The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The music of Beethoven played a major role in modern China. Here’s how

September 3, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

If you think classical music has lost much of its relevance in modern times, you might want to read or listen to this terrific interview about the importance of Ludwig van Beethoven in modern China.

Below is a photo of the first performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the “Choral” Symphony with the famous “Ode to Joy,” done in 1959 by an all-Chinese orchestra with Chinese singers and sung in Mandarin.

Plus, a radio broadcast of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony also played a major role in modern China following the Cultural Revolution.

Beethoven in China 1959

The interview, with two native Chinese musicians who now teach at Stanford University. was done by NPR or National Public Radio, for its Deceptive Cadence blog. The Ear found it both eye-opening and inspiring.

Perhaps it even helps to explain why these days classical music often seems more vital to the East than it does to the West.

http://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2016/08/25/491353170/tracing-the-peoples-republic-of-beethoven

 


Classical music education: The annual FREE Concert in the Park by the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO) marks its 15th anniversary this coming Wednesday night.

August 4, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement to pass along:

“The Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO) is proud to be a part of Concert in the Park, hosted by The Gialamas Co., for another season.

“This year’s event will take place this coming Wednesday, Aug. 10, from 5 to 10 p.m. at Old Sauk Trails Park, 1200 John Q. Hammons Drive on the far west side of Madison.

WYSO Concert the Park Tent 4

“For eight consecutive years, WYSO has been invited by The Gialamas Company to be a part of this spectacular event. This special FREE concert is a highlight of the summer for concertgoers young and old.

“This particular year features the Youth Orchestra (below) and will celebrate several special anniversaries: the 50th anniversary of WYSO, the 40th anniversary of The Gialamas Company, and the 15th anniversary of Concert in the Park.

WYSO Concert in the Park, playing under Jim Smith 3

“WYSO’s Youth Orchestra will begin their performance at 7 p.m. The Youth Orchestra, under the direction of WYSO Music Director James Smith, will perform: the fourth movement of Symphony No. 2 in C minor, Op. 17, by Peter Tchaikovsky; Highlights from West Side Story by Leonard Bernstein; Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 by Franz Liszt, featuring conductor Michelle Kaebisch; the first movement of the Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 35, by Tchaikovsky featuring Aurora Greane (below top) on violin; “Our Town” by Aaron Copland; the fifth movement of Symphony No. 9 in E flat major, Op. 70, by Dmitri Shostakovich; and an annual rendition of Over the Rainbow by Harold Arlen.

You can hear the Youth Orchestra under Maestro Smith perform Georges Bizet‘s suite from his opera “Carmen” in the YouTube video at the bottom.

Aurora Greane

WYSO Concert in Park 2016 cellos 2

“The evening will also see performances of “A Radiant Spirit,” which was composed in honor of WYSO’s 50th anniversary by Andrew Kinney, and of a stunning arrangement of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, from his Symphony No. 9 “Choral,” arranged by Donald Fraser.

WYSO Concert in Park 2016 from backstage

“The evening will be capped off with a fireworks display.

“Before the event there will be an instrument petting zoo, face painting and an ice cream social. Tables, food and drinks are available for purchase.

WYSO Concert in the Park kids eating ice cream 2

“For more information, visit www.gialamas.com.

“Be sure to stay after the event for a spectacular fireworks show. Set up lawn chairs, layout blankets and put out your picnic baskets as you enjoy all of the music and activities this FREE event has to offer.

fireworks

“For additional information, please contact WYSO at (608) 263-3320 or e-mail wyso@wysomusic.org.”


Classical music education: Let us now praise WYSO — the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO) as they celebrate their 50th anniversary this Saturday night. The concert is SOLD OUT, which is both good news and bad news

February 17, 2016
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ALERT and CORRECTION : The Ear just learned that the WYSO concert will be streamed LIVE on Wisconsin Public Television. View the broadcast live at 7 p.m. on this Saturday, February 20, by clicking on the following link: http://wpt.org/watch/liveevent

By Jacob Stockinger

It seems like one of those situations that put you between a rock and a hard place.

This year, the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras founded by the late Marvin Rabin, is celebrating the organization’s milestone 50th anniversary. (Below top is a photo of WYSO rehearsing in 1966; below bottom is a photo of WYSO today.)

WYSO Youth Orchestra Marvin Rabin conducting 1966-7

WYSO Youth Orchestra

Plans for the celebration have been ambitious. Events have included: mounting a special art display at Dane County Regional Airport; publishing a special book; undertaking a foreign concert tour; and holding other events, including special receptions and breakfasts as well as playing opportunities for WYSO alumni who are flying in from all over the country.

Perhaps the single biggest event is the special concert that will take place this Saturday night from 7 to 9 p.m. at Overture Hall in the Overture Center.

The concert features five world premieres of pieces commissioned by WYSO for five different groups or ensembles.

Here are the details from WYSO:

“This concert will be the first time all WYSO orchestras are on stage to perform at the same concert. This concert is generously sponsored by Jerome Frautschi and Pleasant Rowland.

“The collage concert will feature the following performing ensembles: Youth Orchestra, Philharmonia Orchestra, Concert Orchestra, Sinfonietta, Brass Choir, Percussion Ensemble and a chamber ensemble.

“Each orchestra along with the Percussion Ensemble will perform a world premiere work that was commissioned especially for them.

“Composers of these commissions include Ben Whalund, Olivia Zeuske, Reynard Burns, Donald Fraser and WYSO alumni Andrew Kinney.

“The Percussion Ensemble (below), under the direction of Vicki Jenks will perform Credo by Ben Whalund. Mark Leiser, conductor of Sinfonietta, will lead his young string orchestra in Sonata for Sinfonietta by Olivia Zeuske, Haydn’s La Chasse, and Duke Ellington’s Don’t Get Around Much Anymore. The Brass Choir, under the direction of Brett Keating will then take the stage.

WYSO percussion Ensemble 2013

“Following the Brass Choir, Concert Orchestra, under the baton of Christine Mata-Eckel, will perform Biciclette by Reynard Burns, and Del Borgo’s Romany Dances. One of WYSO’s chamber ensembles will perform next. Michelle Kaebisch, conductor of the Philharmonia Orchestra, will lead her ensemble as they perform In Time by Donald Fraser and Throne Room Scene from Star Wars by John Williams.

WYSO 50th Photo 1

The Youth Orchestra, led by music director James Smith, will give the penultimate performance of the evening by performing A Radiant Spirit by Andrew Kinney a and Symphony No. 2, Finale: Moderato assai-Allegro vivo by Tchaikovsky.

WYSO 50th Photo 2

“Following these performances the evening will feature a grand finale, arranged by Donald Fraser, with a performance by all nearly 400 members of WYSO, including the WYSO Music Makers Honors Ensembles as they perform Beethoven’s Ode to Joy.

Following the concert, all audience members are invited to attend a post-concert reception in the lobby of Overture Center. This reception will be sponsored by the current WYSO Parent Leader Committee

WYSO rehesrsal Philharmonia Violins

So what is the problem or conundrum The Ear is talking about?

Just this: The main concert by the five orchestras and ensembles with five world premiere commissions is SOLD OUT.

That is good news because the hall and events are expensive to put on, especially at the Overture Center. So congratulations to the hard work that went into such success.

But that is also bad news because The Ear bets that most of the seats understandably went to family, friends and alumni. That, in turn, means that a new public, especially families with young children as potential members, for the ever impressive WYSO – which has trained thousands of middle school and high school students since its inception — will not be reached. And as a provider of music education, the pioneering WYSO simply has no peers in the area. 

So The Ear hopes that CDs and DVDs of the concerts will be available after the event. Maybe it will even be aired on Wisconsin Public Television or Wisconsin Public Radio or some other broadcast outlets. (See the correction at the top: The concert will; be streamed live on Wisconsin Public Television )That would certainly reach a wide public with the inspiring mission and outstanding results of music education through WYSO.

WYSO Logo blue

And if you want to know more information about WYSO and its 50th anniversary celebration, go to:

http://www.wysomusic.org/50th/

In the meantime, The Ear sends hearty and heart-felt congratulations to all the students, teachers, alumni and supporters of WYSO students, who in the YouTube video at the bottom perform the celebratory and triumphant “Great Gate at Kiev” from Modest Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition.”

Cheers to the next 50 years!


Classical music: The “Eroica” Symphony gets a heroic reading from the amateur Middleton Community Orchestra in a popular all-Beethoven program that also featured an outstanding performance of the “Choral Fantasy.”

December 22, 2015
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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 12 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.

John-Barker

By John W. Barker

Happily avoiding all the holiday falderal this month, the Middleton Community Orchestra (below) gave Ludwig Beethoven a slightly delayed birthday tribute in the form of an unusual concert program on last Friday night that drew a full house.

Middleton Community Orchestra press photo1

Led by the bold and enterprising conductor Steve Kurr (below center), the orchestra plunged straightway into no less than Beethoven’s epochal Symphony No. 3, the “Eroica.”

NOTE: For more background, here is a link to The Ear’s interview with Steve Kurr about this program: 

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2015/12/14/classical-music-conductor-steve-kurr-talks-about-the-all-beethoven-program-that-the-middleton-community-orchestra-performs-this-friday-night-with-pianist-thomas-kasdorf-and-the-madison-symphony-choru/

MCO Beethoven Kurr and orchestra

The 50-minute long “Eroica” is a work that transformed the symphonic genre, and it continues to challenge performers. Provocative sounds, passages of complex counterpoint and assertions of tonal power—all these call for a disciplined and confident performance.

Kurr brought that off handsomely, to his and his players’ great credit. I had the feeling that he asked of these players more than they had first thought they could give, and he drew it out of them, to their obvious pride and satisfaction.

To be sure, there were some occasional smudges here and there, but the ensemble standards were otherwise consistently high. I am always interested to hear, in an orchestra that does not have overwhelming strings, the more balanced audibility of the winds, especially the woodwinds.

Here it was the brass (complete with four horns) that offered particular heroics. At times Kurr perhaps allowed them too much freedom when only filling out chords; but where they deserved prominence they sounded magnificent—notably in the scherzo’s trio section. In all, the overall mix really brought out the daring  use by Beethoven (below) of pungent dissonances and harmonic shocks.

Beethoven big

Kurr took the opening movement at a particularly brisk speed, while the second movement, the profound funeral march, was paced much more slowly than most conductors would take it — but to truly eloquent effect. (You can hear the astonishing Funeral March movement performed by the Vienna Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

I found the symphony’s finale sometimes was given a rather foursquare quality, but the enthusiasm maintained momentum.

It was a difficult act to follow. But the choice of the other item on the program was a brilliant one, bringing us a remarkable Beethoven work that is rarely ever heard in concerts.

How often can an orchestra afford to assemble a brilliant pianist, six vocal soloists and a chorus — all for one 25-minute work? But those are the demands of Beethoven’s “Choral Fantasy,” a product of a time when concerts often brought together a whole circus of performers.

In a special way, this novelty made a perfect pairing with the “Eroica.” In the two works, we catch Beethoven in his two great instances of self-borrowing to the end of evolving perfection.

The finale of the “Eroica” was the fourth and final destination for a set of variations on a contradance tune. In its turn, the Fantasy, after opening with an improvisatory exercise for the pianist, turns into a concerto-like set of variations on a tune, which is finally taken up by solo vocalists and then the chorus.

That tune represents the second of three stages in what eventually became the triumphant “Ode to Joy” melody of the famous finale of the Ninth Symphony.

The brilliant and versatile Thomas Kasdorf (below), a familiar soloist around these parts who was raised in Middleton and studied at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music — was the energetic pianist.

thomas kasdorf 2:jpg

Six young singers were the solo battery, and a corporal’s guard from the Madison Symphony Chorus (below top and bottom) provided the brief but telling final justification for calling this a “Choral Fantasy.”

MCO Beethoven MSO Chorus left

MCO Beethoven MSO Chorus right

(The singers, below but not in order, were sopranos Allison Vollinger and Kirsten Larson; alto Jessica Lee Kasinski; tenor Richard Statz; baritone Gavon Waid; and bass Robert Dindorff.)

MCO Beethoven 3 women singers

MCO Beethoven 3 male singers

The orchestra played its role with gusto, and it’s wonderful how, by the end, it almost sounds as if we are moving into the Ninth Symphony.

This was an exhilarating concert, and a wonderful achievement for all involved.

 


Classical music: You can hear Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” on 5,000 kazoos at this year’s Burning Man Festival.

August 31, 2015
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By Jacob Stockinger

Talk about counter-cultural!

This year’s famed Burning Man festival started yesterday and runs through Sept. 7.

The unusual event, held in the north Nevada desert, features many noteworthy things including nudity, drugs and lot of talk about peace and love — kind of like an updated Woodstock festival but on a much grander and more ambitious scale. (See the YouTube video at the bottom.)

One remarkable thing is the sheer size of the event (below, in an aerial photo by Kenny Reff), a temporary city estimated to be more than 60,000 strong this year:

Burning Man aerial CR Kenny Reff

Another is the impressive and dramatic sculpture that is set aflame (below is last year’s) at the festival’s end:

Burning Man 2014

But there is also classical music included at the iconic pop event.

In fact this year, the “Ode to Joy,” from Ludwig van Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, will be played 5,000 kazoos.

In addition, there will be strings (below top in a photo by Jaki Levy) and a certain conductor named Dr. FireTuba (below bottom in a photo of Eric Yttri by Jaki Levy) as part of the 63-piece pickup symphony orchestra that also includes winds such as flute and clarinets. The group will perform music by Johann Sebastian Bach, Antonio Vivaldi and Edvard Grieg and other composers on the playlist.

Burning Man music cellist 2014 Jaki Levy

Burning Man Dr FireTuba (Erio Ittry) CR Jaki Levy

Here is an illuminating and entertaining story about classical music at Burning Man that was reported in NPR or National Public Radio:

http://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2015/08/29/435244975/beethoven-flaming-tubas-and-5-000-kazoos-classical-music-at-burning-man

 


Classical music: Today marks 70 years since the United States dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. The Ear commemorates the event with Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings.” What music would you choose?

August 6, 2015
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By Jacob Stockinger

Today is August 6, 2015 – the 70th anniversary of the United States dropping the world’s first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan in the hope of ending World War II. (That took a second atomic bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki.)

Controversy still rages about whether it was the right decision to make.

The Ear has an opinion about that, but is keeping it to himself.

All he wants to do today is commemorate the historic event with music.

hiroshima1ruinslarge

First, as background, here is a story from The Washington Post about what it was like to survive the bombing of Hiroshima:

http://www.msn.com/en-us/news/world/what-it-was-like-to-survive-the-atomic-bombing-of-hiroshima/ar-BBlpDXY,

I can’t think of a better piece of music to listen to this day than the sadly eloquent, heart-wrenching and poignant Adagio for Strings by Samuel Barber (below), which is at the bottom in a YouTube video and is performed by Leonard Bernstein conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic. The moving music does not take sides, but simply expresses profound sorrow.

Samuel Barber 2 composing

Perhaps you have other choices for this day. Maybe a chorale from a passion or cantata by Johann Sebastian Bach? Maybe an aria by George Frideric Handel? Perhaps a Requiem by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart or Johannes Brahms, Giuseppe Verdi or Gabriel Faure? Maybe the  Ninth Symphony “Ode to Joy” by Ludwig van Beethoven or the Symphony No. 2 “Resurrection” by Gustav Mahler? Maybe the opera “Doctor Atomic” by John Adams?

Leave your thoughts and choice in the COMMENT section.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: It’s Mother’s Day. What music would you play for her? What music would she like to hear? Tell The Ear. Plus, this afternoon is your last chance to hear the final, critically acclaimed concert of the Madison Symphony Orchestra’s season with Beethoven’s Ninth on the program. Read the reviews here.

May 10, 2015
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ALERT: This afternoon at 2:30 in Overture Hall is your last chance to hear the season finale by the Madison Symphony Orchestra: a program of  the “Serenade” after Plato’s “Symposium” by Leonard Bernstein, with concertmaster Naha Greenholtz (below) as soloist, and the famous Ninth Symphony — the “Ode to Joy” or “Choral” symphony — by Ludwig van Beethoven.

The reviews are unanimous in their enthusiastic praise.

Here is a link to the one that John W. Barker wrote for Isthmus:

http://www.isthmus.com/arts/stage/mso-closing-with-a-bang/

And here is one written by Lindsay Christians for The Capital Times:

http://host.madison.com/ct/entertainment/arts_and_theatre/review-big-voices-and-beethoven-bring-mso-season-to-a/article_ea23e056-f5bb-11e4-8b8f-5780d0daa395.html

And here is a review written by Bill Wineke for WISC-TV‘s Channel 3000.com:

http://www.channel3000.com/news/opinion/Symphony-review-MSO-ends-season-on-exuberant-note/32912810

Naha Greenholtz 2014 CR  Chris Hynes

By Jacob Stockinger

Today is Mother’s Day 2015.

Mothers Day clip art

And nothing says love like music.

So what music would you like to play for your mother?

And what music would she like to hear?

They aren’t necessarily the same.

So here are The Ear’s choices.

For the first I am torn between a work by Antonin Dvorak and one by Johannes Brahms.

The Dvorak work is “Songs My Mother Taught Me,” which you can hear below in a YouTube video by superstar violinist Itzhak Perlman playing a transcription from the original for voice.

The second is the movement of the “German” Requiem by Brahms in which he evokes his recently deceased mother. Here it is performed in a classic rendition by soprano Elizabeth Schwarzkopf with Otto Klemperer conducting:

And the piece my mother would love to hear? She loved it when I practiced the piano – and to think I wondered how anyone could enjoy listening to someone practicing? And she especially loved it when I practiced Chopin.

And her favorite piece by Chopin that I played was the bittersweet and elegant Waltz in C-sharp minor, Op. 64, No. 2, heard below in a YouTube video played by Arthur Rubinstein, whom she took me to hear when he played an all-Chopin concert in Carnegie Hall in 1961 – and we sat on stage.

What are your choices in each category?

Leave word plus, if possible, a YouTube link in the COMMENTS section.

The Ear wants to hear.

And wishes you a Happy Mother’s Day.


Classical music: Concertmaster Naha Greenholtz explains Leonard Bernstein’s “Serenade,” which she will perform with the Madison Symphony Orchestra this weekend in concerts that also feature Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

May 7, 2015
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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.

Naha Greenholtz [playing

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.

Performances are in Overture Hall in the Overture Center. Times are Friday at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday at 8 p.m.; and Sunday at 2:30 p.m.

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:

Naha Greenholtz profile

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.

Leonard Bernstein composing in 1955

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.

Leonard Bernstein CR Jack Mitchell

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.

Plato

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.)

Fresco of Symposium USE

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!

Isaac Stern in 1979

In any event, I’m really looking forward to these performances and think these will be fantastic concerts for anyone who loves great music.

 


Classical music: Maestro John DeMain talks about the challenges and rewards of Beethoven’s “Ninth” – the “Choral” or “Ode to Joy” symphony that he will conduct this weekend with the Madison Symphony Orchestra and Madison Symphony Chorus plus soloists.

May 4, 2015
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By Jacob Stockinger

It could well be a case of saving the best for last.

This weekend brings what, for The Ear, is the one of the most interesting programs – maybe THE most interesting program — of the season from the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

The sonic combination of a Romantic classic and post-World War II modern music includes the performance of a major symphony that is a beloved icon around the world: the Ninth Symphony by Ludwig van Beethoven (below), also known as the “Choral” and “Ode to Joy” symphony.

Beethoven big

The Ninth was the symphony that Leonard Bernstein famously conducted in Germany to celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall.

So what better offering to accompany it than something composed by Bernstein – his 1954 “Serenade” for solo violin and orchestra, with MSO concertmaster Naha Greenholtz, that is based on the Socratic dialogue “Symposium” by the ancient Greek philosopher Plato. (Greenholtz will talk about the Bernstein work in a Q&A here later this week.)

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 (below), who also heads the UW-Madison choral department.

Beverly Taylor MSO portrait COLOR USE

Guest vocal soloists are: soprano Melody Moore (below top); contralto Gwendolyn Brown (below second); tenor Eric Barry (below third); and bass Morris Robinson (below bottom).

Melody Moore

Gwendolyn Brown

Eric Barry

Morris Robinson

Performances are in Overture Hall in the Overture Center. Times are Friday at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday at 8 p.m.; and Sunday at 2:30 p.m.

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

Maestro DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad) recently agreed to do an email Q&A about Beethoven’s Ninth with The Ear:

John DeMain full face by Prasad

Why does Beethoven’s Ninth always appeal and what makes it an icon in the public mind? What makes it at the same time so revolutionary and so typically Beethoven?

Aside from the Ninth Symphony being a great musical composition, one cannot get away from the inclusion of the poem by Friedrich Schiller (below, in a painting by Ludovick Simanowiz). The “Ode to Joy” literally shouting that all men in our universe are brothers is what makes this symphony an icon in the public mind. (At bottom is a more informal street scene flash mob performance in a YouTube video that has more than 8 million hits.)

The first three movements are typically Beethoven in style, though consummate in his compositional development. It is the inclusion of voices in the last movement, and the length and structure of the last movement that makes this symphony truly revolutionary. This was the first symphony to have included a chorus and soloists for its final movement.

Friedrich Schiller by Ludovike Simanowiz

It isn’t hard to guess what meaning it holds for the public and why audiences find it popular. But what does this music do to you? How do you feel when you perform it and have finished it?

Music for me is a powerful aural emotional experience. While there is great beauty, majesty and excitement to be found in the first three movements, it is that last movement that fires up my own emotions, not dissimilar to what the listening audience is feeling as well.

Literally shouting for a united brotherhood on Earth under our Maker in heaven, Beethoven develops this movement from a lovely and simple melody in the beginning, to a massive and wild declaration at the end.

It is always a uniquely significant event, often conjuring up whatever injustices are occurring in our contemporary world. Certainly our challenges in the Middle East, and our domestic situations, most recently in St. Louis and Baltimore, will resonate in people’s minds as they listen to this music. It’s a call for harmony in the universe.

When you finish conducting the Beethoven Ninth, you are emotionally and physically drained having conducted not one, but two symphonies, as the last movement is a symphony unto itself.

John DeMain conducting 2

What are the challenges, technically and interpretatively, for you, as a conductor and for the orchestra players, the soloists and the chorus?

There is rather elaborate contrapuntal writing for the orchestra, which always poses a problem for ensemble and clarity. Length poses a challenge for endurance, particularly for the strings. The recitative sections for the orchestral basses as well as the soloist are particularly challenging for the conductor, as are the on the spot pull backs in tempo during the last movement.

We all know that the vocal writing is a challenge to both the soloists and the chorus, but particularly for the chorus. The high tessitura (average pitch range) of the writing makes it extremely difficult for the sopranos and tenors to sustain a thrilling fortissimo, for example. (Below is a photo of the Madison Symphony Chorus by Greg Anderson.)

Beethoven was completely deaf at this point in his life, and was writing what was in his mind, not paying particular attention to what was doable. But then, isn’t that how musical innovation and the stretching of form sometimes happen?

MSO Chorus from left CR Greg Anderson

Why did you choose to pair The Ninth with the Bernstein’s Serenade? Do you see certain parallels or contrasts?

Well, Lenny was a real devotee of Beethoven, and in this composition, he does marvelous things with the use of leitmotif. I love juxtaposing 20th century harmonies with the musical language of the early 19th century. Both composers use dissonance as a part of their language, but in very different ways.

The Serenade, while not specifically programmatic, deals with the various aspects of love, and relates to the Beethoven in that love has to be the basis that binds all men and women together.

I  also love featuring our wonderful concertmaster, Naha Greenholtz (below), and when she suggested the idea, I thought it would make a wonderful contrast to the Ninth, and fill out the concert in a truly wonderful way to close our season.

Naha Greenholtz [playing


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