The Well-Tempered Ear

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

January 22, 2018
3 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is it like for spouses to make music together?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Classical music: The Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society will wind up its current summer season of masterful music-making with two MUST-HEAR programs this weekend.

June 25, 2015
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

If you needed more proof about why you should take in one or both of the final two programs – “Crooked Business” and “Highway Robbery” — by the Madison-based Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society, you should have been at one or both of the BDDS concerts last weekend.

BDDS poster 2015

For this coming weekend of the 24th season: “Crooked Business” features the Sonata for Flute and Keyboard in B Minor by Johann Sebastian Bach; the chamber music reduction of the Piano Concerto in C minor, K. 491, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; and a chamber music arrangement version of the Serenade in D Major, Op. 11, by Johannes Brahms.

“Highway Robbery” offers the First Rhapsody for Clarinet by Claude Debussy; “Seven Seascapes” by the American composer Kevin Puts, who won the Pulitzer Prize; and the great Octet by Franz Schubert.

For more information about programs and performers, venues and tickets, visit: http://www.bachdancinganddynamite.org

The Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society continues to be incapable of being boring, ordinary or mediocre. It’s just not in their genes or DNA.

Last Saturday night, The Ear took in the “Breaking and Entering” concert in The Playhouse of the Overture Center. The theme was meant to explore how composers broke new ground and violated boundaries.

The theme might seem a bit of a stretch — they often do — and when one of the two fake security guards frisked an audience member for a gun or weapon, it might have struck some audience members as uncomfortable or in questionable taste rather than amusing or funny, given the recent shootings in Charleston, South Carolina.

BDDS Breaking 2015 guard

But humor and silliness aside, there is no question that the music received the superb performances it deserved.

The San Francisco Trio, veteran BDDS guest artists, delivered two masterful readings of two Romantic masterpieces. The trio opened the concert perfectly with the lovely and short “Notturno” (1827) by Franz Schubert. Then it closed the concert with the revised version of the substantial and even epic Piano Trio No. 1 in B Major (1854, revised in 1889), Op. 8, by Johannes Brahms. The trio is made up of pianist Jeffrey Sykes (a co-founder and co-artistic director of BDDS), violinist Axel Strauss and cellist Jean-Michel Fonteneau.

BDDS Breaking SF Trio

Then came the somewhat eccentric Sonatina for Trio (1934) by the rarely performed French composer and eccentric music critic Florent Schmitt.

The players were an unusual combination of flutist Stephanie Jutt (the UW-Madison professor is a co-founder and co-artistic director of BDDS as well as principal flute of the Madison Symphony Orchestra); local pianist Thomas Kasdorf, who is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music; and the incredible clarinetist Alan Key from New York City who teaches at the Manhattan School of Music and the Juilliard School, and who plays with the respected Orpheus Chamber Orchestra.

BDDS Breaking 2015 Jutt, Kasdrof, Kay

Violinist Axel Strauss, who teaches at McGill University in Montreal, sure showed some impressive fiddling skills in two crossover pieces – “Pining for Betsy” and “Who Let the Cat Out Last Night?” — by Paul Schoenfield (b. 1947). It brought audible WOWs and cheers from the audience. (Listen for yourself to the virtuosic “Cat” piece in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

BDDS breaking 2015 Axel Strauss

An unusual and rarely heard piece by the Venezuelan composer Paul Desenne (b. 1959)  imagines Franz Joseph “Papa” Haydn and a South American composer discussing music at the Esterhazy estate where Haydn worked. The work was delivered with great panache by flutist Stephanie Jutt, clarinetist Alan Kay and cellist Jean-Michel Fonteneau.

BDDS Breaking 2015 Jutt, Fonteneau, Kay. jpeg

Both the variety of the repertoire and the players and the quality of the performances recommend the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society to any serious classical music fan as well as to beginners. The Ear says: Go have some classical fun!

 


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