The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Your warhorses are my masterpieces — and I want to hear them

June 3, 2017
6 Comments

ALERT: This Sunday afternoon from 12:30 to 2 p.m., “Sunday Afternoon Live From the Chazen” will feature Madison keyboard artist Trevor Stephenson performing on a restored 1855 Boesendorfer grand piano. The program includes music by Chopin, Granados, Brahms, Wagner, Bartok, Debussy, Schoenberg and Satie.

You can attend it live for FREE in Brittingham Gallery No. 3 of the UW-Madison’s art museum. But you can also stream it live using the link on this web page:

https://www.chazen.wisc.edu/index.php?/events-calendar-demo/event/sunday-afternoon-live-at-the-chazen-6-4-17/

By Jacob Stockinger

It’s that time of the year again when music groups announce their new seasons.

And it seems to The Ear that the word “warhorse” is again being tossed around a lot, especially by experienced listeners who use the term pejoratively or disapprovingly, in a snobby or condescending way, to describe great music that is performed frequently.

But more than a little irony or inaccuracy is involved.

For example, a some people have referred to the Symphony No. 1 by Johannes Brahms – scheduled next season by both the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below) and the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra — as a warhorse.

Yet The Ear has heard that symphony performed live only once – perhaps because programmers wanted to avoid the warhorse label.

The same goes for the iconic Fifth Symphony of Ludwig van Beethoven, which will be performed next year by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below). It was a revolutionary work that changed the course of music history, and it is a great piece of engaging music. (You can hear the opening movement, with an arresting graphic representation, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Here’s the irony: I have heard the Piano Quintet by Brahms, the Cello Quintet by Franz Schubert and the String Octet by Felix Mendelssohn – all great masterpieces — far more often than I have heard those “warhorse” symphonies by Brahms and Beethoven. Can it be that connoisseurs usually seem more reluctant to describe chamber music masterpieces as warhorses? (Below in the Pro Arte Quartet in a photo by Rick Langer.)

The Ear is reminded of a comment made by the great Russian-American musicologist Nicolas Slonimsky (below): “Bizet’s opera “Carmen” is not great because it is popular; it is popular because it is great.”

So yes, I don’t care what more sophisticated or experienced listeners say. I still find the Piano Concerto No. 1 by Peter Tchaikovsky to be a beautiful and thrilling work that rewards me each time I hear it. It never fails.

Add to the list the popular symphonies of Beethoven and Brahms, the “New World” Symphony by Antonin Dvorak, several piano concertos by Sergei Rachmaninoff (below), the Brandenburg Concertos by Johann Sebastian Bach, the “Jupiter” Symphony and Symphony No. 40 in G minor by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. And one could go on and on.

They are all great masterpieces more than they are warhorses.

Plus, just because a piece of music is new or neglected doesn’t mean that it is good or that it merits a performance.

Otherwise, you could easily spend the rest of a life listening to second-rate and third-rate works out of curiosity and never feel the powerful emotional connection and deep intellectual insight that you get with a genuine masterpiece that rewards repeated hearings.

Of course, some warhorses do leave The Ear less than enthusiastic The “1812 Overture” comes immediately to mind. Boy, do the crowds like that potboiler — on the Fourth of July, of course, when it has a traditional place.

But often enough your warhorse is my masterpiece, and I want to hear it without being thought of as a philistine.

It might even be that playing more warhorses — not fewer — will attract some new audience members at a time when music groups face challenges in attendance and finances?

It may not be cool to say that, but it might be true, even allowing room for new and neglected works that deserve to be programmed for their merit — not their newness or their neglect.

So-called “warhorses” have usually survived a long time and received many performances because they are great music by great composers that speak meaningfully to a lot of listeners. They deserve praise, not insults or denigration, as well as a secure and unapologetic place in balanced programming.

Of course, it is a matter of personal taste.

So …

What do you think?

Are there favorite warhorses you like?

Are there warhorses you detest?

Leave word in the COMMENT section.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: The Middleton Community Orchestra closes it seventh season on next Wednesday night with violinist Paran Amirinazari and an all-Russian program featuring music by Borodin, Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev

June 1, 2017
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

The largely amateur but highly competent and very accessible Middleton Community Orchestra (below top) will present the final concert of its seventh season.

The performance by the critically acclaimed ensemble , under the baton of Steven Kurr, is on next Wednesday night, June 7, at 7:30 p.m. at the Middleton Performing Arts Center (below top and bottom) that is attached to Middleton High School, 2100 Bristol Street.

MCO concertmaster and violinist Paran Amirinazari (below), who studied at the UW-Madison and who also plays with the Willy Street Chamber Players and the Madison Symphony Orchestra, will be the soloist in the Violin Concerto No. 2 in G minor by Sergei Prokofiev. (You can hear the exquisite second movement, played by Maxim Vengerov, from one of The Ear’s favorite violin concertos in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Also on the all-Russian program is the Overture to the opera “Prince Igor” by Alexander Borodin (below top) and the Symphony No. 5 by Peter Tchaikovsky (below bottom).

General admission is $15.  All students are admitted free of charge. Tickets are available at Willy St. Coop West and at the door on the night of the show.

The box office opens at 6:30 p.m. and doors open at 7 p.m.

There will be a meet-and-greet reception after the concert.

Here is an older post, which The Ear stands by, about why attending MCO concerts is so rewarding:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2012/06/04/classical-music-review-let-us-now-praise-amateur-music-makers-and-restoring-sociability-to-art-here-are-9-reasons-why-i-liked-and-you-should-attend-the-middleton-community-orchestra/

For more information about the Middleton Community Orchestra, including how to join it and how to support it, go to:

http://middletoncommunityorchestra.org


Classical music: The Madison Symphony Orchestra announces its 2017-2018 season of nine concerts of “favorites combined with firsts”

April 13, 2017
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

Here is the official announcement of the 2017-18 season by the Madison Symphony Orchestra:

The 2017-18 season of the Madison Symphony Orchestra (MSO, below, in a photo by Greg Anderson) presents nine programs that invite audiences to “listen with all your heart” and “feel the emotion, power and majesty” of great classical music.

Subscriptions are available now, and single tickets for all concerts go on sale to the public Saturday, Aug. 12, 2017.

For more information about tickets and ticket prices plus discounts for new subscribers and renewing subscribers, go to:

http://www.madisonsymphony.org/17-18

MSO music director John DeMain, who will be marking his 24th season with the MSO, has created an exciting season that features favorites combined with firsts.

Says DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad): “I must point out two monumental firsts: the MSO debut of the great violinist Gil Shaham, renowned and sought after the world over, whose appearance Madison has waited for for many years; and the Madison premiere of the Glagolitic Mass by Czech composer Leos Janacek, a gargantuan work for chorus and orchestra with a prominent role for our “Colossal Klais,” the Overture Concert Organ.”

Performances are in Overture Hall of the Overture Center at 7:30 p.m. on Fridays; 8 p.m. on Saturdays; and 2:30 p.m. on Sundays.

The 2017-2018 subscription series concerts begin on Sept. 15, 16 and 17 with “Orchestral Brilliance”—proudly presenting the Madison Symphony Orchestra performing the Johann Sebastian Bach/Leopold Stokowski version of the organ Toccata and Fugue in D minor; Felix Mendelssohn’s Reformation Symphony and Hector Berlioz’s “Harold in Italy” with MSO principal viola Christopher Dozoryst (below, in a photo by Katrin Talbot) as soloist(You can hear Leopold Stokowski conduct his own transcription of the work by Bach, which was used in Walt Disney’s film “Fantasia,” in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

“From the New World” on Oct. 20, 21 and 22 features the return of beloved pianist Olga Kern (below), a gold medalist in the Van Cliburn competition, performing Samuel Barber’s Piano Concerto, and the MSO performing Antonin Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 “From the New World” and Maurice Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite.

On Nov. 17, 18, and 19 “Troubadour: Two Faces of the Classical Guitar” features sensational guitar virtuoso Sharon Isbin (below) playing two works, one by American composer Chris Brubeck, and the other by the Spaniard Joaquin Rodrigo, with the MSO performing two Suites—Manuel DeFalla’s The Three-Cornered Hat and Aaron Copland’s Billy the Kid.

The cherished kickoff to the holiday season, “A Madison Symphony Christmas,” returns on the first weekend in December — the 1, 2, and 3. Guest artists Emily Pogorelc, soprano, and Eric Barry, tenor, join John DeMain, the MSO, the Madison Symphony Chorus (below), Madison Youth Choirs and Mount Zion Gospel Choir on stage for the family-friendly celebration.

The MSO season subscription continues in 2018 with the long awaited appearance of violinist Gil Shaham (below) with the MSO—“Gil Shaham Plays Tchaikovsky” on Jan. 19, 20 and 21. This program features works by three of the most popular Russian composers of all time— Sergei Prokofiev’s The Love for Three Oranges Suite, Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 3 and Peter Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto.

“Richly Romantic” concerts take place on Feb. 16, 17 and 18 when one of MSO’s favorite cellists, Alban Gerhardt (below), returns performing the lyrical William Walton’s Cello Concerto, and the MSO presents Johannes Brahms’ Symphony No. 1 and Gioachino Rossini’s Overture to Semiramide.

Spring arrives April 13, 14, and 15 with “String Fever” featuring Robert Schumann’s Symphony No. 1, Spring, Benjamin Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem and Grammy Award-winning violinist Augustin Hadelich (below) performing the Antonin Dvorak’s Violin Concerto.

The season finale, “Mass Appeal,” takes place on May 4, 5 and 6. Star of NPR’s From the Top, pianist Christopher O’Riley (below), will open the program with Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 22. The MSO premiere of the monumental Glagolitic Mass by Czech composer Leos Janacek features the Overture Concert Organ and the Madison Symphony Chorus, along with soloists Rebecca Wilson, soprano, Julie Miller, mezzo-Soprano, Roger Honeywell, tenor, and Benjamin Sieverding, bass.

The MSO’s 17-18 season includes the popular multimedia production of Beyond the Score®, “Edward Elgar: Enigma Variations,” featuring live actors and visuals in the first half, with the entire work performed in the second half. Joining the orchestra are American Players Theatre actors James Ridge (below), Colleen Madden and Brian Mani, along with Wisconsin Public Radio’s Norman Gilliland of Wisconsin Public Radio as the Narrator. This single performance takes place on Sunday, March 18, 2018*.

NOTE: *Advance tickets for Beyond the Score® are available only to MSO 17-18 season subscribers prior to single tickets going on sale to the general public on Saturday, Aug. 12, 2017. Beyond the Score® is a production of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Gerard McBurney, Creative Director for Beyond the Beyond the Score®

ABOUT THE MADISON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA

The Madison Symphony Orchestra celebrates its 92nd season in 2017-2018 and its 24th season under the leadership of music director John DeMain.

The MSO has grown to be one of America’s leading regional orchestras, providing Madison and south central Wisconsin with cultural and educational opportunities to interact with great masterworks and top-tier guest artists from around the world.

Find more information at madisonsymphony.org


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Classical music: Concerts on the Square start this Wednesday and feature a lot of classical music. Plus, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra announces its impressive 2016-17 indoors Masterworks season

June 27, 2016
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

This coming Wednesday night at 7 p.m., on the downtown Capitol Square, marks the opening of what has been billed as “The Biggest Picnic of Summer” — the six annual outdoor summer Concerts on the Square (below) by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and guest soloists.

ConcertsonSquaregroupshot

They are big because each concert, under the baton of WCO artistic director Andrew Sewell, last year averaged a weekly crowd of more than 42,000 people, up from 35,000 the previous year, according to the Capitol Police. (The highest was 50,000; the lowest 28,000.)

Concerts on the Square crowd

You should also know that this year the Concerts on The Square will include a generous — maybe, The Ear suspects, even an unprecedented — amount of classical music on June 29, July 6, July 17, July 27 and Aug. 3.

On the programs you will find music by Felix Mendelssohn, Joaquin Turina, Aaron Copland and Ottorino Resphighi (this Wednesday); by Leo Delibes, Peter Tchaikovsky (including the annual and traditional Fourth of July or Independence Day performance of his “1812 Overture”) and Jules Massenet (with famed local Metropolitan Opera singer, mezzo-soprano Kitt Reuter-Foss on July 6); by Paul Dukas, Jean Sibelius, Niels Gade and Antonin Dvorak (on July 13); Ludwig van Beethoven (July 27);  Arthur Honegger and Peter Tchaikovsky (Aug. 3).

Here is a link  with more information including links to tickets, rules about behavior and seating, and food options:

http://www.wcoconcerts.org/performance-listing/category/concerts-on-the-square

Even as it prepares for this summer’s six Concerts on the Square, which start Wednesday night, June 26, and run through August 3, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra has announced its 2016-27 indoor Masterworks season of five classical concerts. It is an impressive lineup that features a local violist who has made it big, Vicki Powell, and the very young violin sensation Julian Rhee, who won the Madison Symphony Orchestra’s Final Forte with a jaw-dropping reading of the Violin Concerto by Johannes Brahms, as well as a guitarist and duo-pianists.

Here is a link to more information:

http://www.wcoconcerts.org/performance-listing/category/masterworks

 


Classical music: Local composer and UW-Madison alumnus Pat Doty talks about his Tuba Concerto, which he will premiere with the Middleton Community Orchestra on Wednesday night.

May 27, 2016
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

The mostly amateur Middleton Community Orchestra (MCO, below), which has gotten better and better and rarely disappoints even in ambitious and difficult music, will wind up its fifth anniversary season this coming Wednesday night with a brass extravaganza.

Middleton Community Orchestra press photo1

The performance is at 7:30 p.m. in the modern, comfortable and spacious Middleton Performing Arts Center (below) that is attached to Middleton High School.

Middleton PAC2

Middleton PAC1

Tickets are $10; students get in for FREE.

Advance tickets are available at Willy Street Coop West. The Box office opens at 6:30 p.m. and the doors open at 7 p.m.

The program includes The “Capriccio Italienne” by Peter Tchaikovsky; the Carnival Overture by Antonin Dvorak; the Horn Concerto by Reinhold Glière with soloist Paul Litterio (below); and the world premiere of the Tuba Concerto by University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music graduate Pat Doty, who will also be the soloist.

Paul Literrio with horn

Steve Kurr (below) will conduct.

Steve Kurr conducting

Here is a link with more information about the MCO and how to join it and support it:

http://www.middletoncommunityorchestra.org/home

Composer and tuba performer Pat Doty (below, in a photo by Steven Thompson) answered an email Q&A for The Ear:

Pat Doty Head Shot CR Steven Thompson

Can you tell us briefly about your background, including your education and performance history?

I grew up in Mount Horeb, Wisconsin. I hold a master’s degree in tuba performance from the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where I was a member of the University of Wisconsin Marching Band for four years, including three trips to the Rose Bowl.

While at the UW-Madison, I performed with the Wind Ensemble (including a performance at Carnegie Hall in New York City), Concert Band, Tuba and Euphonium Ensemble, the Middleton Community Orchestra, Low Brass Ensemble, 4BA Tuba Quartet, Madrigal Singers and the Lumberjack Brass Quintet.

My solo tuba performance credits range from solo recitals to guest appearances at schools across southern Wisconsin.

When and how did you start composing? What works have you written in the past?

I first started writing music when I was in high school and I was very interested in singer/songwriters like Elton John and Billy Joel. During my time at Mount Horeb High School, I wrote more than 500 songs, most of which never made it past the grand piano in the living room.

When I started graduate school, the tuba studio at UW-Madison was treated to a guest performance by Øystein Baadsvik, who really inspired me to start writing for tuba. I was also heavily influenced by my undergraduate professor, John Stevens (below).

john stevens with tuba 1

My catalogue now includes dozens of works for solo tuba, chamber ensembles and large ensembles. It probably comes as no surprise that I compose rather frequently for tuba quartet and brass quintet.

Additionally, I write a great deal of music for my wife Brigid, who holds a degree in vocal performance from UW-Madison, to sing with me accompanying her on the piano.(You can hear them in a YouTube video at the bottom in a song by Pat Doty.)

Pat In The Studio

How would you describe your compositional style — tonal or atonal, accessible, melodic and so forth?

My music is tonal, accessible, melodic and so forth. I jest, but I really do strive to write music that is very fun, beautiful and accessible to a wide-ranging audience.

My major influences are not famous classical composers, but rather those musicians who I listened to when I was growing up.

For example, I draw a lot from pop music and classic rock. I know that might seem like an odd connection — pop music and the tuba — but I have always fallen back on my vocal training to instruct my tuba playing, and I see no reason why the same connection shouldn’t exist in my compositions.

To put it simply, I approach writing for solo tuba (with any sort of accompaniment) in quite the same way that I approach writing a song at the piano. I always have a poem, an idea, something in mind that inspires me. For example, my tuba duet “Mendota” is based on a poem that I wrote for a pop song, but it works beautifully for an instrumental piece.

Pat Doty Playing Tuba with pianist Steven Thompson

What would you like the public to know about your new Tuba Concerto, which you will perform and premiere with the Middleton Community Orchestra?

First and foremost, my Tuba Concerto doesn’t take itself too seriously. That is a recurring theme in my music. I am very excited for the premiere with the Middleton Community Orchestra, which is sounding great by the way, and I really hope that people have as much fun and find as much joy in listening as I do playing this music.

A couple of interesting quirks to note are that there is a large, essential euphonium part in this piece, and that there is a marimba solo in the third movement. These are both things that, I think it is safe to say, are not particularly common in orchestral music.

I used a euphonium (below) and no tuba in the orchestra because I want this to be a piece that an orchestra could use to feature their own tubist if they so choose. Also, I am friends with quite a few euphonium players.

Euphonium

What else would you like to say?

First, I would like to say thank you to the Middleton Community Orchestra for premiering my Tuba Concerto. I am very much looking forward to the performance for many reasons, not the least of which is that this will be my first chance to present my compositions to a broad classical music audience.

I would also like to mention my new record label, Merp Entertainment, which I co-founded with my wife Brigid last year. Our debut CD “Dare to Entertain” has found national success, particularly on the internet streaming service Spotify, where it has amassed more than 3 million song streams to date.

For more information about this, please visit www.merpentertainment.com. For more information about me, please visit www.patdoty.com.


Classical music: Playing softly is the mark of great music-making

April 5, 2016
3 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Like so many young pianists, when The Ear was young he wanted to project strength. He wanted to play BIG virtuosic pieces and play them FAST and LOUD — even though they were usually way beyond his ability.

Pieces such as the “Appassionata” Sonata and “Emperor” Concerto by Ludwig van Beethoven.

The Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18, and Prelude in C-sharp minor (“Bells of Moscow”) by Sergei Rachmaninoff.

The Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor by Peter Tchaikovsky.

The “Great Gate at Kiev,” from “Pictures at an Exhibition,” by Modest Mussorgsky.

The ”Military” Polonaise and the “Revolutionary” Etude by Frederic Chopin.

You know, the kind of piece that can easily descend into pounding and banging, but that makes an impression on listeners and people who don’t play — and on the player too!

Back then, doing that kind of muscular music-making seemed the task of a real virtuoso.

But no longer.

Maturity brings an appreciation of subtlety and softness, which are much better hallmarks of musicality. Softness is definitely NOT weakness. In fact for The Ear, softness has become a kind of test of mature musicianship.

The past year or so has been a wonderful opportunity to demonstrate that the mark of a really great and mature virtuoso artist is the ability to play softly.

The most recent example came this past Sunday afternoon when The Ear heard pianist Garrick Ohlsson (below) play the Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor, Op. 15, by Johannes Brahms with the Madison Symphony Orchestra under the baton of MSO’s longtime music director and conductor John DeMain.

Garrick Ohlsson

To be sure, the MSO performed absolutely superbly on its own in the 2011 Symphony by Steven Stucky and the tone poem “Don Juan” by Richard Strauss.

But the second half of the concert, devoted to the concerto, was both ear-opening and heart-rending.

The first concerto is a product of Brahms’ youth and is dramatic. Ohlsson, who possess both power and great technique, has no problem getting a huge sound out of the piano when he wants to or playing the most virtuosic passages with absolute fluidness and complete command.

But here is what really mattered: Ohlsson took away the bombast and bluster you so often hear in this early work. You felt as if you were hearing the concerto for the first time or at least hearing it anew.

What emerged was a uniquely convincing and beautifully poetic reading of this famous work – and not just in the slow movement but also in various interludes during the first and third movements. Plus, Ohlsson was joined by DeMain and the MSO whose accompaniment bought into his interpretation and also emphasized subtlety. It was complemented perfectly by the quietly songful encore, which was the lyrical Nocturne in D-flat major by Chopin.

There have been other occasions like that over the past year or so.

Here are just a few.

The duo-pianists Alessio Bax and Lucille Chung (below) at Farley’s House of Pianos played an all-Schubert recital and proved how seductive quiet and restrained playing can be.

Lucille Chung and Alessio Bax 2015

UW-Madison pianist Christopher Taylor (below, in a photo by Michael R. Anderson) can compete with the best when it comes to forceful playing. But what lingers in The Ear’s mind is hearing Taylor’s seductive playing of the slow movement from the Piano Sonata No. 3 in F minor, Op. 5, by Johannes Brahms as a great example in how playing softly draws in listeners but requires great virtuosity and control.

Christopher Taylor Recital

Christopher Taylor Recital

Pianist Emanuel Ax (below), who played the Piano Concerto No. 4 by Beethoven with the Madison Symphony Orchestra, also demonstrated an uncanny ability to play softly with deep tone.

Emanuel Ax portrait 2016

There were other examples in various kinds of music. The Ear recalls beautifully soft singing in some songs by Franz Schubert during the Schubertiade (below) at the UW-Madison in late January.

Schubertiade 2016 Shepherd on the Rock

He also remembers some fantastic quiet playing of Johann Sebastian Bach and Brahms in the debut recital by UW violinist Soh-Hyun Park Altino (below, in a photo by Caroline Bittencourt).

Soh-Hyun Park Altino CR caroline bittencourt

There are many other examples from other individuals and groups, including the violinist Benjamin Beilman with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra; the UW Choral Union in the Gloria by Francis Poulenc; the Madison Opera’s productions of Puccini’s “La Boheme” and Mark Adamo’s “Little Women”; pianist Joyce Yang at the Wisconsin Union Theater; and the Pro Arte Quartet among others.

But you get the point.

It isn’t easy to play softly. In fact, it can be downright hard.

But it makes music so beautiful.

So moving.

So unforgettable.

As listener or player, try it and see for yourself.


Classical music: The Middleton Community Orchestra closes its fifth season with a lively concert that featured fiery Marquez, subtle Brahms, lyrical Bruch and thrilling Tchaikovsky.

June 5, 2015
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, a review written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker. Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who for 12 years hosted an early music show every other Sunday morning on WORT FM 89.9 FM. He serves on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.

John-Barker

By John W. Barker

Spring is officially over now, for the Middleton Community Orchestra (below, in a photo by Margaret Barker) has given the fourth and last concert of its fifth season — as usual, on a Wednesday night and before a sizable crowd at the Middleton Performing Arts Center.

Middleton Community Orchestra Margaret Barker

The opening work was a rarity from the little-known Mexican composer Arturo Marquez (b.1950, below), called Danzon 2. It is a piece that starts with promise of melodic expression, but soon slips into a piling up of the usual hard-driven Latin dance rhythms, for a large orchestra, playing very loudly. A kind of musical refried beans.

arturo marquez 3 USE

More substantial was the early orchestral masterpiece, the “Variations on a Theme by Haydn” by Johannes Brahms (below).

This is a very thickly scored piece, placing particular emphasis on the winds. I found myself, as I listened, appreciating more than ever how cunningly Brahms designed the seams and sutures among the instruments, taxing the skills of the players for subtlety. Fortunately, the Middleton musicians faced the challenges bravely and brought off a very sturdy and convincing performance.

brahms3

After the intermission, it was concerto time.

First, as MCO maestro Steve Kurr (below top) has regularly done, the young concertmaster was given a chance to tackle a solo assignment. Valerie Sanders (below bottom), a new graduate from the UW-Madison School of Music, took on the Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor by Max Bruch, though only its slow movement. She played this lovely music quite sweetly, and one was tempted to wonder how she would have fared in taking on the two bolder wing movements, in the full concerto.

Steve Kurr conducting

MCO Valerie Sanders plays Bruch

The Big Event was, of course, local pianist Thomas Kasdorf playing the Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky. This is a very warhorse of the warhorses, a work that some will be surprised to learn that predates Van Cliburn, whose recording of it was the first classical album to sell one million copies. (Vladimir Horowitz was once the exponent automatically brought to mind.)

It is a colossally demanding piece, technically, and a summit of virtuosic display — as you can see and hear in the popular YouTube video at the bottom.

Kasdorf (below), a locally born, raised and educated pianist and a well-established young Madison fixture of enormous talent and virtuosity, made this his latest entry into the warhorse corral.

MCO Thomas Kasdorf plays Tchaikovsky

Yes, he had the chops to bring it off, in an undeniably exciting performance. But I had the sense that his heart was really in the quieter passages, where he had some ideas of his own.

In the prevailingly bravura writing, by contrast, he was battling for survival. He certainly won the battle, on technical points alone. But this is not a work he has fully made his own—he played from score, rather than memory. It is an interpretation in progress, rather than one securely controlled.

And I hope this is not a career effort in progress. He is too fine a musician to be just a barn-storming, roof-raising virtuoso. He should pursue rather the great variety of roles he as developed, in which he has so much more that is personal and nuanced to offer.

The orchestra, with fewer perils to face than in the Brahms, sounded confident and full-voiced.

All in all, it was a lively and stimulating concert, as we have come to expect from Steve Kurr and his remarkable Middletonians.

 


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