The Well-Tempered Ear

University Opera’s original online video project celebrates the life and music of American composer Marc Blitzstein. It will be posted for FREE on YouTube this Friday night, Oct. 23, at 8 p.m.

October 21, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

This fall, University Opera presents its first project of 2020-21 in video format as it turns to the music of the American composer Marc Blitzstein (1905-1964).

“I Wish It So: Marc Blitzstein – the Man in His Music” will be released free of charge on the University of Wisconsin-Madison Mead Witter School of Music’s YouTube channel this Friday night, Oct. 23, at 8 p.m. CDT at the general site www.youtube.com/meadwitterschoolofmusic or the official specific link: https://youtu.be/77FXFZucrWc.

Director of University Opera David Ronis (below top) is the director of the original production and will give introductory remarks. UW-Madison graduate Thomas Kasdorf (below bottom) is the musical director. The production lasts 1 hour and 40 minutes, and features four singer-actors, a narrator and a piano.

Marc Blitzstein’s life story parallels some of the most important cultural currents in American history of the mid-20th-century.

Known for his musicals — most notably The Cradle Will Rock in 1937 (you can hear Dawn Upshaw sing the lovely song “I Wish It So” from “Juno” in the YouTube video at the bottom) — his opera Regina and his translation of Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera, Blitzstein was an outspoken proponent of socially engaged art. Like many artists of his time, he joined the American Communist Party. But he also enthusiastically served in the U.S. Army during World War II (below, in 1943).

Nevertheless, in 1958, long after he had given up his Communist Party membership, Blitzstein (below) was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) where he “named no names.”

An extremely gifted yet underappreciated composer, he was a close friend of and mentor to Leonard Bernstein (below right, with Blitzstein on the left) and traveled in a close circle of American composers including David Diamond and Aaron Copland.

Although openly gay, he married Eva Goldbeck in 1933. Sadly, she died three years later from complications due to anorexia.

Blitzstein’s own death was likewise tragic. In 1964, while in Martinique working on an opera about the anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti, a commission from the Metropolitan Opera, he was robbed and badly beaten by three Portuguese sailors whom he had picked up at a bar. He died the next day of internal injuries. 

Although throughout his life and afterwards, Blitzstein’s work was championed by Bernstein and others, many claim that neither the composer nor his stunning music and beautiful lyrics ever received the attention they deserved. So University Opera is proud to present this show celebrating his life and his works.

“I Wish It So: Marc Blitzstein – the Man in His Music” is a unique production put together by David Ronis. A biographical pastiche, it tells the story of Blitzstein’s life by recontextualizing 23 songs and ensembles from his shows, juxtaposing them with spoken excerpts from his working notes and letters, and tying it all together with a narration.

The result is a dramatic, evocative and enjoyable portrait of Blitzstein’s life and his art, according to Ronis.

“We’ve discovered a lot of “silver linings” while working on this production,” says Ronis. “We were disappointed at not being able to do a normal staged show. But working with video has had tremendous artistic and educational value.

“Our students are learning on-camera technique, not to mention how to work with a green screen (below, with soprano Sarah Brailey), which allows for post-production editing and digital manipulation of backgrounds. They’re also working with spoken text as well as sung pieces. Mostly, we’re just very grateful to have a creative project to sink our teeth into during the pandemic. 

“And the music of Blitzstein is so fantastic, we’re very happy to be able to share it with our audience. This project is like none other I’ve ever done and we’re thinking that it’s going to be pretty cool.”

Research on the project was completed at the Wisconsin Historical Society, where Blitzstein’s archives are housed. University Opera gratefully acknowledges the help of both Mary Huelsbeck of the Wisconsin Center for Film and Television Research, and the Kurt Weill Foundation for their assistance with this project.

The cast features five UW-Madison graduate students: Sarah Brailey, Kenneth Hoversten, Justin Kroll, Lindsey Meekhof (below) and Steffen Silvis.

The video design was done by Dave Alcorn with costumes by Hyewon Park.

Others on the production staff include Will Preston, rehearsal pianist; Elisheva Pront, research assistant and assistant director; Dylan Thoren, production stage manager; Alec Hansen, assistant stage manager; Teresa Sarkela, storyboard creator; and Greg Silver, technical director.

The video will be accessible for 23 hours starting at 8 p.m. this Friday, Oct. 23. Although there will be no admission price for access, donations will be gratefully accepted. A link for donations will be posted with the video. 

University Opera, a cultural service of the Mead Witter School of Music at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, provides comprehensive operatic training and performance opportunities for students and operatic programming to the community. For more information, email opera@music.wisc.edu or visit music.wisc.edu.

 


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Classical music: University Opera announces a new season that is politically and socially relevant to today. The two shows are a virtual revue of Marc Blitzstein and a live operatic version of “The Crucible.”

August 7, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

David Ronis (below), the director of the University Opera at the UW-Madison Mead Witter School of Music, has posted the following notice about its upcoming season on social media.

The award-winning Ronis is known for being creative both in programming and staging. The new season is yet another example of that. It features one virtual original production about an American composer to see and hear online, and two live performances of a mid-20th century American opera.

Both works seem especially pertinent and cautionary, given the times we currently live in in the U.S.

Here are the details:

FINALLY!!!

Things have fallen into place for the University Opera 2020-21 season and we are happy to announce our productions:

“I Wish It So: Marc Blitzstein — the Man in His Music”

“A biographical pastiche featuring songs and ensembles from Marc Blitzstein’s shows, spoken excerpts from his letters and working notes, and a narration. 

“Oct. 23, 2020

8 p.m. Video Release

____________________________________________________________________________________

“The Crucible” (1961)

Music by Robert Ward

Libretto by Bernard Stambler

Based on the 1953 play by Arthur Miller

March 19 and 21, 2021

Shannon Hall, Wisconsin Union Theater

_____________________________________________________________________________________

We will post more information as we get it. For now, we are very excited about both projects! Stay tuned.”

(Editor’s note: To stay tuned, go to: https://www.facebook.com/UniversityOpera/)

_____________________________________________________________________________________

And what does The Ear think?

The revue of Marc Blitzstein seems a perfect choice for Madison since his papers and manuscripts are located at the Wisconsin Historical Society. For details, go to: http://digicoll.library.wisc.edu/cgi/f/findaid/findaid-idx?c=wiarchives;view=reslist;subview=standard;didno=uw-whs-us0035an

Focusing on Blitzstein (1905-1964) also seems an especially politically relevant choice since he was a pro-labor union activist whose “The Cradle Will Rock, directed by Orson Welles,” was shut down by the Works Progress Administration of the federal government.

For more about Blitzstein (below in 1938) and his career, go to: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marc_Blitzstein

“The Crucible” also seems an especially timely choice. In its day the original play about the Salem witch trials was seen as a historical parable and parallel of McCarthyism and the Republican witch hunt for Communists.

Read about the Salem witch trials here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salem_witch_trials

Now that we are seeing a time when Democrats and others with progressive ideas are accused of being radical leftists, socialists and destructive revolutionaries, its relevance has come round again. Like McCarthy, President Donald Trump relies on winning elections by generating fear and denigrating opponents.

For more about the operatic version of “The Crucible” (below, in a production at the University of Northern Iowa) — which was commissioned by the New York City Opera and won both a Pulitzer Prize and the New York Music Critics Circle Award in 1962 — go to this Wikipedia entry: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Crucible_(opera)

You can hear the musically accessible opening and John’s aria, from Act II, in the YouTube video at the bottom. For more about composer Robert Ward (1917-2013, below), go to: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Ward_(composer)

What do you think of the new University Opera season?

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: The UW Schubertiade last Sunday afternoon explored the influence of Beethoven on Schubert with insight and beauty

February 2, 2020
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ALERT: In early editions of my last post, I mistakenly said that the UW Choral Union and the UW Symphony Orchestra will perform the Verdi Requiem on May 25 and 26. The correct dates are APRIL 25 and 26. The Ear regrets the error.

By Jacob Stockinger

One of the most informative and enjoyable events of the Beethoven Year – 2020 is the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth – came early.

It took place last Sunday afternoon in the Collins Recital Hall of the new Hamel Music Center at the UW-Madison.

It was the seventh annual Schubertiade, and its theme was “Schubert and Beethoven: Influences and Homages.” A classic contrast-and-compare examination of two musical giants who lived and worked in Vienna in the early 19th century, the concert took place for almost three hours before a packed house. (Schubert is below top, Beethoven below middle, and the sold-out audience below bottom)

The annual event is organized by co-founders and co-directors UW piano professor Martha Fisher and her pianist husband Bill Lutes (below, greeting the crowd), who also perform frequently, especially as outstandingly sensitive and subtle accompanists.

They make the event, with audience members sitting onstage, look easy and informal. But it takes a lot of hard work.

The two sure know how to choose talent. As usual, all the singers and instrumentalists – UW alumni and faculty members (below) — proved very capable. The concert cohered with consistency.

Nonetheless, The Ear heard highlights worth singling out.

Baritone Michael Roemer (below) sang exceptionally in “An die ferne Geliebte” (To the Distant Beloved) by Beethoven (1770-1827). His voice brought to mind the young Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in the inviting tone and direct delivery of the first song cycle ever composed. It was also the one that inspired the younger Schubert (1797-1828) to compose his own song cycles, and you could hear why.

Soprano Jamie Rose Guarrine (below right), accompanied by Bill Lutes and cellist Karl Knapp (below center), brought warmth, ease and confidence to the lyrical beauty of “Auf dem Strom” (On the River).

Tenor Daniel O’Dea (below) showed how Schubert’s setting of Friedrich Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” – the same Romantic poem made famous in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony “Choral” – ended up much more lighthearted than the more familiar, serious and intense symphonic version.

Martha Fischer and Bill Lutes, who also sang as well as narrated and accompanied, showed complete blending and tightness in Schubert’s first published composition: “Eight Variations on a French Song.” It was for piano, four-hands – a sociable genre that Schubert favored and wrote a lot of.

Soprano Jennifer D’Agostino (below) sang Schubert’s song “Elysium” in which it is unclear whether it is a pastiche or a parody of Beethoven, who remained a mentor until Schubert died at 31. Could that ambiguity point to Schubert’s maturing sense of himself and his own art as compared to Beethoven’s?

One year after Beethoven’s death – Schubert was a pallbearer — Schubert put on his only formal public concert of his own work. That was when he premiered his Piano Trio No. 2, the bravura last movement of which was played by Bill Lutes with cellist Parry Karp and first violinist David Perry (below), of the UW’s Pro Arte Quartet.

Then all four members of the Pro Arte Quartet (below) – with violist Sally Chisholm and second violinist Suzanne Beia – played the last two movements of Beethoven’s late String Quartet in C-sharp Minor, Op. 131, the work that Schubert requested to hear performed as he lay on his death bed in his brother’s Vienna apartment.

Of course there were other moments that pleased and instructed. There was a set of four songs – one coupling sung by mezzo-soprano Allisanne Apple (below) — in which the same texts were set to music by both Beethoven and Schubert.

We got to hear Beethoven’s final song, “Abendlied unterm gestirnten Himmel” (Evening Song Beneath the Starry Firmament).

Then there was the heart-wrenching “Nachthymne” (Hymn to the Night) by Schubert, again beautifully performed by Jamie Rose Guarrine. (You can hear “Hymn to the Night,” sung by Elly Ameling, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

So in the end, what were the big lessons, the takeaways from this year’s Schubertiade?

One lesson is that for all his more familiar symphonies and concertos, his string quartets and piano trios, his piano sonatas and his sonatas for cello and violin, Beethoven was also a much more accomplished song composer than the public generally knows.

But for The Ear, the biggest lesson of all is that despite Beethoven’s deep influence, Schubert retained his own special voice, a voice full of unforgettable melodies and harmonies, of lyricism and empathy.

And using a mentor to find, refine and retain one’s own identity is the highest homage any student can pay to a teacher.

 


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Classical music: Free “Just Bach” concerts change the starting time to NOON and begin their second season this Wednesday at Luther Memorial Church. Here are programs for this semester

September 15, 2019
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The Ear has received the following announcement from the organizers and performers of Just Bach, which had a very successful inaugural run last season:

Join us on this coming Wednesday, Sept. 18, as we kick off our second season of “Just Bach” concerts. The concerts are FREE and OPEN TO THE PUBLIC, with a goodwill offering collected.

The Just Bach concert series – which features Baroque period instruments and historically informed performance practices — resumes as part of the weekly free noontime “Music at Midday” concerts in the gorgeous sanctuary (below) of Luther Memorial Church, 1021 University Ave. For more information and a schedule of other performances and performers in the series,  go to: luthermem.org/music-at-midday

PLEASE NOTE: While the one-hour Just Bach concerts last season started at 1 p.m., this season they will start at NOON.

The photo (below, from left) shows three performers for this upcoming first concert: soprano Sarah Brailey, violist Marika Fischer Hoyt, and traverse flutist Linda Pereksta.

The season-opener is an instrumental program titled “Gamba Sonatas Without the Gambas.” (Gamba is the Italian word for leg and was used to describe what would evolve into the modern cello.)

Of the three sonatas written for viola da gamba (an early version of the modern cello) and harpsichord, BWV 1027-1029, we’ll hear the first and third, but in alternate versions.

First on the program is the hauntingly beautiful Sonata No. 3 in G Minor, BWV 1029, performed on viola da braccio (baroque viola) and harpsichord. (You can hear the opening movement of the original version, played on a modern cello and piano by Janos Starker and Gyorgy Sebok, respectively, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Following that will be the jaunty Sonata in G Major BWV 1039, the Trio Sonata arrangement for cello, flute and harpsichord that Bach made of the Sonata No. 1, BWV 1027.

Just Bach regulars traverse flutists Linda Pereksta and Monica Steger and violist Marika Fischer Hoyt return to the stage. They will be joined by cellist Lindsey Crabb (below top) and UW-Madison harpsichordist John Chapell Stowe (below bottom on the right), who are making their debuts at Just Bach.

Just Bach organizer and regular performer, as well as UW graduate student and professional touring soprano, Sarah Brailey (below) leads the chorale sing-along, a beloved audience-participation feature of these programs. 

Bring your lunch, bring your ears and your voice, and bring a friend, but most of all bring yourself to enjoy the sublime music of Johann Sebastian Bach.

Here is a schedule of upcoming Just Bach concerts this fall, all taking place on Wednesdays at noon:

Oct. 16:  Cantata 158 Der Friede sei mit dir (Peace be with you)

Nov. 20:  Cantata 151 Süßer Trost, mein Jesus kommt (Sweet comfort, my Jesus comes)

Dec. 18:  Christmas Pastiche

For more information, including tips on parking, go to the website justbach.org


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Classical music: The University Opera performs an unusual and original Kurt Weill cabaret this coming Friday night and Sunday afternoon and next Tuesday night

October 23, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

This fall, University Opera is taking a short break from strictly operatic offerings – in the spring it will stage Puccini’s “La Bohème” — as it turns to the music of Kurt Weill (1900-1950).

No ordinary medley, A KURT WEILL CABARET is an organized pastiche of 21 solos and ensembles from many diverse works by Kurt Weill (below, in a photo from the German Federal Archive), and will be presented at Music Hall on the UW-Madison campus at the foot of Bascom Hill.

(One of the most famous and popular Kurt Weill songs to be performed, “Alabama Song,” once covered by the rock band The Doors in the 1960s, can be heard performed by Lotte Lenya in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Performances are this Friday, Oct. 27, at 7:30 p.m.; this coming Sunday, Oct. 29, at 3 p.m.; and next Tuesday night, Oct. 31, at 7:30 p.m.

University Opera director David Ronis (below, in a photo by Luke Delalio)  will direct the show.

Chad Hutchinson (below), adjunct professor of orchestras, will conduct.

Musical preparation will be by UW-Madison collaborative pianist and vocal coach, Daniel Fung (below bottom).

Tickets are $25 for the general public; $20 for seniors; and $10 for UW students.

Here is a link to a full-length press release from the Mead Witter School of Music at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. It has information about the performers and the program as well as historical background about Kurt Weill and how to purchase tickets.

http://www.music.wisc.edu/2017/09/27/university-opera-presents-a-kurt-weill-cabaret/

For more information in general about University Opera, got to:

http://www.music.wisc.edu/opera/


Classical music: The Madison Early Music Festival will perform familiar and unfamiliar Spanish Renaissance music. What composers and works will be performed? And what makes them different? Part 2 of 2

July 3, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

This coming Friday, when the Madison Early Music Festival (MEMF) starts to explore Iberian music during the Renaissance Age of novelist Miguel de Cervantes (below) and his pioneering novel “Don Quixote,” much will be familiar but much will also be new.

To provide a look at what to expect, the longtime co-artistic directors of the festival – wife-and-husband singers Cheryl Bensman Rowe and Paul Rowe (below) – provided the following overview through an email Q&A with The Ear.

All-festival passes are $90 and tickets to individual concerts cost $20, $10 for students.

Click here to buy online, call 608-265-ARTS (2787), or visit the Campus Arts Ticket Box Offices in Memorial Union or Vilas Hall (click here for hours).

(Note: All MEMF Concert Series concerts and lectures are free for participants in the MEMF Workshop. There is a $4 transaction fee per ticket when purchasing online or by phone.)

How does early Spanish music differ from its counterparts in, say, Italy, France, Germany and England. What is the historical origin and importance of the music from that era in that part of the world?

The music from the Iberian Peninsula reflects the influences and changes that were happening all over Europe throughout the period that MEMF is examining this summer.

From the “romances” and “villancicos” of Juan del Encina during the time of Columbus to the Baroque era masses, secular songs and instrumental music of Antonio Soler (organ), Luis de Briceño and Gaspar Sanz (vihuela/guitar, below top) and Domenico Scarlatti (below bottom), Spanish music maintained its own unique traditions born of its complicated mixture of cultures and expanding global empire while still reflecting the overall developments that were occurring in Italy, France and Germany.

Some crucial differences include the presence of the Muslim and Jewish poetic and musical influence in the predominantly Catholic region reflected in preferred instrumentation where the vihuela was used more often than the lute, the exotic stories from Middle Eastern sources and the harmonies and melodies that are unique to the Spanish repertoire.

The fact that the political makeup of the area was constantly changing and being buffeted by global changes can make it difficult to understand what really constitutes “Spanish” just as Italy and Germany were not unified in the way we think of them today but were made of individual and distinct regions.

There was much blurring of borders between countries. For example, Naples, which we would think of as Italian, was a Spanish city for most of this time period, with a flourishing court, which supported the flourishing of the musical culture. Artistic changes and developments reflect this rather flexible organization of regions which did not take its current shape until well into the 19th century. (below is an old map of the Iberian Peninsula)

What music and composers of that era have been most neglected and least neglected by historians and performers?

The music from the Iberian Peninsula has been receiving increasing attention in the last 50 years or so. MEMF has focused on this area several times as new editions and discoveries are coming to light.

There are many reasons for this, including the German bias created by musicologists from that area starting in the 19th century. The lack of understanding of a complicated history and a condescension directed towards all things from the “hotter” regions of Europe except for Greece also prevented research, recording and appreciation of this varied repertoire.

The composers that will be most familiar to audiences will be Cristobal de Morales (below top), Francisco Guerrero (below middle) and Tomas Luis de Victoria (below bottom), who are known for their choral music including motets and settings of the Catholic Mass and Mateo Flecha (father and son), who composed secular choral pieces featuring popular tunes of the day put together in a kind of musical pastiche called an “ensalada.”

There are many less known composers from the various regions of Spain.

Juan del Encina is probably responsible for the collection titled ” Cancionero de Palacio” and is credited with 60 pieces from this volume of nearly 500 first published in the 1490s. Juan Hidalgo (below top and in the YouTube video at the bottom) is credited with the creation of the zarzuela, a theatrical form similar to the Neapolitan opera of the time. There is Diego Ortiz, who flourished in Naples, and Antonio de Cabezón (below bottom), who composed primarily keyboard music and Gaspar Sanz, who is familiar to modern guitarists and composed many pieces for the vihuela.

Can you tell us about the program and performers for the All-Festival concert on July 15?

The All-Festival Concert is unique to MEMF. All week long, workshop participants and faculty will work side by side to create Iberian Tapestry: Music and Conquest from the Spanish Golden Age, which includes sacred and secular compositions by Victoria, Guerrero, Flecha, Vasquez, music from the Moors of the Reconquista, Sephardic music for the heritage of the Jews, and from the New World.

This concert will include narrations selected from Don Quixote.

This year, the program was created and will be directed by Grant Herreid (below), who also curated the Piffaro program that opens the MEMF 2017 Concert Series.

Are there other sessions, guest lectures and certain performers that you especially recommend for the general public?

The week is so full of wonderful adventures that I really encourage people to experience it all.

Besides the concert series and workshop classes there are pre-concert lectures and a dance event, ¡Bailemos!, on Thursday, July 13, 2017 at 7:30 p.m., in the Frederic March Play Circle on the second floor of the Memorial Union.

Several free events, besides the Harp concert and master class are the Participant Concert on Friday, July 14, at 1 p.m. in Mills Concert Hall; the Early Opera Workshop; and the Loud Band free concert on Saturday, July 15, at 2 p.m. at Music Hall featuring participants from the Advanced Loud Bound Intensive and the Early Opera & Continuo Workshop performing works by Tomás Luis de Victoria, Francisco Guerrero and several cancioneros plus scenes from La púrpura de la rosa by Tomás de Torrejón y Velasco.

MEMF provides a wonderful opportunity to go back in time and be immersed in the Spanish Renaissance through music, art, dance, concerts and lectures, plus workshop classes. People can play an active role participating as a student, or join us in the audience to listen to the glorious sounds of the historical instruments and voices as we recreate the music from the Golden Age of Spain.

Check out our website for the most up-to-date information and how to get tickets: www.madisonearlymusic.org


Classical music: The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and soloist Ben Beilman deliver the best Beethoven Violin Concerto that The Ear has ever heard live

October 8, 2015
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By Jacob Stockinger

Many people see the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below) as competitors.

WCO lobby

But that’s not how The Ear sees them.

The Ear sees symphony orchestras and chamber orchestras not as competitors but as complements.

The two can serve as role models for each other. A symphony orchestra can aim to achieve the transparency and clarity of the smaller group; the chamber orchestra can aim to achieve the richness and bigger sound of the larger ensemble.

Almost two weeks ago, that is exactly what the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below) and conductor John DeMain did with the “Leonore” Overture No. 3 by Ludwig van Beethoven, the Clarinet Concerto by Aaron Copland and especially the big, loud and brassy Ethel Merman-like Symphony No. 4 by Peter Ilych Tchaikovsky.

Here is how The Ear heard that performance:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2015/10/01/classical-music-heres-why-the-opening-concert-of-the-madison-symphony-orchestra-proved-a-stunning-success/

John DeMain and MSO from the stage Greg Anderson

So how did the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra do in meeting the challenge?

In a word — superbly.

The WCO did so last Friday night in the Overture Center’s Capitol Theater under its longtime music director Andrew Sewell.

The program started with one of those welcome rarities that Sewell has a knack for unearthing. This time the native New Zealander played the piece “Landfall in Unknown Seas” by Douglas Lilburn (below), whom Sewell described as the Kiwi Copland.

Well, maybe, though The Ear finds Aaron Copland’s music more interesting and emotionally moving than the clearly modern but tonal and accessible music by Lilburn, whose centennial is this year.

douglas lilburn

The piece — written to commemorate the tricentennial of the discovery of New Zealand — was hobbled with one of those puffily pretentious and over-the-top occasional celebratory poems, which was recited by actor James Ridge (below) of American Players Theatre in Spring Green. It treated navigation and discovery as metaphors of something much bigger than the discovery of New Zealand.

All in all, it proved an interesting but not arresting piece, a curiosity worth hearing but not repeating.

 

James Ridge

Then came the rarely played Symphony No. 2 in A minor by Camille Saint-Saens. It is a kind of Late Romantic pastiche that reminds one of the “Classical” Symphony by Sergei Prokofiev. One could hear strains of earlier composers such as Robert Schumann and Felix Mendelssohn in this charming work that once again is worth hearing but maybe not repeating or at least not soon.

To be fair, critic John W. Barker disagreed in his review for Isthmus:

http://www.isthmus.com/arts/stage/wisconsin-chamber-orchestra-opens-2015-season/

In both cases, Sewell (below) and the various sections of the WCO brought not only the kind of transparency or clarity that one expects from the WCO but also a robustness that made the orchestra seem bigger than it looked.

AndrewSewellnew

Yet it was in the second half where the WCO really showed its stuff.

The piece was the formidable Violin Concerto by Ludwig van Beethoven.

The soloist was the 25-year-old Benjamin Beilman (below), making his Madison debut.

Benjamin Beilman close up playing

Together, Beilman and Sewell delivered what is the finest and most exciting live performance of the famous and famously difficult concerto that The Ear has ever heard. It possessed intimacy as well as heroics. (You can hear Itzhak Perlman and Daniel Barenboim conducting the Berlin Philharmonic in the last movement in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

Sewell shaded the piece and brought both chamber orchestra transparency and symphony orchestra heft to the work. He also emphasized Beethoven’s mastery of counterpoint, a legacy from his days as a student of Franz Joseph Haydn. This time the often thorny Beethoven score seemed smoother and more decipherable.

Beilman, for his part, is already a master of the kind of small details that make a huge difference. He is also not afraid to play softly.

Beethoven (below) was a master crafter but not a great melody writer, and often the opening movement can often seem little more than a patchwork of scales and runs, chords and arpeggios.

beethoven BW grim

But not this time. Beilman made this often flat-sounding violin part exciting with the subtleties he brought to it. He found hidden melodies and camouflaged suggestions of a theme, all delivered with a great tone from his modern 2004 violin.

One unusual touch was the cadenzas. Beethoven didn’t write any for the violin. When he transcribed this work for the piano he composed piano cadenzas. And those were the basis of what Beilman, the top winner of the Montreal International Violin Competition and the recipient of an Avery Fisher Career Grant, used for his exciting cadenzas.

Tempi mattered too. This long, dense concerto moved right along, and when it was done, the performance drew an immediate standing ovation from the audience of 900 or so.

And here’s the thing: At no point did the chamber orchestra seem to lack the horsepower needed to drive this big and iconic piece of music. Sewell and Beilman were well matched in projecting a big, rich sound and intense interpretation that engaged and excited you from beginning to end.

The audience even drew two encores from Beilman, both solo pieces by Johann Sebastian Bach (below), the ultimate test of a violinist. One was the songful slow movement from the Solo Sonata in C Major; the other was the lively Gavotte from the Solo Partita in E Major that almost seems a mirror image of the last movement of the Beethoven concerto.(ATTENTION ALL SOLOISTS: Please announce your encores!)

Bach1

The first Bach movement, by the way, was also the piece that Beilman played at the wedding this summer where his sister married Joe Morris, the gifted principal clarinet of the Madison Symphony Orchestra who so stood out in the Copland concerto two weeks ago.

Plus, Beilman’s parents and grandparents hail from Madison.

So young Benjamin Beilman has roots in and ties to Madison.

Could that mean he will return soon?

The Ear sure hopes so.

 


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