The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Steve Kurr talks about his new work celebrating Middleton that will be premiered Wednesday night by the Middleton Community Orchestra alongside Mozart and Dvorak

October 8, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

This Wednesday night, Oct. 9, the mostly amateur but highly praised Middleton Community Orchestra (below) will open its 10th anniversary season, which is dedicated to retired critic John W. Barker for his help in championing the ensemble.

The concert is at 7:30 p.m. in the comfortable and acoustically excellent Middleton Performing Arts Center (below, in a photo by Brian Ruppert), which is attached to Middleton High School, 2100 Bristol Street.

Admission is $15 for the public, free for students. Tickets are available from the Willy Street Coop West and at the door. The box office opens at 6:30 p.m. Auditorium doors open at 7 p.m. 

The appealing program features J.J. Koh (below), principal clarinet of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, as guest soloist in the beautiful and poignant Clarinet Concerto in A Major, K. 622. (In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear the sublime slow movement, which may sound familiar from when it was used in the soundtrack to the film “Out of Africa.”)

Also on the program is the popular Symphony No. 9 – “From the New World” – by Antonin Dvorak.

But raising the curtain will be the world premiere of a work that was written specifically for this orchestra on this occasion in its own city.

The piece was composed by Steve Kurr, who teaches at Middleton High School and who is the resident conductor of the MCO.

For more information about the MCO’s season along with critical reviews and information about how to join it or support it and how to enter its new youth concerto competition, go to:

http://middletoncommunityorchestra.org

Kurr, below, will conduct the premiere of his own work, which he recently discussed via email with The Ear:

How much do you compose and why do you compose?

When I do compose, which is not often, it is usually with a specific event in mind. I have written several things for the musicians at Middleton High School, including a four-movement string symphony, a piece for a retiring colleague, and several works we have taken on tour.

In this case, the 10th season of the Middleton Community Orchestra provided a great reason to write. I always enjoy the process, but it can be time-consuming, so I don’t do it as often as I might like.

How does composing fit in with your teaching and conducting?

Most of the composing I do comes in the summer because it is when I can devote larger chunks of time. This new work was germinating in some form for several years, but almost all of the notes-on-the-page work came this past June.

How do you compose?

I approach composition in an analytical way, which will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me. I think about structure early on in the process, both at the full work scale and in the smaller sections.

Most of my work comes on the computer in the notation software Finale, and some comes on the piano or on a string instrument.

I run ideas past my wife Nancy for her input and for this piece I also got a huge amount of advice and help from composer and MCO violist Neb Macura (below). (Thanks, Neb! You were invaluable!) Most of the melodic material came to me in the car on the way to school.

How would you describe your musical or tonal style?

I would say that my style is mostly tonal and not all that adventurous in terms of harmony. The fact that I have spent much of my musical career studying the works of the Classical and Romantic periods shows through. And yet you might find some moments that hint at more recent styles.

Can you briefly tell the public about the new piece to be premiered?

“Good Neighbors” is subtitled “Episodes for Orchestra” and the connected episodes describe various aspects of the Middleton community.

Episode 1 depicts the city of Middleton and its bustling energy within a small town feel. Episode 2 is about all of the water around, including the creeks, ponds and Lake Mendota. Episode 3 is the Good Neighbor Festival, appearing at the end of summer for so many years. Episode 4 describes the land around, including the rolling farmland, the driftless area, and the Ice Age Trail.

The final episode brings together tunes from the previous four, combining them to demonstrate that the Good Neighbor City is more than the sum of its parts. The opening theme shows up in several different versions throughout, including most notably the theme from Episode 4.

Is there anything else you would like to say?

At first I considered the endeavor almost self-indulgent as I set a piece of my own in front of the ensemble. Then I started to feel presumptuous. It is a humbling experience to see my name on a program with Mozart and Dvorak, two of my favorite composers.

It has been a terrific experience working with these fine musicians as we realize this new work together. My thanks go to them for their willingness to help me present this gift to the Middleton community.


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Classical music: The experts said his music wouldn’t last. But Rachmaninoff and his fans proved them wrong. Hear for yourself this Wednesday night at this summer’s final Concert on the Square

July 30, 2019
8 Comments

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By Jacob Stockinger

The experts sure got it wrong.

Only 11 years after the death of Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff (below, 1873-1943) – also spelled Rachmaninov — the 1954 edition of the prestigious and authoritative “Grove Dictionary of Music” declared Rachmaninoff’s music to be “monotonous in texture … consist[ing] mainly of artificial and gushing tunes” and predicted that his popular success was “not likely to last.”

That opinion probably came from the same academicians who favored the atonal and serial composers at the time.

But Rachmaninoff’s music is so emotional, so beautiful and so easy for audiences to connect with that it can be a challenge to remember its serious backstory.

For example, much personal turmoil and anguish went into his Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor, Op. 18, which headlines this Wednesday night’s final summer Concert on the Square by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra.

(Other works on the program, to be performed at 7 p.m. on the King Street corner of the Capitol Square, are the Overture to “The Magic Flute” by Mozart, the Firebird” Suite by Igor Stravinsky, the “Cornish Rhapsody” for piano and orchestra by Hubert Bath.)

For more information – including rules, food and etiquette — about the concert, go to: https://wisconsinchamberorchestra.org/performances/concerts-on-the-square-6-4/

The perfectly chosen soloist is the Russia-born and Russia-trained pianist Ilya Yakushev (below), who has appeared several times with Andrew Sewell and the WCO as well as in solo recitals at Farley’s House of Pianos, where he will perform again this coming season as part of the Salon Piano Series.

Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 (1901) may well be the most popular piano concerto ever written, one that has often been used in many novels, movies and popular songs. Some would argue that Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 (1910) has surpassed it in the popularity and frequency of performance.

True or not, the second concerto is a triumph of the human spirit and individual creativity. (You can hear the dramatic and lyrical opening movement, played live by Yuja Wang at the Verbier Festival, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

It was written in 1900-01 after the composer’s first symphony had not succeeded with the critics and when personal problems had overwhelmed him (below, around 1910).

Rachmaninoff fell into a severe depression that lasted four years. During that time he had daily sessions with a psychotherapist whose cure used hypnosis and repeating to the composer that one day soon he would write a piano concerto that prove very good and very popular.

And so it was. The therapist was Dr. Nikolai Dahl (below) — and that is whom the concerto is dedicated to.

Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 is often considered the Mount Everest of piano concertos for the sheer physicality and stamina required to play it.

Yet the composer himself — who premiered, recorded and often performed both concertos — said he thought the second concerto, although shorter, was more demanding musically, if not technically.

For more information about Rachmaninoff and his Piano Concerto No. 2 as well as its place in popular culture, go to these two Wikipedia websites where you will be surprised and impressed:

For the Piano Concerto No. 2: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Piano_Concerto_No._2_(Rachmaninoff)

For general biographical details about Rachmaninoff: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sergei_Rachmaninoff


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Classical music: Personal experience, artistic excellence and historical importance drew pianist Wu Han and cellist David Finckel into planning next year’s centennial season at the Wisconsin Union Theater

March 30, 2019
3 Comments

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By Jacob Stockinger

Now that Spring Break is over and subscription tickets are available for the Wisconsin Union Theater’s special centennial celebration next season – which includes superstar soprano Renée Fleming and pianist Emanuel Ax — here is an email interview that pianist Wu Han and cellist David Finckel (below, in a photo by Lisa-Marie Mazzucco), the wife-and-husband consultants and planners of that season, granted to The Ear.

For more about the season and tickets, go to two websites:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2019/03/04/classical-music-superstar-soprano-renee-fleming-and-pianist-emanuel-ax-headline-the-100th-anniversary-of-the-wisconsin-union-theaters-concert-series-next-season/

https://union.wisc.edu/visit/wisconsin-union-theater/seasonevents/concert-series/

Could you briefly introduce yourselves to readers and tell them both your past and current activities?

We have been performing on the world’s many concert stages for almost our entire lives. In addition to our careers as concert performers, we serve as the founding Artistic Directors of Music@Menlo, the premier chamber music festival in Silicon Valley, as well as the Artistic Directors of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center (CMS) in New York City.

Our main responsibility as concert performers is to give the best concerts we possibly can, and we are constantly striving to achieve the highest possible level of artistry in our performances.

In our roles as artistic directors, our responsibilities lie in the programming, casting and designing of concert series and chamber music projects for our organizations. At CMS, this includes designing the programming for our seven different satellite series around the country, plus international partnerships in Taiwan, Korea and Europe.

We are also involved in chamber music programming endeavors beyond Music@Menlo and CMS, having just completed a first-ever chamber music residency at the Society of the Four Arts in Palm Beach, Florida. Furthermore, Wu Han is serving as Artistic Advisor to Wolf Trap Chamber Music at the Barns, which entails thematically programming eight concerts per season for the 2018–19 and 2019–20 seasons.

As artistic directors, we spend much of our time putting ourselves in the shoes of our listeners, measuring their experience and receptivity to chamber music of all periods and styles, and putting together the best programs and artists who will move our audiences forward into ever-increasing engagement with and love of the art.

David was the cellist of the Emerson String Quartet for 34 seasons, and we have been performing together as a duo for about 35 years, and continue to do so as one of our main performance activities.

What are your personal relationships to the Wisconsin Union Theater, and what do you think of it as a concert venue?

Our engagement with the Wisconsin Union Theater goes back quite a few years, but certainly not even close to the beginning of the Theater’s distinguished history. For any performer setting foot on its stage, there’s a sense of slipping into an ongoing tradition of artistic excellence that makes us feel both privileged and obligated to do our best.

The Wisconsin Union Theater and its story in American cultural life is larger than any of us; only the music we play rises above and beyond it all, and as performers, our lucky moment is to represent that incredible literature in a venue as significant and storied as the Wisconsin Union Theater. (Below is the theater’s main venue, the renovated and restored Shannon Hall.)

Why did you agree to be artistic advisors and artists-in-residence for the centennial season? Did your personal experiences in Madison play a role in that decision?

As seasoned artists, we deeply admire and respect the very special place in the classical music tradition and history that the Wisconsin Union Theater (below) inhabits, and the invitation to participate in the Theater’s 100th anniversary was an honor for us to receive. Our experiences playing on this distinguished stage and forming a relationship with the local audience have made our pursuit of the common goal of artistic excellence in the centennial season incredibly fulfilling.

Of course, having performed there in the past gave us a hint of confidence through our familiarity with the place, but we must say we have learned perhaps double what we knew originally through this planning process. Without interfering, but at the same time sharing our uncompromised commitment to artistic excellence, we hope that our presence during the process has been useful, and we know that we look so much forward to seeing the careful thought and hard work of all involved come to fruition.

Is there a unifying or guiding principle to the season you have put together?

The guiding principle behind our work on this historic season is artistic excellence, which in our opinion is what most inspires audiences and best serves the art form of classical music.

Our area of expertise is chamber music, and, as we wanted to share the best of what we can do with the Theater, our focus has been on ensuring that the chamber music offerings during this historic season, and hopefully beyond, reflect the best of the world of chamber music.

In our suggestions, we looked for variety of instrumentations, of composers and periods—in other words, giving as much of an overview of the art as we could within a season.

What would you like the public to know about the Wisconsin Union Theater and the upcoming centennial season?

In the Theater’s centennial season, the audience will have the opportunity to savor a variety of different genres of chamber music, from solo piano to vocal music, as well as a sampling of the very best works of the chamber music canon. Between these various genres, the great composers left a wealth of chamber music that could sustain the art form on its own, but that’s still only the tip of the iceberg.

Our chamber music offerings will include the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio, which has a long history of performing for the Madison audience. Their December program will include celebrated cornerstones of the piano trio repertoire, including Mendelssohn’s D minor Trio and Beethoven’s “Archduke” Trio. (You can hear the opening of the Archduke Trio in the YouTube video at the bottom.) Both pieces have achieved monumental historical significance through their influence in propelling the art form forward from the Classical period to the Romantic period.

The Escher String Quartet performance in January represents the best of the next generation of young string quartets. Their program includes a quartet by Franz Joseph Haydn—the father of the string quartet genre—and the sole quartet of none other than revered violin virtuoso Fritz Kreisler, who performed in the Wisconsin Union Theater nearly a century ago. Kreisler set foot on the Theater’s stage numerous times, and his rarely heard string quartet nods to the Theater’s long, distinguished history. David will join the Escher Quartet for the beloved Schubert Cello Quintet, which is the “desert island” must-have piece for many music lovers.

Furthermore, in March, we will bring two of the most fantastic musicians in the world to join us for a program of Antonin Dvorak, Josef Suk and Johannes Brahms. This multigenerational cast of musicians includes the incredible young French violinist Arnaud Sussmann (below top, in a photo by Matt Dine) as well as the most important violist of our generation, Paul Neubauer (below bottom). This program is all about the passing down of the baton and the continuous investment in the next generations of artists: Brahms was the one who discovered Dvorak, and Dvorak in turn discovered Suk.


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Classical music: With much of Wisconsin underwater from historic flooding, Britten’s opera “Noah’s Flood” seems timely. Can you think of other works inspired by floods and natural disasters?

August 30, 2018
16 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Right now much of Wisconsin lies underwater.

This past week has seen record-setting rain and historic flooding along with high winds and tornadoes that have left many towns and counties declared official disasters.

Then yesterday, Gov. Scott Walker declared a state of emergency for the entire state. More rain and thunderstorms are predicted for all weekend and next week.

The flooding is not on the order of the deadly and destructive wildfires out west. But the situation seems nonetheless the kind of emergency or natural disaster that usually draws some kind of attention of the national media — on a smaller scale something like Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Maria that devastated  respectively, New Orleans, Houston and Puerto Rico.  

But this time The Ear can’t recall seeing or hearing even mentions or 10-second spot reports about the flooding of a state capital on national news programs. Can you?

New programs always seem to focus more on weather stories when they occur on the coasts and in the south. And right now the media also appear preoccupied with offering ever more words about the deaths of Senator John McCain and singer Aretha Franklin, the “Queen of Soul.”

But the situation got The Ear to thinking and searching.

Are there works of classical music inspired by flooding and other natural disasters?

And he doesn’t mean just music inspired by and celebrating calmer and less destructive water such as George Frideric Handel’s “Water Music” or Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony or Georg Philipp Telemann’s “Ebb and Flow” Music.

One important discovery that met the criterion was the children’s opera, “Noah’s Flood,” composed by British composer Benjamin Britten (below) in the wake of his own personal and home experience with floods – as you can see in the YouTube video below.

Can you think of other works composed in response to a natural disaster?

If so, in the comment section please leave the names of the work and composer and, if possible, a link to a YouTube performance.

The Ear wants to hear.


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