The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: “I like tunes,” says Academy Award-winning composer Thomas Cabaniss, who talks about his “Double Rainbow” piano concerto. The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and guest soloists will give the world premiere of the work this Friday night.

April 24, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

Even for the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below), which likes to mix things and up during its winter season, the concert this Friday night is something special to close out the current season.

The WCO will give the world premiere of the “Double Rainbow” Piano Concerto by Thomas Cabaniss, which was commissioned for the WCO.

The performance will also feature husband-and-wife duo-pianists Michael Shinn and Jessica Chow Shinn.

The concert is Friday night at 7:30 p.m. in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center.

Also on the program is Maurice Ravel’s Neo-classical homage to World War I, “Le Tombeau de Couperin,” and the Symphony No. 2 by Robert Schumann.

Tickets are $10 to $80.

For more information about the program, the soloists and tickets, go to:

https://wisconsinchamberorchestra.org/performances/masterworks-v-2/

Composer Thomas Cabaniss recently did an email Q&A for The Ear:

Can you briefly introduce yourself and your career to the reader?

I’m Thomas Cabaniss (below). I am a composer and teaching artist from Charleston, South Carolina. I have lived in New York for the last 30 years, and so I greedily claim both places as home. I teach at the Juilliard School — where I met Michael and Jessica Shinn — and I also lead arts education projects at Carnegie Hall.

After graduating from Yale in 1984, I was an assistant conductor on a variety of projects including Leonard Bernstein’s opera A Quiet Place at La Scala and the Kennedy Center. Setting out to forge a career as a composer, I moved to New yolk City, which had the added benefit of being the same city where my girlfriend was attending medical school. A few years later we married and settled in Manhattan.

To start, I worked primarily as a theater composer, but I was also writing piano and chamber music on the side, and doing arts education work in between shows. In 1990 I scored and arranged a short film called The Lunch Date, which won the Palme D’Or and the Academy Award. In 1995 I joined the New York Philharmonic education programs, eventually becoming the orchestra’s Education Director.

I kept composing, and wrote a chamber opera called The Sandman, which was premiered in New York in 2002 and revived again the following season. In 2004 I was appointed to special education position with the Philadelphia Orchestra, and at the same time I wrote a series of evening length dance scores that were premiered in New York.

In 2009, I began working as composer-in-residence for the LinkUp program at Carnegie Hall, which has grown in that time to serve over 95 orchestras around the world and across the U.S. – including the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

I also helped to create the Lullaby Project at Carnegie Hall, which serves young parents in shelters, hospitals and prisons, and we are working hard to extend that work across the country through a series of partnerships.

How would you describe your musical style in general and the style of the new two-piano concerto specifically? Accessible? Tonal or atonal? Modernist or Neo-Classical? Melodic or percussive? Are there composers or works that have influenced your style?

I like tunes. I like to write songs, and I like to sing, so my music tends to value melody. My works are generally tonal, often spiked with cluster chords and other atonal devices, but I am always interested in the musical gravity of tonal centers. (You can hear a sample of Thomas Cabaniss’ music in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

This piece is inspired by its soloists, Michael and Jessica Shinn (below), and by the image of a Double Rainbow (also the work’s title). I have written Michael and Jessica pieces for piano-four hands, and there is one piece they have championed called Tiny Bits of Outrageous Love. Something about the chemistry of their relationship as musicians (and as husband and wife) has inspired me to create music that is particularly exciting and intimate.

And yes, I suppose most composers embed hints of the music they love in the music they write, and I am no different. Tiny Bits was a kind of homage to the Brahms Waltzes for piano-four hands, and Double Rainbow nods to Leonard Bernstein, Olivier Messiaen, Leos Janacek and John Adams. I’m sure listeners will hear other influences, too.

What would you like listeners to know about and listen for in the piano concerto? What were the special challenges of writing for duo-pianists?

This is from the program note I wrote for the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra:

DOUBLE RAINBOW is based on an experience I had with my family on the Isle of Palms, South Carolina, about 20 years ago. On this particular August day, there was a huge rain in the early afternoon, many dark clouds, thunder (but no lightning). After the storm, from the porch of our beach rental house, we saw not one, but two rainbows (below). My sister-in-law is an avid photographer, and so she coaxed us all down onto the beach so she could get a pristine angle. That alone might have been enough inspiration for a piece of music, but when we got to the water’s edge, as Julia was snapping her photos, a dolphin jumped out of the water in a vertical launch, the tail clearing the water’s surface. It was one of those moments that seemed so unbelievable that none of us said a word. 

I have always been fascinated by the search for the elusive “perfect moment,” and DOUBLE RAINBOW is a sort of study of that kind of exploration. It is all bound up in the idea of “doubleness,” represented by the two pianos. It is divided into three movements: “Surfaces” (exploring the accumulation of drops of water from tiny, atomized particles), “Disturbances” (exploring imbalances and the storms that result from them), and “Revelation” (of the Double Rainbow). Not surprising in a double concerto, there is a great deal of dialogue between the pianos, and the orchestra has more of an accompanying role in the first two movements. The final movement is different, though. Everybody is in, and the music pulses with magic. The movement seems to be headed for a big climax, but at the last moment, it suddenly slows down and there are stars.

The main challenge for me in writing a double piano concerto is all those fingers! Twenty of them, and they are capable of so much. The music I write does not usually focus on virtuosity, and yet I also wanted it to be a vehicle for them to be expressive and dynamic. I worked hard to achieve a balance between the lyricism and the fireworks – we’ll see how audiences experience it.

What else would you like to say?

I am especially excited to be able to visit Madison for the premiere. I’ll get to meet members of the family of Jessica Chow Shinn (below, she is a Madison native), and I have a former student in the orchestra (Midori Samson, Second Bassoon). My Carnegie Lullaby Project collaborators include another Madison native (Ann Gregg) and Elizabeth Snodgrass, who is originally from Appleton (I think) but recently moved to Madison. I will get to meet WCO music director Andrew Sewell (below) in person. We have been doing some Skype rehearsals and phone consultations. It will be great to watch Andrew in action.

While we are here, my wife Deborah will be giving Grand Rounds at the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin, and my son Will leads an a cappella group at University of Chicago (Voices In Your Head), and this year they have been singing frequently with a wonderful University of Wisconsin group (Fundamentally Sound).

The last few seasons the Madison Symphony Orchestra has been offering Carnegie Hall LinkUp concerts to kids in grades 3-5, and this year is no exception. They will perform The Orchestra Moves in May, for which I wrote two of the works (Come To Play and Away I Fly) and arranged another (Cidade Maravilhosa).

This project has been a few years in the making, and so for Michael and Jessica and me, this is a kind of celebration. We can’t wait to share DOUBLE RAINBOW with you.


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Classical music: A second photograph of Chopin has been discovered. Here it is along with how it was found and what it tells us

March 11, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

A conservative musician who admired and valued the music of Johann Sebastian Bach and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart above that of  Ludwig van Beethoven and his own contemporaries, Frederic Chopin (1810-1849) is one of the most popular and most played of all Romantic composers.

He remains a perennial favorite of audiences, students and concert artists. Witness the recent sold-out concerts featuring Chopin’s music by Trevor Stephenson at his home and by Adam Neiman at Farley’s House of Pianos. An amazingly high percentage of Chopin’s works remains in the active repertoire.

His was no belated posthumous fame, either. Chopin, the famous Polish pianist-composer who was exiled in Paris, was well-known and widely respected in his own lifetime by the public and by other famous composers and pianists such as Franz Liszt and Robert Schumann.

Yet despite many drawings and paintings of Chopin – often at odds in their depictions — until recently only one known photograph of Chopin existed: The familiar one taken by Louis-Auguste Bisson in Paris towards the end of Chopin’s life, just months before he died of tuberculosis at age 39 in 1849.

Now a second photograph — or daguerreotype, to be exact — has been discovered. It probably dates from 1847 or so.

Here is the new photographic portrait of Chopin:

Want to know some background?

Here is the story from Poland via The Washington Post and the Associated Press:

https://etsuri.com/articles/a-rare-unknown-photo-of-frederic-chopin-probably-found

Here are the two known photographs side by side for comparison:

http://www.businessinsider.com/only-2-known-photos-of-chopin

And here is a terrific blog analysis of the two photographs that also discusses his late music and what the photographs tell us about Chopin:

http://jackgibbons.blogspot.com/2010/03/chopins-photograph.html

The Ear wonders how long it will be before we start seeing the new photograph of Chopin on CD jackets and liner notes.

In any case, as an homage, here is Chopin’s last composition, the archetypically Polish form of the Mazurka in F minor, Op. 68, No. 4, played in a YouTube video by Vladimir Ashkenazy :


Classical music: Middleton Community Orchestra and cellist Andrew Briggs succeeded beautifully in music by Rossini, Dvorak and Mendelssohn but a public reading of short essays by Matt Geiger seemed out of place

March 3, 2017
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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 hosts an early music show once a month on Sunday morning on WORT FM 89.9 FM. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison. He also took the performance photos for this review.

John-Barker

By John W. Barker

Despite nasty weather and icy conditions, a quite substantial audience turned out for the concert Wednesday night by the Middleton Community Orchestra  (below).

steve-kurr-and-mco-marc-2017-jwb

There was an unusual element to the program.

The mostly amateur orchestra opened with an exuberant performance of Rossini’s overture to his opera Il turco in Italia (The Turk in Italy).

Then the normal procedures were interrupted by a local writer, Matt Geiger (below), reading two of his short essays from a recently published collection, which was sold in the lobby.

This appearance was based on his long and valiant boosting of the orchestra in his journalism, but it would have been more appropriate at some community festival than in the midst of an orchestra concert. His essays were not without wit, but had absolutely nothing to do with music.

matt-geiger-at-mco-march-2017-jwb

Back to business with guest soloist Andrew Briggs (below), a young cellist who played two miniatures for his instrument, with orchestra, by Antonin Dvorak.

Silent Woods, Op. 68, No. 5, is sometimes heard as a foil or filler for the composer’s great cello concerto, especially in recordings. Still less familiar is a Rondo in G minor for Cello and Orchestra, Op. 94. It is a work of charm and imagination.

Briggs played both of these with affectionate sensitivity. Currently finishing his doctoral studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music, he is an artist with an already expanding reputation and a great future.

andrew-briggs-mco-march-2017-jwb

The second half of the concert was devoted to Felix Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 5, the “Reformation.” Composed to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the Augsburg Confession, it was offered here as a gesture to this year’s 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s launching of his Reformation movement with the posting of his 95 Theses. This is a score full of Lutheran symbolism, particularly with the prominent use of Luther’s chorale, Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott (“A Mighty Fortress is our God”). 

NOTE: You can hear how Mendelssohn uses the Luther hymn in the symphony’s final movement by listening to the YouTube video at the bottom.

Commentators have sometimes shrugged off this work, and it has been overshadowed in audience favor by the composer’s popular third and fourth symphonies. But it is a well-wrought score, full of fine musical interest. Conductor Steve Kurr (below) led the orchestra through a sturdy and solidly played performance, ending the concert on a triumphant note.

Steve Kurr conducting


Classical music: The Willy Street Chamber Players kick off their new FREE Community Connect concert series this coming Sunday afternoon at Warner Park. Plus, FREE oboe and piano concerts are this Friday at noon and Saturday night

February 16, 2017
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ALERT: This week’s FREE Friday Noon Musicale at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, features oboist Laura Medisky and pianist Vincent Fuh in sonatas by Paul Hindemith, Henri Dutilleux and Malcolm Arnold. The concert runs from 12:125 to 1 p.m. On Saturday night at 7 p.m., the same performers will repeat the same program in a FREE concert at Oakwood Village West auditorium, 6201 Mineral Point Road, on Madison’s far west side near West Towne.

By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear’s friends at the Willy Street Chamber Players (below), which The Ear named as Musicians of the Year for 2016, write:

Willy Street Chamber Players 2016 outdoors

We wanted to let you know about the upcoming kickoff of the Willy Street Chamber Players’ “Community Connect” series. We are committed to our mission of making classical music accessible to all.

The Willy Street Chamber Players’ Northside Community Connect Concert is on this coming Sunday, Feb. 19, at noon at the Warner Park Community Recreation Center.

Warner Park shelter

Enjoy hot coffee, exciting classical music and great conversation with the Willy Street Chamber Players. 

This program is FREE, family-friendly and will last about 60 minutes. All are welcome.

The program is: String Quartet in C Major, K. 157, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; String Quartet No. 5, “Rosa Parks” by Daniel Bernard Roumain; “Entr’acte” for String Quartet by Pulitzer Prize-winner Caroline Shaw (you can hear the piece, which The Ear loves for its pulsing and hypnotic rhythm plus unusual and interesting string textures, in the YouTube video at the bottom); and “Four, for Tango” by Astor Piazzolla.

There was an announcement about this series in the January string quartet program at A Place to Be (below, in a photo by John W. Barker), and it included a couple more concerts. But we have decided to make Community Connect a self-produced series.

willy-street-chamber-players-at-a-place-to-be-jan-2017-cr-jwb

We are planning a second Community Connect concert in July during our regular summer series, and have listed our other free appearances on our regular calendar.

The concert is made possible in part by Willy Street Co-Op and the North/Eastside Senior Coalition (NESCO).

For more information go to: www.willystreetchamberplayers.org

Willy Street Chamber Players logo


Classical music: Madison Opera scores a big artistic and commercial success with the Midwest premiere of “Charlie Parker’s Yardbird.” How about seeing and hearing more new music and new operas?

February 15, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a guest review by The Opera Guy, who is himself a senior and who has followed opera for many decades and across several continents, including North America, Europe and Asia. Performance photos are by James Gill for the Madison Opera.

By Larry Wells

On Sunday afternoon I attended the second, and final, of two sold-out performances of Daniel Schnyder’s “Charlie Parker’s Yardbird,” presented by Madison Opera, which gave the Midwest premiere of the new work.

Although it is a chamber opera featuring only 16 instrumentalists and running a little over 90 minutes, it was an engaging, satisfying and often hypnotic operatic experience.

The orchestral and vocal music were readily accessible.  As a compliment to the composer, I was reminded of the later work of the great British composer Michael Tippett.

The plot features Charlie Parker’s mother, three of his wives, his friend Dizzy Gillespie and his current patroness, the fascinating Baroness Nica de Koenigswarter, as they confront Parker’s spirit after his death but before his removal from the morgue and burial.

madison-opera-charlie-parker-body-cr-james-gill

(Below, standing in front of the photo-portrait set of the Birdland jazz club, are the major cast members, many of whom were in the original world premiere productions at Opera Philadelphia and the Apollo Theater of Harlem in New York City. From the left, they are: Angela Brown as Addie Parker; Will Liverman as Dizzy Gillespie; Rachel Sterrenberg as Chan Parker; Angela Montellaro as Doris Parker; Joshua Stewart as Charlie Parker; and Krysty Swann as Rebecca Parker.)

madison-opera-angela-brown-as-addie-parker-will-liverman-as-dizzy-gillespie-rachel-sterrenberg-as-chan-parker-angela-montellaro-as-doris-parker-joshua-stewart-as-charlie-parker-krysty-swann

A pioneer and innovator of bebop in the world of jazz, saxophonist Parker died young and dissolute, destroyed by drugs and alcohol. Portrayed by Joshua Stewart (below), Parker is unsympathetic and weak, desperate to create but distracted. Stewart is a fine, convincing actor. His singing was often compelling, but his voice was too thin in the higher reaches demanded by the score.

madison-opera-joshua-stewart-as-charlie-parker-cr-james-gill

The other characters were ably portrayed and consistently strong vocally. Will Liverman’s Dizzy Gillespie was a standout – lyrical and touching.

Likewise, Krysty Swann (below center with a baby) was solid vocally and emotionally convincing as Parker’s abandoned first wife Rebecca Parker.

madison-opera-joshua-stewart-as-charlie-parker-krysty-swann-and-rebecca-parker-angela-brown-as-addie-parker-cr-james-gill

Rachel Sterrenberg was moving and gripping vocally as Parker’s final wife Chan.

Julie Miller as Baronness Nica commanded the stage whenever she appeared, perhaps because of her bright red dress in a sea of black garments but also because of her powerful portrayal and expressive singing.

Whenever Angela Brown (below right, with Joshua Stewart as Charlie Parker) was onstage as Parker’s mother, Addie, she was the focus. She owned the role, she sang beautifully, and she had some of the best material to sing.

(You can hear Angela Brown, who has appeared here before with the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Madison Opera, in the world premiere production in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

madison-opera-joshua-stewart-as-charlie-parker-angela-brown-as-addie-parker-cr-james-gill

One of the finest moments in the opera was an orchestral interlude followed by a vocalise by another of Parker’s wives, Doris, sung by Angela Mortellaro (below). I was totally captivated, as I was by the quintet toward the end with Dizzy, the three wives and Parker’s mother.

madison-opera-angela-mortellaro-as-doris-parker-joshua-stewart-as-charlie-parker-cr-james-gill

Such are the moments for which an opera aficionado waits – several minutes of total aural delight.

Maestro John DeMain was, as always, in full command of the score as he led members of the Madison Symphony Orchestra. I was in a position to watch him conduct, and he was always totally involved in the moment. I repeat what I have said before: Maestro DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad) is a treasure for which Madison should be constantly grateful.

John DeMain full face by Prasad

I personally like newer music and always welcome the chance to hear something other than the tired Brahms overtures, Tchaikovsky symphonies and Mozart piano concertos.

The argument in Madison seems to be that to fill seats, you have to give the audience what it wants; and the belief is that it wants music that is tried, true and safe.

The fact that this new work sold out both performances in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center and that the audience was not entirely made up of seniors seems to suggest that the halls can be filled if the programming is more adventurous.

I say let’s hear more music of the 20th and 21st centuries, draw in a new audience and give the seniors a little thrill.

What do you think?


Classical music: Pianist Stephen Hough returns to solo with the Madison Symphony Orchestra this weekend in a program of “firsts” that includes music by Barber and Saint-Saens as well as Tchaikovsky’s famous “Pathétique” Symphony

February 13, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

This coming weekend, the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below) offers one of the best must-hear programs of the season – or so thinks The Ear.

MSO-HALL

Pianist Stephen Hough (below, in a photo by Sim Canetty-Clarke) returns for his fourth appearance with the Madison Symphony Orchestra (MSO), led by music director and conductor John DeMain.

stephen-hough-20167-formal-cr-sim-canetty-clarke

The concert will open with Samuel Barber’s Second Essay, a dramatic piece written in the midst of World War II, followed by a performance of the exotic Saint-Saëns Piano Concerto No. 5 (“Egyptian”) featuring soloist Stephen Hough, who won major awards for his recordings of the complete works for piano and orchestra by Saint-Saëns. The concert will close with a performance of Tchaikovsky’s emotional Symphony No. 6 (“Pathétique”).

The concerts are Friday, Feb. 17, at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, Feb. 18, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Feb. 19, at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall of the Overture Center, 201 State Street. (Ticket information is below.)

Samuel Barber (below) was one of the new generation of mid-20th century American composers with contemporaries Howard Hanson, Aaron Copland, David Diamond and, later, Leonard Bernstein.

His Second Essay was written in 1942, in the middle of the Second World War. Barber once wrote: “Although it has no program, one perhaps hears that it was written in a war-time.” This will be the first time this piece is performed by the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

barber 1

The Piano Concerto No. 5 (“Egyptian”) by Camille Saint-Saëns (below) was composed while he was on a winter vacation in the Egyptian temple city of Luxor, in 1895-96. The location of this piece is important because it helped give the piece its nickname, and also influenced the sound of the score. This will be the first time this piece is performed by the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

camille saint-saens younger

Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (below) wrote his final piece between February and August 1893. The Symphony No. 6 (Pathétique) was then performed in Oct. 1893 and was conducted by Tchaikovsky himself. Nine days later he was dead.

Tchaikovsky’s late symphonies are autobiographical, and the sixth being “the best, and certainly the most open-hearted,” according to Tchaikovsky himself. Seeing that he was a troubled man, dealing with a dark depression, Symphony No. 6 (Pathétique) is filled with poignancy and deep sorrow, as you can hear in the finale in the YouTube video at the bottom.

Tchaikovsky 1

One hour before each performance, Randal Swiggum (below), artistic director of the Elgin Youth Symphony Orchestra Artistic Director and the newly appointed Interim Music Director of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras, will lead a 30-minute Prelude Discussion in Overture Hall to enhance concertgoers’ understanding and listening experience.

Randall Swiggum

For more background on the music, read the program notes by MSO trombonist and UW-Whitewater professor Michael Allsen (below, in a photo by Katrin Talbot) at: http://www.allsenmusic.com/NOTES/1617/5.Feb17.html

J. Michael Allsen Katrin Talbot

Single Tickets are $16 to $87 each, and are available at madisonsymphony.org/hough and through the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street or by calling the Box Office at (608) 258-4141.

Groups of 15 or more can save 25% by calling the MSO office at (608) 257-3734. For more information visit, madisonsymphony.org/groups

Student rush tickets can be purchased in person on the day of the concert at the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street. Students must show a valid student ID and can receive up to two $12 or $15 tickets. More information is at: madisonsymphony.org/studentrush. Students can receive 20% savings on seats in select areas of the hall on advance ticket purchases.

Seniors age 62 and up receive 20% savings on advance and day-of-concert ticket purchases in select areas of the hall.

Discounted seats are subject to availability, and discounts may not be combined.

Find more information at madisonsymphony.org

John DeMain and MSO from the stage Greg Anderson

Major funding for the February concerts is provided by: Irving and Dorothy Levy Family Foundation, Inc., Stephen Morton, and BMO Wealth Management. Additional funding is provided by: Boardman & Clark LLP, Forte Research Systems & Nimblify, James and Joan Johnston, and the Wisconsin Arts Board with funds from the State of Wisconsin and the National Endowment for the Arts.


Classical music: The Madison Symphony Orchestra performs “Scheherazade” in the dramatic Beyond the Score® mixed media format this Saturday night and Sunday afternoon

January 9, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

Here is an announcement from the Madison Symphony Orchestra about two performances of a special concert this coming weekend:

Join the Madison Symphony Orchestra (MSO, below top) and Music Director John DeMain (below bottom, in a photo by Prasad) as they explore one of the most popular orchestral works ever written with Beyond the Score®: Scheherazade this coming weekend in Overture Hall.

The concerts are this Saturday, Jan. 14, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, Jan. 15, at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall, 201 State Street.

John DeMain and MSO from the stage Greg Anderson

John DeMain full face by Prasad

Beyond the Score®: Scheherazade is an opportunity for concertgoers to discover Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s colorful and exotic Scheherazade in a whole new way.

The first half experience encompasses video, photos, musical excerpts, and  actors Jim DeVita (below top) and Brenda DeVita (below bottom), of American Players Theatre in Spring Green, telling the story.

In the second half, Scheherazade will be performed from start to finish, by the Madison Symphony Orchestra with John DeMain conducting.

Jim DeVita

Brenda DeVita

The captivating music of Scheherazade evokes images and passions with a solo violin representing the intoxicating storyteller, Scheherazade. Based on an ancient Persian legend, Scheherazade staves off her death at the hands of her cruel Sultan husband, by regaling him with stories for 1001 nights until he falls in love with her.

Rimsky-Korsakov evokes the moods of her various tales with memorable and haunting melodies. (You can hear “Scheherazade,” conducted by the Russian conductor Valery Gergiev, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Designed for classical music aficionados and newcomers looking to delve deeper into the world of classical music, Beyond the Score explores Scheherazade’s context in history, how it relates to the work of other composers, and the events of Rimsky-Korsakov’s life that influenced its creation. The Chicago Tribune said of the Beyond the Score series, “Seldom has enlightenment proved so entertaining.”

As a young man, Rimsky-Korsakov (below) spent almost three years at sea with the Russian Navy and was exposed to other cultures. With 19th-century readers fascinated by exotic settings and fairy tales, he first conceived of creating an orchestral work based on the tales known as The Thousand and One Nights in 1887, when he was the leading teacher at the St. Petersburg Conservatory.

Rimsky-Korsakov

Single Tickets are $15 to $60 each, available at madisonsymphony.org/beyondthescore, through the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street, or by calling the Box Office at (608) 258-4141.

Groups of 15 or more can save 25% by calling the MSO office at (608) 257-3734. For more information, visit madisonsymphony.org/groups.

Student rush tickets can be purchased in person on the day of the concert at the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street. Students must show a valid student ID and can receive up to two $12 or $15 tickets. More information is at: madisonsymphony.org/studentrush. Students receive 20% savings on advance ticket purchases for seats in select areas of the hall.

Seniors age 62 and up receive 20% savings on advance and day-of-concert ticket purchases in select areas of the hall.

Discounted seats are subject to availability, and discounts may NOT be combined.

Beyond the Score® is a production of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Gerard McBurney, Creative Director for Beyond the Score®.


Classical music: Madison Opera’s production of “Romeo and Juliet” excelled in singing, orchestral playing, drama and other aspects that redeemed a largely unmemorable work. Plus, what is good music for Veterans Day?

November 11, 2016
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ALERT: Today is Veterans Day. What piece of classical music should be played to mark the event? The Ear suggests the War Requiem by Benjamin Britten. Leave your choice in the COMMENT section.

By Jacob Stockinger

Today’s post features a guest review of Madison Opera’s “Romeo and Juliet” by Larry Wells. Wells has been enjoying opera since he was a youngster. He subscribed to the San Francisco Opera for nearly 20 years, where he last saw “Romeo and Juliet,” sung by Alfredo Kraus and Ruth Ann Swenson

More recently he lived in Tokyo and attended many memorable performances there over nearly 20 years. These included Richard Strauss rarities such as “Die Ägyptische Helena” and “Die Liebe der Danae” as well as the world’s strangest Ring Cycle by Richard Wagner and a space-age production of Puccini’s “Turandot,” featuring Alessandra Marc singing “In questa reggia” while encased in an inverted cone.

By Larry Wells

Last Sunday’s matinee performance of Charles Gounod’s “Romeo and Juliet” by Madison Opera at the Overture Center was a feast for the eyes. The costumes, sets, lighting and staging were consistently arresting. (Performance photos are by James Gill.)

But we go to the opera for music and drama.

The tragedy of Romeo and Juliet is well known. Gounod’s opera substitutes the tragedy with melodrama, and therein lies one of the work’s flaws. Despite sword fights, posturings and threats as well as one of opera’s lengthiest death scenes, one leaves the theater thinking that a vast amount of theatrical resources have been squandered on something insubstantial.

madison-opera-romeo-and-juliet-sword-fight

However, despite its dramatic flaws, the opera’s music has somehow endured. And Sunday’s performance milked the most out of the music that could have been expected.

The star of the show was the Madison Symphony Orchestra under the expert direction of Maestro John DeMain (below). He knows how to pace a performance, how to build an exciting climax and how to highlight a solo instrument.

He is an incredibly intelligent conductor, and we are fortunate to have him in Madison. I want to make special mention of the beautiful harp playing, which, according to the program, was accomplished by Jenny DeRoche.

John DeMain full face by Prasad

The second star on the stage was the Madison Opera Chorus (below). The chorus plays a significant part in many of the opera’s scenes, and the singing was stirring when it needed to be and tender when it was called for.

madison-opera-romeo-and-juliet-chrous-and-set

As for the soloists, highest praise must go to UW-Madison alumna soprano Emily Birsan (below right) for her portrayal of Juliet. Her solo arias, particularly her big number in the first act as well as her subsequent lament, were stunning.

Her Romeo, tenor John Irvin (below left), sounded a little forced during his forte moments, but he sang magnificently in his quiet farewell to Juliet after their balcony scene. (You can hear the famous balcony scene, sung by Roberto Alagna and Angela Gheorghiu in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

madison-opera-romeo-and-juliet-john-irvin-and-emily-birsan

Their voices blended beautifully in the opera’s multiple duets. And the wedding quartet, where they were joined by Allisanne Apple’s nurse (below, rear right) and Liam Moran’s Friar Lawrence (below, middle center), was a highlight of the performance.

madison-opera-romoeo-and-juliet-friar-and-nurse

The opera abounds with minor characters, all of which were ably portrayed. Special mention should be made of Stephanie Lauricella (below, far right) for her fantastic moments as Romeo’s page; Madison’s Allisanne Apple for her amusing portrayal of Juliet’s nurse Gertrude; Sidney Outlaw (below, second from left) as a robust Mercutio; and Philip Skinner as a powerful Lord Capulet.

madison-opera-romeo-and-juliet-sidnay-outlaw-left-and-page-right

I have wondered why this opera is still performed. Its music is lovely but unmemorable, and its dramatic impact is tenuous.

I left the performance thinking that it had been a good afternoon at the theater – certainly more interesting than the Packers’ game – but wishing that one of a couple dozen more meaty operas had been performed in its place.

Since we are celebrating the 400th anniversary of the death of Shakespeare, how much more interesting would have been Benjamin Britten’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream”? 


Classical music: The founders and co-artistic directors of the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival explain the origins of the upcoming “water music” programs

August 25, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

In the essay below, John and Rose Mary Harbison (below, in a photo by Katrin Talbot), the founders and co-artistic directors of the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival, explain the origins of the upcoming “water music” programs that mark the 27th festival.

You can hear that famous “trout” theme of the original song used in Franz Schubert‘s “Trout” Piano Quintet, which will be performed at the festival, in the YouTube video at the bottom.

Here is a link to a posting earlier this week with much more information about the concerts, the programs and the performers:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2016/08/22/classical-music-this-years-token-creek-chamber-music-festival-celebrates-local-ecological-restoration-with-water-music/

John and Rose Mary Harbison Katrin Talbot

ECOLOGICAL RESTORATION: THE BROOK AT TOKEN CREEK — WHY NOW?

By John and Rose Mary Harbison

In 1932 Dan and Alice Pedersen, Rose Mary Harbison’s parents, came from Chicago to Madison and purchased a small farm on State Highway 19, then a seldom travelled dirt road. (Below is a photo by Jess Anderson of a more recent barn built on the farm property.)

Token Creek land:barn Jess Anderson

The farm eventually became a producer of organic vegetables for sale, and a place of contemplation, leading to Dan’s life as a Swedenborgian pastor, wartime fireman and early sustainable farmer; and Alice’s as a Sunday school teacher and eventually a much published anti-Vietnam War activist. (Below is a photo by Jess Anderson of a field on the farm.)

Token Creek land 2 Jess Anderson

But it was just three years into their tenure on the farm that the State of Wisconsin came up with a plan to raise carp for New York markets, and by eminent domain seized four acres of land from the Pedersen farm, building a 400-foot carp pond, and routing the tributary trout stream on the Pedersen farm into it. (Historic photos are from the Token Creek Watershed Association.)

Token Creek Watershed 1

This was a loss from which the couple never really recovered, since it cost the stream, which had originally flowed into Token Creek, much loss of vitality, swiftness and natural flow.

Within a decade the State had lost interest in the original project, but the Pedersens were never able to persuade the necessary agencies to undertake restoration of the trout stream and repair the damage.

Token Creek watershed 2

The 2012 Token Creek Festival season included a forum, “Listen to the Land,” with an eminent group of ecologists commenting on our attempt to redevelop as prairie a large set-aside field.

As it turned out, the best outcome of this gathering, in spite of the expensive and to this point discouraging track of that project, was the unanimous view of that forum that the restoration of the tributary trout stream, and the elimination of the carp pond, would dynamically and radically upgrade the entire ecology of the area, one that is an extremely important component of the Cherokee Marsh and Lake Mendota watershed. (below is a picnic by Token Creek.)

Token Creek picnic

This year’s festival, “Water Music,” celebrates the unlikely achievement of that goal. Unable to find civic partners, the transformation was a private initiative, brilliantly realized by the river restoration firm Inter-Fluve, and spearheaded by the participants in our opening forum. (Below is a mill on the creek.)

Token Creek mill

Art and Nature are already familiar partners; Art and Technology increasingly so. One common impulse seems to be to increase harmony and invention; to limit pointless destruction; and to preserve enhance and develop, positively, some of the forces we cannot control, or fully understand.


Classical music: Mixing old and new music. Violinist Hilary Hahn talks about the works she commissioned and will play alongside classics when she performs Sunday night at the Wisconsin Union Theater

April 20, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger 

There are many great violinists playing today. But arguably the most important and innovative is 36-year-old Hilary Hahn (below), the thoughtful virtuoso who returns to perform a MUST-HEAR recital in Shannon Hall of the Wisconsin Union Theater at 7:30 p.m. this coming Sunday night.

The last two recitals there by Hahn were two of the most memorable live chamber music performances The Ear has ever heard.

Hilary Hahn 2016

Tickets are $27.50 to $50.50. UW-Madison students are $10.

Here is a link to information about tickets, the program and audio samples:

http://uniontheater.wisc.edu/Season15-16/hilary-hahn.html

During her 20-year career, Hahn – who often mixes the old and new both in live performances and on recordings — has consistently turned in astounding performances of the violin repertoire, including classics. Those works include concertos and sonatas by Johann Sebastian Bach, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, Felix Mendelssohn, Niccolo Paganini, Johannes Brahms, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Charles Ives, Jean Sibelius, Edward Elgar, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Samuel Barber, Igor Stravinsky, Arnold Schoenberg, Sergei Prokofiev, Dmitri Shostakovich, Leonard Bernstein and others.

But she also frequently commissions and adds new works to the repertoire, including a concerto by Edgar Meyer and a Pulitzer Prize-winning concerto by Jennifer Higdon, who teaches composition at the Curtis Institute of music where Hahn studied. Plus, she is a talented and charming “postcard” blogger and interviewer.

Both sides of Hilary Hahn’s artistry – the classic and the contemporary — will be on display during her Madison recital. The very busy Hahn (below, in a photo by Peter Miller) recently agreed to do an email Q&A with The Ear:

Hilary Hahn 2016 CR Peter Miller

You have long been known as an innovative artist. What are your new and upcoming projects, including recordings and commissions?

I’m in the middle of a 14-month-long artist residency at the Vienna Konzerthaus. It’s my first such experience, so I feel like a kid in a candy store, getting to try out ideas sequentially that I would otherwise have to stretch over several years.

I’m excited to include among my residency performing as soloist with five different orchestras in the same hall, as well as giving a recital there and developing local initiatives to bring the community and classical music even closer together. Next year, I will be in residence in Seattle and Lyon. It’s been fun seeing what residency activities I want to carry over and what I can add that is specific to each city.

As far as commissions go, over this season and next, I’m world-premiering and touring a significant new contribution to the solo violin repertoire, Six Partitas by Antón García Abril (below), written for me.

That is a meaningful project for me, because I sensed that Mr. García Abril would write a fantastic set of pieces if I could convince him to take on the assignment. He decided to do it and the music turned out to be more wonderful and inspiring to play than I could have imagined. It feels like those phrases breathe with me and the notes fit in my hands.

In addition, I am in the process of wrapping up the original trajectory of my project, In 27 Pieces: the Hilary Hahn Encores. After some concerts on this upcoming tour, as encores, my recital partner Cory Smythe and I will be giving world premieres of the Honorable Mentions from my Encores contest.

Finally, in the fall, the complete edition of the sheet music for all 27 original works will be published as a single edition, with my fingerings, bowings and performance notes.

Anton García Abril BW

Is there an underlying unity or purpose to your program of works by Mozart, Bach, García Abril, Copland and Davidson?

I hope the listeners will find their own versions of unity and purpose in the program. The pieces weren’t assembled randomly, but then again, everyone listens differently.

García Abril’s Six Partitas, of which I will play No. 1, entitled “Heart,” are solo polyphonic works. The violin alone carries multiple melodic lines, as well as providing its own harmonies. Johann Sebastian Bach (below top) wrote his polyphonic Six Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin in 1720. I felt it was important to carry forward this particular type of composition into the present day, so I commissioned Mr. García Abril (below bottom, in a photo by Julio Ficha) to create this set of works. (You can hear Hilary Hahn interview Anton Garcia Abril in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

His writing for violin is compelling, fluid, emotional, clever and expressively rich in a way that I felt needed to be explored further. Especially as this is the premiere tour of his Partita No. 1, I wanted to juxtapose the new work with one of Bach’s, namely the Third Sonata with its complex and multifaceted fugue.

As for the duo pieces on the program, the compositional styles — though they span 250 years — have a certain openness in common: the writing is not densely layered, leaving lots of room for imagination.

Bach1

Anton García Abril CR Julio Ficha

What about the works by Mozart and Copland?

Mozart’s set of sonatas for keyboard and violin is one of the most extensive for this instrumentation, and since I was a student, I’ve been adding at least one to my repertoire annually. It’s wonderful to explore such a prolific composer’s work over a long stretch of time. This particular sonata vacillates among stormy drama, lyricism and playfulness.

The piece by Aaron Copland (below) is gorgeous, revealing. In this sonata, Copland’s musical language is clearly recognizable, but the texture is more sparse than in his famous larger-ensemble works, making it boldly direct and engrossing to listen to.

aaron copland

And the music by Tina Davidson?

The work by Tina Davidson (below) follows on the tonality of the Copland, but the composer’s treatment of the music goes in an entirely different direction. “Blue Curve of the Earth” was written in Wyoming during an artist residency, and was inspired by a photo of the edge of the Earth from space. The music is dreamy yet dimensional, angular yet lush. “Blue Curve of the Earth” is from the Encores project.

Tina Davidson

What would you like the public to know about composers Antón García Abril and Tina Davidson and their violin music or music in general?

I like to picture where pieces were written; the surroundings can add another dimension to the music. Environment influences the creative process. The studio is the private stage. Antón works in a studio outside of Madrid that his son, the architect by the same name, designed for him. Tina is based out of a refashioned church in Pennsylvania, with vaulted ceilings and a garden.

Both write beautifully for voice. Since violin can be a lyrical instrument and is tonally varied, capable of both sustaining and articulating, the ability to write expressively for voice transfers to the violin. Also, I have the impression that both composers start from a strong conceptual point with their works. When I play their music, the big line is the first thing that jumps out at me; the myriad fine details support the gestures.

Hilary Hahn playing 2 horizontal

If you play an encore or two, will they be from the ones you commissioned a couple of years ago and won a Grammy for?

That’s the plan! I feel very close to those pieces. Great encores exist from previous centuries, too; I never rule out the classics.

Why did you commission 27 short encores?

I began to notice that new encore pieces were not being showcased as much as other types of contemporary works. Shorter pieces remain a crucial part of every violinist’s education and repertoire, and I believed that potential new favorites should be encouraged and performed as well.

How successful have they been with the public and with other artists?

The public embraced the project. The music contained within the Encores is varied and imaginative. Each composer had a different concept of what an encore can add to today’s musical landscape.

I think every listener can find at least one work that is particularly poignant. I want the audience to discover these pieces for themselves. It is thrilling to listen to music that you have never heard before and, uninfluenced by other people’s opinions, be free to feel your own response.

This project is something I’ve been working on for a long time; I would estimate that my direct involvement in all of the different parts will wind up having a 15-year arc. What I have learned on musical and creative levels from working with the composers will stay with me for my whole career, and the logistical lessons from organizing such a big project will influence my future work.

Most importantly, I hope the Encores themselves will continue in the active repertoire beyond my lifetime. That will be up to other performers, of course.

Hilary Hahn Encores CD cover

You have played here several times, both concertos and solo recitals. Is there anything you would like to say about performing in Madison and about Madison audiences?

I really enjoy Madison itself. It’s in a beautiful part of the country. I’ll never forget the first time I visited, in the winter, when the city was covered by snow and one of the sidewalks featured a table topped by a tower of knit hats and sweaters. As for the Madison audience, their curiosity and involvement are energizing.

Is there anything else you would like to say?

Hello, everyone!


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