharmonic and New York Philharmonic conductor Zubin Mehta (below middle) this year, along with the usual help from the Vienna State Ballet and Broadway and Hollywood star host Julie Andrews (below bottom).
And it will be broadcast TWICE today:
ON WISCONSIN PUBLIC TELEVISION (WPT): TONIGHT from 7 to 8:30 p.m. on the main channel Channel 21/Cable 600 the program will also be run, with dancers and scenic landscape shots. (The Wisconsin Channel will run it from 1:30 p.m. to 3 p.m.) It comes, by the way, after an all-day marathon that starts at 9 a.m. and features all eight episodes of Season Four of “Downton Abbey.” Season Five starts on Sunday night.
By Jacob Stockinger
This is the last weekend for holiday shipping before Christmas, and retailers expect today to be even bigger and busier than Black Friday.
Plus, whether you are looking for a gift for someone else or for what to buy with that gift card or cash you receive, perhaps you will find the following lists convenient and helpful.
The three lists are compilations of the Best Classical Music Recordings of 2014, even if they appear a bit late. (I seem to recall that these lists appeared closer to Thanksgiving or Black Friday in past years, but I could be wrong.)
The first list, a long one, comes from the various critics at The New York Times:
It covers solo instruments, vocal music, operas, orchestral music, chamber music – you name it.
The second list from a critic for The Boston Globe:
The third list comes from ace music critic and prize-winner Alex Ross (below) of The New Yorker Magazine. He names 20 different recordings along with 10 memorable live events from the concert scene in New York City.
The Ear finds it interesting how many agreements there are about certain composers, works and performers – such as the haunting, 2014 Pulitzer Prize-winning work “Become Ocean” by the contemporary American composer John Luther Adams (below top and at the bottom in a YouTube video) and the Schubert recording by British pianist Paul Lewis (below middle) in late music by Franz Schubert or Alan Gilbert conducting the New York Philharmonic in two symphonies by Danish composer Carl Nielsen.
And even happier listening!!
It will be interesting to see what 2015 brings.
ALERT: The Madison Symphony Orchestra has started its annual holiday cut-rate ticket sale. And you can get some great deals. Between now and Christmas Eve (Dec. 24), you can buy seats for $20 (with a value up to $44) and $45 (valued up to $88). The spring has four concerts, two of which feature piano concertos by Johann Sebastian Bach, Frederic Chopin and Franz Liszt plus a concert of music by exiles from Nazi Germany in Hollywood during World War II and the Ninth Symphony by Ludwig van Beethoven and a violin concerto by Leonard Bernstein. For more information, visit: http://www.overturecenter.org/events/madison-symphony-orchestra/
By Jacob Stockinger
Well, today is another Shopping Day left before Christmas and other holidays.
With that in mind, The Ear usually offers lists that other media suggest about the best classical music recordings of 2014.
If you recall, I have already posed a link to the 57th annual Grammy Award nominations, which can be useful when it comes to holiday gift-giving.
Here is a link to that post:
And below is a link to the Top 10 classical albums that appeared on the appeared on the NPR (National Public Radio) blog Deceptive Cadence over the weekend. It is an eclectic list that features early music, well-known classics and new music.
You will find music by composers John Dowland, John Adams (below and at bottom in a YouTube video), John Luther Adams and Thomas Adès as well as Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, Jean Sibelius and Carl Nielsen.
Performers include violinist Augustin Hadelich (below), who has played twice with the Madison Symphony Orchestra, and Leon Fleisher, who performed at the Wisconsin Union Theater; mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato; the New York Philharmonic under music director and conductor Alan Gilbert; and the Danish String Quartet playing works by Danish composers.
The list also shows CD covers and feature sound snippets and samples.
ALERT: Today at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall is your last chance to catch the all-Scandinavian program by the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below top) and guest violinist Sarah Chang (below bottom) under John DeMain.
The Ear didn’t go on Friday or Saturday night.
But here are two reviews by reliable critics who did.
Here is a review by John W. Barker for Isthmus:
Here is a review by Greg Hettmansberger, who writes the Classically Speaking blog for Madison Magazine:
Here is a link to Jess Courtier’s review for The Capital Times:
And here is a link to a previous posting on this blog that served as a preview and included a Q&A with violinist Sarah Chang:
By Jacob Stockinger
The Ear was very pleased to see that music director John DeMain and the Madison Symphony Orchestra had programmed an all-Scandinavian program this weekend.
It featured the accessible a d folk-like Lyric Suite by Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg; the famous Violin Concerto in D minor by Finnish composer Jean Sibelius with violinist Sarah Chang as guest soloist; and the powerful Symphony No. 4 (“The Inextinguishable”), done in the aftermath of World War I — which also makes it timely choice for Veterans Day on this Tuesday — by Danish composer Carl Nielsen.
That got The Ear to thinking: Which Nordic country is least well represented in classical music performances?
I think Norway is pretty popular precisely because of Edvard Grieg (below), especially his Piano Concerto in A Minor and his “Peer Gynt” Suite and his Lyric Piece for solo piano.
And Jean Sibelius (below) is a in a kind of one-man band for Finland, plus he seems to be rediscovered, especially thanks to the new Grammy-winning Sibelius symphony cycle on the BIS label by the Finnish award-winning conductor Osmo Vanska and the Minnesota Orchestra.
The Swedes seem pretty underrepresented to me and probably take the prize. But I really need to do some research and know more about Swedish composers .
But Denmark is also not especially well-known, although may be changing, The current revival of Carl Nielsen (below), who was championed by Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic, the same superstar conductor and composer who did so much to bring Gustav Mahler into the mainstream, has been renewed by Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic.
Anyway, just by coincidence it turns out that the outstanding Deceptive Cadence blog on the website of NPR (National Public Radio) feature reviews of recent recordings of music by three Danish composers.
The three Danish composers featured are: the experimental Per Nørgård (below top); the more mainstream Poul Ruders (below bottom, in a photo by Kirsten Bille), whose Violin Concerto is at the bottom in a YouTube video; and of course Carl Nielsen, who represented by the “Inextinguishable” Symphony as interpreted by Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic.
Here is a link that also has sound samples as well as background and critical comments.
By Jacob Stockinger
I saw and heard Madison-born and Madison-raised violist Vicki Powell (below) last Wednesday night. That was when the alumna of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO), the UW-Madison School of Music, the Juilliard School and the Curtis Institute who now plays with the New York Philharmonic and other prestigious groups and who has participated in the Marlboro and Aspen festivals, returned from New York City to solo with the Middleton Community Orchestra.
It was a wonderful and thoroughly enjoyable performance as well as very affordable event, as you can read in the review by John W. Barker that was posted yesterday.
Here is a link:
After the concert done in the terrific 90-minute, no intermission format that I think attracts many people, there was a meet-and-greet, with cookies and punch, where the public and the musicians could mingle – and did.
That’s when I went up to the lovely, gifted and poised Vicki Powell and remarked on how beautiful her playing had been with the MCO under conductor Steve Kurr (below top). I was quite taken with her reading of the rarely heard Fantasy on Themes by Mozart for Viola and Orchestra by Johann Nepomuk Hummel (below bottom).
Hummel remains a much underappeciated composer who was invited by none other than Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart himself to live in his house and take free lessons.
But what really swept me away was the Romance for Viola and Orchestra by the 19th-century Romantic German composer Max Bruch (below).
But this work was completely new and unknown to me, but captivated me from the first notes. No 10 listenings or more needed to like and appreciate this work!
“I am amazed it hasn’t yet been used for a movie soundtrack,” I said to Powell.
“Really?” she said. “So am I.”
That is how beautiful and tuneful, how accessible and emotional, it is.
And maybe you will be surprised too.
So here is a YouTube video of the work performed by violist Miles Hoffman, who also comments frequently on classical music for NPR (National Public Radio). It lasts about 9-1/2 minutes and is pure loveliness.
And maybe it has indeed been used in the movies.
If so and you know, please let us know.
And let us know what you think of the piece, which The Ear thinks deserves to be programmed much more often, even though the viola is not often featured as a solo instrument with orchestra. (All the more reason to admire the Middleton Community Orchestra and its mission.)
The Ear wants to hear.
ALERT: A reminder that Madison-born Vicki Powell, who trained at the UW-Madison School of Music, the Curtis Institute and the Juilliard School and who plays with the New York Philharmonic and other major groups, will perform two solos TONIGHT at 7:30 p.m. at the season-opening concert by the largely amateur but very good Middleton Community Orchestra, under conductor Steve Kurr.
The place is the Middleton Performing Arts Center that is attached to Middleton High School, 2100 Bristol Street, not far off of University Avenue.
On the programs is the Overture to “William Tell” by Rossini, the Fantasy for Viola and Orchestra by Johann Nepomuk Hummel, the Romance for Viola and Orchestra by Max Bruch and the Symphony No. 8 by Antonin Dvorak. Tickets are $10; all students get in for FREE. A meet-and-greet reception for the players and audience members follows the concert.
Here is a link to the Q&A with violist Vicki Powell that The Ear posted last week:
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 for 20 years hosted an early music show every other Sunday morning on WORT FM 89.9 FM. He serves on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.
By John W. Barker
The Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble (below top) launched its new season in Madison last Sunday afternoon, not at its usual venue (Gates of Heaven Synagogue), but at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church (below bottom).
The different location contributed to an enlargement of instrumental colors this time. Max Yount not only worked the harpsichord, but made good use of the church’s handsome Baroque organ in the numerous continuo functions.
In addition, Eric Miller (below) extended from his viola da gamba to show his new talents on the cornetto, while Theresa Koenig moved gracefully between dulcian (early bassoon) and recorders, and Monica Steger alternated on flute and recorder.
The frequent vocal collaborators, UW-Madison soprano Mimmi Fulmer (below top, seen at the Hillside Theater at Frank Lloyd Wright’s compound Taliesin in Spring Green) and mezzo-soprano Consuelo Sañudo were on hand, and patriarch Anton TenWolde (below bottom) on cello completed the group of seven performers.
Two of the nine composers represented — the German Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) and the Swede Johan Helmich Roman (1694-1758) — stood apart as almost chronological afterthoughts, though Roman’s sonata for flute and continuo was given a predictably rousing rendition by Steger.
Otherwise, the focus was on music of the 17th century, especially its very early epoch. Miller gave us gamba renditions of Giovanni Bassano’s variations on a popular madrigal by Cipriano de Rore (1515-1565), two training pieces by Christopher Simpson (1602-1669), and an unaccompanied solo by the enigmatic Sainte-Colombe (1640-1700). (An entrancing sample of solo viol music by Sainte-Colombe is in a popular YouTube video at the bottom.)
Koenig presented a sonata for dulcian and continuo by Giovanni Antonio Bertoli (1598-1645), then joining Steger on recorders for a duo sonata by Giuseppe Scarani of the mid-17th century.
On the vocal side, the two singers joined in an impressive cycle of eight Italian duets, with continuo, by Sigismondo d’India (1582-1629). In these, D’India, an epigone of Claudio Monteverdi (below), contrived writing of individual elaborateness for each singer while also ingeniously integrating their parts.
Vocal music returned at the end, too, when Sañudo, joined by all the players, sang the opening aria of Bach’s Cantata 161, and then the two singers and almost all the players came together for an early carryover by Heinrich Schütz (below, 1585-1672) from his Italian training, a moralizing madrigal in German for two voices, two melody instruments, and continuo, which made a richly satisfying conclusion to the program. It was in these two last vocal works, too, that Miller forsook his gamba and took up his cornet.
What can we say? After some 17 years, the WBE is still going strong, offering us annual presentations of mostly rare Baroque chamber works, in elegant performances in intimate venues. They are the trailblazers in Madison’s early music scene, and they remain a vital component of that scene.