The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Leon Fleisher, the inspirational pianist and teacher who died a week ago, had ties to Madison

August 9, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

Famed American pianist and teacher Leon Fleisher (below, in a photo by Chris Hartlove), who also conducted, died of cancer at 92 last Sunday, Aug. 2.

Wisconsin Public Radio, like many other media outlets including National Public Radio (NPR) and most major newspapers and television stations, devoted a lot of time to tributes to and remembrances of Fleisher.

That is as it should be. If any musician deserved it, Fleisher did.

Fleisher (1928-2020) was a titan who became, over many years and despite major personal setbacks — stemming from an almost paralyzed right hand — a lot more than a keyboard virtuoso.

But despite lots of air time, less well covered has been his relationship to Madison audiences, who had the pleasure of seeing and hearing him several times in person.

In 2003 and then again in 2016 (below top) — at age 88 — Fleisher performed with the University of Wisconsin’s Pro Arte String Quartet (below bottom).

Both times he played the Brahms Piano Quintet in F minor, Op. 34, a masterpiece of chamber music. He and his wife, Katherine Jacobson, also performed a joint recital at the Wisconsin Union Theater in 2009.

Fleisher felt at home in Baroque, Classical, Romantic and even modern music. He was renowned as an interpreter of Brahms. Indeed, his early and widely acclaimed recordings of both Brahms piano concertos as well as of the Waltzes and Handel Variations remain landmarks.

Once he was again playing with both hands, Fleisher also recorded the piano quintet for Deutsche Grammophon with the Emerson String Quartet, another frequent and favorite performer in Madison. (You can hear the finale in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Here is a this blog’s review of his last Madison appearance: https://welltempered.wordpress.com/?s=Leon+Fleisher

Fleisher liked performing with the Pro Arte, and therein lies another historical tale.

His most influential teacher — the famed pianist Artur Schnabel, with whom the San Francisco-born Fleisher went to study in Europe when he was just 9 — also played often with the earlier members of Pro Arte Quartet. Together they recorded Schubert’s “Trout” Quintet by Franz Schubert, and that recording is still in the catalogue and available on Amazon.

Fleisher discusses studying with Schnabel in his entertaining and informative 2010 autobiography “My Nine Lives” (below).

Fleisher was a child prodigy who made his name while still young. Famed French conductor Pierre Monteux – who conducted the world premiere of Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” in Paris — called Fleisher the “musical find of the century.” Fleisher made his concerto debut at 16 with the New York Philharmonic under Monteux.

Fleisher was just 36 and preparing for a tour with the Cleveland Orchestra and George Szell – a perfect pairing and a conductor with whom he recorded all the Beethoven and Brahms concertos among may others – when he found he could not uncurl the last three fingers of his right hand.

Various diagnoses and causes were offered, and many cures were tried. In the end, it seems like that it was a case of focal dystonia that was caused by over-practicing, especially octaves. “I pounded ivory six or seven hours a day,” Fleisher later said.

After a period of depression and soul-searching, Fleisher then focused on performing music for the left hand; on conducting; and especially on teaching for more than 60 years at the Peabody Institute, located in Baltimore at Johns Hopkins University.

There he helped shaped the career of many other famous pianists, including André Watts, Yefim Bronfman and Jonathan Biss (below, in a photo by Julian Edelstein), who played when Fleisher received the Kennedy Center Honors in 2007. (All three have performed with the Madison Symphony Orchestra.)

Here is an inspiring overview of Fleisher’s life and career from the Peabody Institute: https://peabody.jhu.edu/faculty/leon-fleisher/

And here is another short biography from Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leon_Fleisher

Here are three especially noteworthy obituaries:

NPR: https://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2020/08/02/702978476/leon-fleisher-the-pianist-who-reinvented-himself-dies-at-92

The New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/02/arts/music/leon-fleisher-dead.html

The Washington Post, written by critic Anne Midgette who worked with Fleisher on his memoir: https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/leon-fleisher-sublime-pianist-with-one-hand-or-two-dies-at-92/2020/08/02/c7c98f90-527d-11e6-b7de-dfe509430c39_story.html

The Ear has always found Fleisher’s playing remarkable for its technical fluency combined with the utmost clarity and exacting but flexible sense of rhythm. He always managed to make a piece of music sound just right, as it was intended to sound. His musicality always seemed innate and perfectly natural.

Sample it for yourself. The Ear thinks the performance of all five Beethoven concertos with George Szell still sets a high standard with its exciting, upbeat tempi, its exemplary balance between piano and orchestra, and its exceptional engineering.

The affable Fleisher will long remain an inspiration not only for his playing and teaching, but also for his determination to overcome personal obstacles and go on to serve music — not just the piano.

Did you ever hear Leon Fleisher play live or in recordings? What did you think?

Do you have a comment to leave about the legacy of Fleisher?


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Classical music: How can classical music be made less white? Nine Black artists suggest changes. Which ones will work best?

July 19, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

With all the attention given to and urgency of the Black Lives Matter movement — and other demonstrations and protests against personal and systemic racism as well as white privilege — it comes as no surprise that questions are being raised about the overwhelmingly white world of classical music and how to change it.

Most of the local classical music groups The Ear knows of have posted statements of solidarity.

If he recalls correctly, they include the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music, the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Madison Opera, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, the Wisconsin Union Theater, the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO), the Middleton Community Orchestra, the Willy Street Chamber Players and many others.

But beyond declarations of solidarity with people of color, the music groups face deeper issues that require action, not just words, and remain more difficult to solve: How to attract more Black  classical musicians? How to foster more Black composers? And how to attract more Black audiences?

Diversity and equity are long-term issues, and quite a number of possible solutions loom.

Would performing more pieces, both historical and contemporary, by Black composers (below) work?

Would hiring more Black resident musicians help?

Would booking more Black guest artists and soloists help? (Below is the young and upcoming British cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason.)

Would changing the music curriculum in schools help? (Some important Black composers are explored in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Would generating more support to and from the Black community help?

Last week The New York Times did a fine piece of work in addressing these issues.

The reporter and music editor asked nine different accomplished Black conductors, instrumentalists, singers, critics and administrators in classical music about how to solve the inequity. The interviews were condensed and edited into very readable statements.

Here is a link to that story: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/16/arts/music/black-classical-music-opera.html

Please read it.

Then let us know which suggestions you think should be attempted first and which solutions are most likely to work.

The Ear wants to hear.

 


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Classical music: Here is music that asks for and then grants the peace we need now

June 2, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

Is The Ear alone in being reminded of the year 1968 and its various social, political and personal upheavals?

What explains it?

What are the parallels, if any?

Is it the national and international protests against police injustice and racism (below, in a photo by Getty Images)?

Is it the violence and riots that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and opposition to the Vietnam War?

Is it the isolation and deaths (below, in a photo by ABC News) brought about by the coronavirus pandemic and the more than 100,000 deaths in just the U.S. from COVID-19?

Whatever you think and whether you agree or not, we all can use some peace.

Here is some music that both asks for peace and grants it.

It is the “Dona Nobis Pacem” (Grant Us Peace) from the “Mass in B Minor” by Johann Sebastian Bach, performed in the YouTube video below by Robert Shaw conducting the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chamber Chorus with soloists.

If there are other pieces of classical music that serve that same purpose and you would like to hear, leave your suggestion in the comment section.

 


Classical music: A good pandemic project for the Beethoven Year is to follow Boris Giltburg as he learns and posts all 32 piano sonatas in one year

May 27, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

There are a lot of ways that musicians are celebrating the Beethoven Year of 2020 – the 250th anniversary of the birth of the composer (below).

One of the most interesting ways also makes for an engaging and ongoing coronavirus pandemic project.

The prize-winning Russian-Israeli pianist Boris Giltburg (below in a photo by Sasha Gusov) is learning all 32 piano sonatas in one year.

It is a formidable challenge, not only because most of the sonatas are technically and musically difficult, but also because the pianist says he has played only nine of the 32 sonatas before.

Giltburg’s videos feature not only fine playing and interpretations, but also a very readable and informative diary he writes that includes notes – also available in German on the website — about the sonatas and about what the process of learning and playing them has been like.

His approach works and makes you a vicarious participant in the major undertaking.

He posts performances of the sonatas every few weeks. He is learning and posting them in chronological order so you get a sense of the evolution. Giltburg is now up to Sonata No. 9 in E Major, Op. 14, No. 1.

Here is some background about Giltburg from Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boris_Giltburg

And here is a link to more background at his personal website where you can also find information about his other recordings for Naxos (he is known for his Liszt, Rachmaninoff, Scriabin and Prokofiev) and concerts: https://borisgiltburg.com

But the heart of the project is at Beethoven32.com where you can find the sonatas starting from the first.

The Ear likes hearing them this way.

Listening to them one at a time and reading about them seems a less overwhelming way to become familiar with what is called “The New Testament” – as compared to the Old Testament of the 48 preludes and fugues in Bach’s “The Well-Tempered Clavier.”

The Ear finds the playing first-rate and the sound quality excellent with great close-up videos of the keyboard and Giltberg’s playing.

Here is a link to the main website, which is easier than hunting for individual sonatas on YouTube: https://beethoven32.com

The Ear suggests starting at the bottom with Giltberg’s introduction and then working your way up one at a time, allowing time to appreciate both the music and his diary notes.

To get you started, here his introduction to the project:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qeBrn_kwvfg

And below is his performance the Sonata No. 1 in F minor, Op. 2, No. 1.

Let us know what you think of Giltberg as a Beethoven interpreter and what you think of his sonata project.

The Ear wants to hear.

 


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Classical music: Here is the music that Wisconsin Public Radio hosts find calming and inspiring during the pandemic. What music would you list?

April 27, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

One of the major sources of music during the COVID-19 public health crisis and the coronavirus pandemic is Wisconsin Public Radio.

The Ear finds WPR a reliable source of beauty and companionship during this difficult time of self-isolation and self-quarantining required by the state’s stay-at-home and self-distancing orders.

Each host plans and broadcasts hours of classical music each day. So they hear a lot of classical music.

They also contribute to a blog that offers insights to: new and old recordings; background information about the composers, music and performers; and personal observations about classical music.

Recently, the radio hosts – including Stephanie Elkins (below), Norman Gilliland, Lori Skelton, Ruthanne Bessman, Anders Yocom (at bottom, in a  photo by James Gill) and Peter Bryant — listed the music that they find particularly calming and inspiring during a difficult and anxiety-ridden time.

The names of composers include Bach, Scarlatti, Mendelssohn, Mahler, Ysaye, Vaughan-Williams and film score master John Williams.

The list includes audio-visual performances of the pieces.

Take a look and listen.

Then tell us what you think of the various suggestions and which ones you prefer?

Also leave the composers, pieces and performers that you would add to such a list, with a YouTube link if possible.

Here is a link:

https://www.wpr.org/wpr-music-hosts-share-music-calms-and-inspires


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Classical music: This Friday at noon, technology meets Beethoven when UW-Madison pianist Kangwoo Jin plays a FREE concerto performance

March 5, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

This week’s FREE Friday Noon Musicale — tomorrow, March 6 — at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, features an unusual concert in which classical music meets high technology.

Kangwoo Jin (below, in a photo by Steve Apps for the Wisconsin State Journal), a gifted and prize-winning pianist from South Korea, will perform the second and third movements of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, Op. 58.

But instead of a second piano or a full orchestra, Jin will be accompanied by a newly developed interactive app that adjusts to Jin and allows him to play his solo part flexibly with a real orchestra accompaniment that has been recorded minus the piano part.

Jin is studying for his doctorate with UW Professors Christopher Taylor and Jessica Johnson. He will graduate this May.

Next week Jin — who has won the UW-Madison Concerto and Beethoven Competitions and who teaches at Farley’s House of Pianos, the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music and the UW Continuing Education program– will open and close the UW-River Falls Piano Festival with two performances of the same Beethoven concerto with the St. Croix Valley Symphony Orchestra

Jin suffers from hemophilia and has to be careful about injuring himself from over-practicing and over-playing. He has a fascinating and inspiring personal story to tell. Here is a link to a story about him in the Wisconsin State Journal: https://madison.com/wsj/entertainment/uw-pianist-shares-musical-gift-despite-health-challenge/article_fdba6f0f-9245-5816-a97c-c4f3a6e2d0ed.html

You can follow his Facebook page. And here is a link to Jin’s own website, which has more biographical information and videos: https://www.pianistkangwoojin.com


Jin says that, in addition to the two concerto movements, he will also play several short pieces:  “Clair de Lune” (Moonlight) by Claude Debussy; the “Raindrop” Prelude by Chopin; and two song transcriptions by Franz Liszt — Schubert’s “Litany” and Schumann’s “Widmung” (Dedication).

The orchestral accompaniment for the Beethoven concerto is performed by MusAcc — an iPad app. It is an app that can customize and manipulate the audio, much like an actual instrument, in real time.  Think of it as an orchestra in a box that you can use anywhere.

Jin explains the reasons for his FUS concert, which starts at NOON (not 12:15 p.m., as it used to be) and goes to about 1 p.m.:

“Playing a concerto is not possible in that venue, so I am using a recorded file for the orchestra part,” Jin says. “My friend Yupeng Gu, who developed this audio controlling device, will conduct and control the pacing of the recording so that the sound synchronizes with my playing. It is quite incredible and will be a very interesting concert.”

“I hope this breaks the barrier of having to have a big venue and other difficulties for performing concertos, and lets local people enjoy a more accessible and diverse repertoire,” he says. “If people like it, I would like to play the whole concerto and maybe more concertos — hopefully, all five Beethoven piano concertos — this way. This is something I have not tried before, so I am excited about it.”

“People have much easier access to solo performances, but not to concertos due to many limitations,” Jin adds. “So I expect them to have a novel experience with this concert.”

In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear a similar performance, done with the same device, featuring a different pianist playing the first movement of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in C Major, Op. 15.

 


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Classical music: Members of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center will give two concerts this week as part of the centennial season of the Concert Series at the Wisconsin Union Theater

March 4, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

Think of it as one anniversary celebrating another anniversary.

This week, four members of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center in New York City will be giving two concerts as part of the Concert Series at the Wisconsin Union Theater (below).

The Chamber Music Society is marking its 50th anniversary and is in town this week to help the WUT’s Concert Series celebrate its 100th anniversary.

Here is a link with more background about the special programming for the anniversary season: https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2019/03/30/classical-music-personal-experience-artistic-excellence-and-historical-importance-drew-pianist-wu-han-and-cellist-david-finckel-into-planning-next-years-centennial-season-at-the-wisconsin-u/

The first concert is tomorrow — Thursday night, March 5 — at 7:30 p.m. in Shannon Hall at the Memorial Union. The program features two piano quartets and a violin sonatina.

The Ear has seen the Society players before in Madison and has never heard them give anything short of a first-rate performance. 

The piano quartets are the Piano Quartet in A Minor, Op. 1, by Czech composer Josef Suk; the Piano Quartet No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 25, by Johannes Brahms; and the Violin Sonatina in G Major, Op. 100, by Antonin Dvorak. (You can hear Chopin Competition winner and South Korean pianist Song-Jin Cho, play the Gypsy Rondo finale from the Brahms piano quartet in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Personal ties link all three works. Brahms greatly admired Dvorak and helped launch his career. And Dvorak was both the teacher and father-in-law of Suk.

The performers (below, from left) are violinist Arnaud Sussmann, pianist Wu Han, violist Paul Neubauer; and cellist David Finckel.

The wife-and-husband team of Wu Han and David Finckel are the co-music directors of the Chamber Music Society and also the artistic advisors who helped the Wisconsin Union Theater put together its centennial season.

Says Han: Chamber music is a form of music that has the ability to provide comfort in difficult times, escape and inspiration for all. The Musical America’s Musician of the Year award winner adds that it’s those very things that drive her to continue to make music.

The performance is part of the new David and Kato Perlman Chamber Music Series. More information about the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center can be found on their website.

There will also be a pre-concert performance by students of the Suzuki method in Sonora Strings (below) beginning in Shannon Hall at 7 p.m.

For more background as well as how to purchase tickets ($10-$50), go to: https://union.wisc.edu/events-and-activities/event-calendar/event/chamber-music-society-of-lincoln-center/

SATURDAY NIGHT

On Saturday night, March 7, at 7:30 p.m. in the Mead Witter Foundation Concert Hall of the new Hamel Music Center, 740 University Ave., pianist Wu Han (below top) will perform with the UW Symphony Orchestra under the baton of its director and conductor Oriol Sans (below bottom).

The program is the Suite No. 1 from the chamber opera “Powder Her Face” by the contemporary British composer Thomas Adès; the Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 37, by Beethoven; and the Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 73, by Brahms.

Tickets are $30 for the public, $25 for Union members and UW faculty and staff; and $10 for UW students. For more information about Wu Han and to purchase tickets, go to: https://union.wisc.edu/events-and-activities/event-calendar/event/wu-han-with-uw-symphony/

“Wu Han brings to the Wisconsin Union Theater not only a passion for music, but also authentic excitement about inspiring a love of music in others,” said Amanda Venske, Concert Series coordinator of the Wisconsin Union Directorate (WUD) Performing Arts Committee.

The students of the UW-Madison Symphony Orchestra (below, with the UW Choral Union in the background) will have the opportunity to learn from Han as they prepare for the Saturday performance.

Patrons can purchase tickets online or at the Memorial Union Box Office. The Wisconsin Union Theater team offers discounted tickets for University of Wisconsin-Madison faculty, staff and students as well as Wisconsin Union members.

Other upcoming Concert Series performances are by violinist Gil Shaham with Akira Eguchi on March 28, and superstar soprano Renée Fleming on May 2. The Concert Series is the longest running classical music series in the Midwest.

 


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Classical music: Acclaimed native son Kenneth Woods returns this weekend to conduct the Madison Symphony Orchestra. He talks to The Ear about what Madison meant to him and his international career

March 2, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

This weekend, native Madisonian Kenneth Woods (below) returns from his home in the UK to conduct three performances of the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

The concerts feature two MSO debuts: the prize-winning young Canadian violinist Blake Pouliot performing Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor; and the acclaimed guest conductor, Kenneth Woods, leading the orchestra for the MSO premiere of Haydn’s Symphony No. 96, “Miracle” plus Richard Strauss’ tone poem Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life).

Performances will be held in Overture Hall on Friday night, March 6, at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday night, March 7, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday afternoon, March 8, at 2:30 p.m.

Single tickets are $19-$95 each and are on sale now, along with discounted tickets, at: https://madisonsymphony.org/event/the-miracle/; through the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street; or by calling the Box Office at (608) 258-4141. Fees apply to online and phone sales.

You can view program notes for this concert online at http://bit.ly/msomar2020programnotes

A Prelude Discussion by Randal Swiggum will take place one hour before each concert.

Guest conductor Kenneth Woods is a busy and versatile musician. He is the Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra and the artistic director of both the Colorado MahlerFest and the Elgar Festival in England. (You can hear Woods conducting Carl Maria von Weber’s “Oberon” Overture in the YouTube video at the bottom.) 

Woods has won accolades for rediscovering and recording the music of the Austrian-British composer Hans Gàl. Woods, who has played guitar in a rock band, is also a professional cellist who solos with orchestras and plays chamber music. He writes a respected blog. And he currently plays and records in the Briggs Piano Trio for Avie Records.

For much more information about Kenneth Woods, including his blog “A View From the Podium,” go to: https://kennethwoods.net/blog1/

Woods recently spoke via email to The Ear about what Madison has meant to him and to his international career.

How did living in Madison play a role in your decision to become a professional musician?

Madison offered me a chance to hear music at an early age. I was taken to watch a rehearsal of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestra as a very young kid, maybe three or four years old. That made a huge impression on me, especially seeing the rehearsal process. Later, my parents took us to all the UW Symphony Orchestra concerts for years.

There’s really no reason not to take young kids to concerts! For me, a love of live music led to a love of recorded music, listening to records at home, and from there, to an interest in playing music as a kid.

We were lucky to have a very strong music program in the Madison public schools when I was growing up here. The orchestras at Memorial High School played some really impressive repertoire under Tom Buchhauser (below top, in a photo by Jon Harlow). The UW Summer Music Clinic made being a musician social – it was a great immersion with one’s peers.

Most important, however, was probably the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO). Playing under Jim Smith (below bottom) was the most fantastic education in orchestral playing one could hope for. He and Tom are a big part of why I became a conductor.

Madison in those days wasn’t a super-pressurized scene, like one might encounter around the big pre-college programs in New York or LA. But what I might have missed in terms of conservatory-level instrumentalists in every corridor, one made up in terms of feeling like you could find your own path. By the time I was in high school, I pretty much knew music was that path.

How did your experiences in Madison help prepare you for that career?

I learned so much about rehearsing from Jim Smith. In his first year, we worked on Dvorak’s 8th Symphony pretty much all year. Every week, he opened our ears to new facets of the music. I’ve never forgotten that.

I went off to Indiana University to do my Bachelor’s degree, but returned to Madison for a Master’s, when I studied cello with UW-Madison professor Parry Karp (below top).

Those were wonderful years for me. I learned an enormous amount from Parry as both a cello teacher and chamber music coach (and especially as a person).

I played in fantastic chamber groups, did lots of wacky new music and had solo opportunities. UW Symphony Orchestra conductor David Becker (below bottom) even gave me my first meaningful chance to rehearse an orchestra when he had me take a couple of rehearsals on the Copland Clarinet Concerto.

And I played in both the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra. I came away from that time with both new skills and new confidence.

What does returning to your hometown to conduct the Madison Symphony Orchestra mean to you?

It’s both very exciting and a little surreal. Under the leadership of John DeMain (below top, in a photo by Greg Anderson), the MSO (below bottom, in a photo by Peter Rodgers) has come so far since the time I was in it. And the new hall is such a treasure for all of Wisconsin – it’s practically a different orchestra.

I still have many friends and former mentors in the orchestra and it’s going to be wonderful to see them all and make music together again after so long.

But it’s more than a homecoming. It’s a chance to celebrate where we’ve all been and what we’ve all done the last 20 years or so. My musical life has mostly been in the UK for a long time, so to re-connect with my musical roots here is rather magical.

What are your major current and upcoming projects?

The English Symphony Orchestra (below) represents the biggest chunk of my musical life. This year we’re celebrating Beethoven’s 250th birthday and the orchestra’s 40th anniversary.

The ESO has a special commitment to new and unknown music, and right now we’re in the midst of something called the 21st Century Symphony Project, which involves commissioning, premiering and recording nine new symphonies by diverse composers. It’s one of the most ambitious commissioning projects I’ve ever heard of, let alone been involved in.

I’m also excited about this year’s Colorado MahlerFest in Boulder, where we’re focusing on Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 “Resurrection” this May, which will crown a week of music exploring themes of color and visual art with music by Wagner, Messiaen and British composer Philip Sawyers.

Is the MSO program special to you?

I must say that it was incredibly generous of John DeMain to offer me such a fantastic program. Not every music director is gentleman enough to let a guest have Ein Heldenleben.

What would you like the public to know about your approach to music and about the specific works by Haydn, Mendelssohn and Richard Strauss?

Haydn’s music is maybe the richest discovery of my adult life. I didn’t get it as a kid, largely because most performances I heard were so dull.

His music is so varied, and his personality so complex, one mustn’t try to reduce him down to a simplistic figure. The late symphonies, of which this is one of the finest, are inexhaustible sources of wisdom, beauty, humor and sanity.

The Mendelssohn is really an astonishing piece. I’ve probably conducted it as much as any piece of music, with so many different soloists, all of whom had hugely different temperaments, personalities, sounds and approaches.

I’ve played it with some of the greatest violinists in the world and with young students. Somehow, whoever is playing, it always leaves me, and the audience, smiling. I’m pretty sure we can continue that streak with Blake Pouliot (below, in a photo by Jeff Fasano).

The Strauss is a rich, personal, wise, funny and moving work. It’s always a challenge, particularly bringing out all the astonishing detail in the score, but it’s also a real joy to perform. If the Mendelssohn always leaves me smiling, the Strauss always leaves me smiling with a tear in my eye.

 


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Classical music: The timing and political climate could not be more relevant for seeing the Madison Opera’s production of “Fellow Travelers” this Friday night and Sunday afternoon

February 6, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

You might recall from a previous blog posting that this weekend, the Madison Opera will present its production of the 2016 opera “Fellow Travelers.”

(A preview from the Minnesota Opera’s production, which featured the same sets and many of the same singers at the Madison Opera’s production, can be seen in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Performances are this Friday night, Feb. 7, at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon, Feb. 9, at 2:30 p.m. in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center.

Here is a link to more background and details about American history, the production, the cast and tickets.

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2020/01/14/classical-music-background-discussions-lectures-and-documentaries-lead-up-to-madison-operas-production-of-the-new-lgbtq-themed-opera-fellow-travelers-on-feb-7-and-9/

Today, all The Ear wants to do is to point out how timely this story about the “Lavender Scare” of purging and punishing gays during the Red Scare, anti-Communist witch hunt of McCarthyism in the late 1940s and 1950s.

The opera’s story is about a young man (below) who supports Republican Sen. Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin and then finds himself romantically and sexually attracted to another man who works in the State Department, one of McCarthy’s favorite targets.

He then has to deal with hypocrisy, with the contradictions between his personal life and his political beliefs as he goes from being victimizer to victim.

The political climate for such a work exploring fear and prejudice couldn’t be more relevant .

A lot of the credit for that can go directly to President Donald Trump (below), the master of “Fake News.”

Trump is a right-wing fear-monger and name-smearer, constantly raging against “radical left-wing Democrats.” He has even called Sen. Bernie Sanders — a Democratic candidate for president — a “Communist,” even though Sanders describes himself as a democratic Socialist along the lines of Western European socialists.

It is also no secret that in addition to such unfair and insulting name-calling, Trump and his homophobic supporters – including Vice President Mike Pence and Christian Fundamentalists – are looking to roll back the civil rights and human rights of people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer.

And they want to do so even at a time when an openly gay man who is married, Pete Buttigieg, is running for president and seems to have just won the Iowa caucuses.

Moreover, there is a direct link between McCarthyism and the homophobia of the Liar-in-Chief.

Remember that McCarthy’ lawyer was a closeted and self-hating gay man named Roy Cohn (below right, with McCarthy). There is some evidence that McCarthy himself was secretly homosexual too.

After the humiliating end of the Army-McCarthy hearings and the premature death of McCarthy, Cohn went into private practice in New York City.

And that is where Cohn became the lawyer – and a role model of thuggish public behavior — for a young real estate developer named Donald Trump (below left, with Roy Cohn).

Such partisan times as the present seem to call for and inspire didactic art – better called “message art.” The Ear hasn’t seen the opera yet, so he can’t say how well it fits the bill.

But at first glance, the opera sure seems to fit the times we live in and the personalities of many of those who determine such a disturbing political and social climate. As The Nation magazine put it, “Trumpism is the New McCarthyism.”

In short, the opera’s plot seems both pertinent and realistic, one that could take place in today’s Washington, D.C.

The Ear is anxious to find out more and to make up his own mind, including about the music to be sung by the cast and played by the Madison Symphony Orchestra under conductor John DeMain.

He also hopes many of you will see the opera, and then leave your reactions and comments here, be they positive or negative.

The Ear wants to hear.

 


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Classical music: The UW Choral Union, UW Symphony Orchestra and guest soloists took the audience on a memorable musical voyage in Ralph Vaughan Williams “A Sea Symphony”

January 30, 2020
6 Comments

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By Jacob Stockinger

It took a postponement of almost two months before the UW Choral Union (below) finally got to perform last Saturday night in the Mead Witter Foundation Concert Hall in the new Hamel Music Center.

But the wait was worth it.

The combined forces – conducted by the retiring choral director Beverly Taylor – proved convincing and accomplished in the challenging score of “A Sea Symphony” by the early 20th-century British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams.

The performers did justice to the score’s vivid sound painting. You could hear the sea wind whistling through the rigging; you could feel the ship plowing through the swells and waves.

The American poet Walt Whitman (below) – whose epic-like poetry provided the text for this ambitious nautical and musical journey – would have been proud of the performance.

After all, like Whitman’s poetry, Vaughn Williams’ music — his first symphony — can be forceful and spacious at many moments, tender and reflective or even intimate at other times. The music matches the text, and the performers matched both.

The forces were precise under Taylor’s baton, with sharp attacks and no ragged stopping. True, there were a few moments when the balance seemed a bit off, when the UW Symphony Orchestra overpowered the large campus and community chorus, especially in the very brassy and thickly scored first movement. You just wanted to hear the words better and felt frustrated not to.

But for the most part, though, the student orchestra proved impressive. They were tight and crisp, accurate and transparent, allowing listeners to hear the inner part playing and even certain modernist harmonies of the generally conservative Vaughan Williams (below).

Moreover, the symphony, the chorus and the soloists blended especially well and movingly in the symphony’s quieter moments.

Those moments included the second movement, “On the Beach at Night, Alone”; and the quiet, understated ending where the idea of voyage and exploration becomes personal and metaphorical or spiritual as well as literal: “Reckless, O soul, exploring, I with thee, and thou with me … O my brave soul! O farther, farther sail!”

(You can hear a sample in the hymn-like opening of the fourth movement in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

In addition, the outstanding acoustics of the new hall – where the chorus sits above and behind the orchestra – brought the performance to life even more convincingly.

There were two soloists (below): soprano Chelsie Propst and baritone James Harrington.

Harrington possessed a pleasing tone, but he seemed to be holding back for some reason. He could have projected more confidence and been more energetic or assertive in his delivery. After all, neither Whitman nor Vaughan Williams is shy in this large-scale work.

Curiously, it was the woman soloist, Propst, who roared like the sea, whose big voice easily soared over the orchestra and chorus. Her singing was thoroughly beautiful and thoroughly engaging.

Unfortunately, the very successful concert was not sold out, but the audience proved attentive and very enthusiastic.

This debut performance in the new hall made one look forward all the more to another big piece and big performance by the UW Choral Union and UW Symphony Orchestra, one that will wrap up the season and end Taylor’s long tenure at the UW-Madison: the dramatic and operatic Requiem by Verdi on Saturday and Sunday, April 25 and 26.


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