The Well-Tempered Ear

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

March 2, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are your major current and upcoming projects?

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

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

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

Is the MSO program special to you?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


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Classical music: The Madison Symphony Orchestra concerts this weekend feature three local debuts — by a woman conductor, a Grammy-winning cellist and an immigrant composer

October 17, 2018
2 Comments

IF YOU LIKE A CERTAIN BLOG POST, PLEASE FORWARD A LINK TO IT OR SHARE IT (not just “Like” it) ON FACEBOOK. Performers can use the extra exposure to draw potential audience members to an event.

By Jacob Stockinger

Three local debuts will take place this weekend in the three “Epic Romance” concerts by the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below).

Renowned Canadian guest conductor Tania Miller will lead the MSO while music director John DeMain makes his debut at the Liceu Theater in Barcelona, conducting the opera Candide in celebration of the 100th anniversary of Leonard Bernstein’s birth.

Grammy Award-winning American cellist Zuill Bailey will make his Madison Symphony Orchestra (MSO) solo debut in Edward Elgar’s Cello Concerto.

And Canadian composer Michael Oesterle will be performed for the first time in Madison when his work Home” opens each concert.

The second half of the program is Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5.

Performances will be held in Overture Hall of the Overture Center, 2912 State Street, on Friday, Oct. 19, at 7:30 p.m.; on Saturday, Oct. 20 at 8 p.m.; and on Sunday, Oct. 21, at 2:30 p.m.

Here are more details:

Canadian Conductor Tania Miller has distinguished herself as a dynamic interpreter, musician and innovator, on the podium and off. She has been praised for “energy, grace, precision and restraint.” She has appeared as a guest conductor in Canada, the United States and Europe with such orchestras as the Bern Symphony Orchestra, Seattle Symphony, Oregon Symphony and the Vancouver Symphony, among others.

Over a 14-year tenure as the Music Director of the Victoria Symphony in Canada, Miller (below) gained national acclaim for her passion and commitment to the orchestra and community. Recipient of the 2017 Friends of Canadian Music award from the Canadian League of Composers for her acclaimed commitment to contemporary music in Canada, Miller has been an example of the impact of commitment and dedication to an orchestra and to the future of orchestral music through creative innovation and vision.

You can hear Tania Miller discuss women conductors in the informative YouTube video at the bottom.(But please be forewarned: YouTube was having major technical issues and glitches last night that affected all their videos on this blog, not just this one. If it doesn’t load when you try, wait and then try again.) 

Zuill Bailey (below), described by Classical Net as “easily one of the finest cellists today,” has been featured with symphony orchestras worldwide, including Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, Toronto, Israel, Cape Town, and the Bruckner Orchestra in Linz, Austria. Bailey has also appeared at Disney Hall, the Kennedy Center, the United Nations, Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall.

In 2017, Bailey won a best solo performance Grammy Award for his live recording of “Tales of Hemingway,” by composer Michael Daugherty. His celebrated “Bach Cello Suites” and recently released Britten Cello Symphony and Sonata CD with pianist Natasha Paremski immediately rose to the No. 1 spot on the Billboard magazine Classical Chart.

His Cello Concerto was the last notable work by Sir Edward Elgar (below), composed in 1919 in the aftermath of World Ear I. Upon regaining consciousness following a 1918 tonsillectomy, Elgar immediately asked for pencil and paper and wrote down the melody that would become the first theme in this concerto.

Despite today’s renown as a crowd favorite, the piece did not achieve wide popularity until the 1960s, when a recording by Jacqueline du Pré caught the public’s attention, and it became a classical favorite.

Michael Oesterle’s “Home” had its world premiere in November 2017 with the Royal Conservatory Orchestra and conductor Tania Miller.

The piece is an homage to the great geographical ebb and flow of humanity, also known as the immigrant experience. Oesterle (below) notes, “I wrote it through the filter of my personal impressions as an immigrant, and with the realization that this subject is humbling in its breadth.”

Composed between May and August 1888, Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 was first performed in St. Petersburg at the Mariinsky Theatre with Tchaikovsky below) conducting.

Unlike its two predecessors, there is no known program for the Fifth Symphony, save for a recurring main theme heard throughout all four movements. Over the years this theme has become known as the “fate” motive; its original ominous character undergoes various metamorphoses, emerging triumphant in the score’s concluding pages.

ABOUT ATTENDING

The lobby opens 90 minutes prior to each concert. One hour before each performance, Madison Symphony Chorus Director and UW-Madison director of choral activities Beverly Taylor (below) will lead a 30-minute Prelude Discussion in Overture Hall to enhance concertgoers’ understanding and listening experience. It is free to ticket holders.

The MSO recommends concert attendees arrive early for each performance to make sure they have time to pass through Overture Center’s security stations, and so they can experience the Prelude Discussion.

Program notes for the concerts are available online: http://bitly.com/oct2018programnotes

Tickets can be purchased in the following ways:

  • Single Tickets are $18-$93 each and are on sale now at: https://madisonsymphony.org/ax through the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street, or by calling the Box Office at (608) 258-4141. Fees apply to online/phone sales.
  • Groups of 10 or more can save 25% by calling the MSO office at (608) 257-3734. For more information, visit, https://www.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 $15 or $20 tickets. More information is at: https://www.madisonsymphony.org/studentrush
  • Seniors age 62 and up receive 20% savings on advance and day-of-concert ticket purchases in select areas of the hall.
  • Subscribers to 5 or more symphony subscription concerts can save up to 50% off single ticket prices. More information is available about the season at: https://madisonsymphony.org/18-19
  • Flex-ticket booklets of 10 vouchers for 18-19 symphony subscription concerts are available. Learn more at: https://madisonsymphony.org/flex

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

Find more information, go to madisonsymphony.org

Major funding for the October concert is provided by: Mirror 34 Productions and National Guardian Life Insurance Company. Additional funding is provided by John A. Johnson Foundation, a component fund of the Madison Community Foundation, Barbara J. Merz, Selma Van Eyck, and the Wisconsin Arts Board, with funds from the State of Wisconsin and the National Endowment for the Arts.


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Classical music: The Middleton Community Orchestra excels in deeply satisfying performances of works by Copland and Dvorak. On Sunday, you can hear FREE band and choral music at the UW

October 14, 2017
1 Comment

ALERT: On tomorrow, Sunday, Oct. 15, there is FREE band music and choral music at the UW-Madison. The University Bands perform at 1 p.m. and the Choral Collage performs at 7:30 p.m., both in Mills Hall. Sorry, but The Ear has received no word on programs — no composers, no pieces, no conductors, no performers — and you won’t find that information even on the School of Music’s website. 

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.

By John W. Barker

The opening concert of the mostly amateur Middleton Community Orchestra (below, in a photo by William Ballhorn) on Wednesday night was a deeply satisfying one.

The opener was Aaron Copland’s Quiet City, based on his incidental music for a 1939 play. The piece is less a work of music than of atmosphere, and deeply related to Copland’s own experiences growing up in New York City. To convey contrasting outlooks, Copland features a trumpet and an English horn as solo instruments.

These parts were played with confidence and feeling by MCO players Jessica Jensen and Valree Casey (below top and bottom, respectively, in photo by Brian Ruppert). The reduced string orchestra provided a smooth carpeting.

The main work was the Symphony No. 6 in D Major by Antonin Dvorak (below). Cruelly overshadowed in podium and audience tastes, this score has been badly neglected, but justly belongs with the composer’s last three symphonies as a worthy peer. (The Madison Symphony Orchestra did perform it a few seasons back.)

As I listened to the work, I recalled the comment that the early Dvorak supporter, Johannes Brahms, commented to colleagues as he got to know the Czech composer’s music, to the effect that “This kid has more ideas than all the rest of us put together.”

Dvorak’s outpouring of ideas, and his capacity for putting them to good use, is simply astounding. I particularly marveled at such qualities as I listened to the slow movement (which you can hear in the YouTube video at the bottom), with its beautiful manipulation of the simplest of basic material. I emerged from the performance feeling joy at being a member of the same species as the creator of this wonderful work.

One could certainly overlook some moments of rough ensemble here and there. Clearly, the players had come to love this music and give it their all. Indeed, the distinguished conductor Edo de Waart, who just retired as music director of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra to become the music director of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra) joined the orchestra in one rehearsal (below, in a photo by Brian Ruppert), leaving the players not only delighted with him but that much more enchanted by the music.

The large audience caught the orchestra’s commitment and responded with an enthusiastic standing ovation.

One thought did occur to me. The acoustics of Middleton’s Performing Arts Center (below) have usually seemed to me quite admirable. This time, however, they struck me as rather dry, without some resonance and reverberation that would have added greater warmth of tone to the playing.

No matter, though. This was a performance I will long remember; and I have the greatest admiration for maestro Steve Kurr (below), both for his courage in taking on this challenging and under-appreciated masterpiece and for his clearly profound understanding of it.


Classical music: New faculty conductor Chad Hutchinson makes an impressive and promising debut with the UW Symphony Orchestra

October 11, 2017
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Last Saturday night, Chad Hutchinson (below), the new faculty conductor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music, made an impressive and promising debut with the UW Symphony Orchestra.

The ambitious program that Hutchinson put together says a lot about his priorities and instincts, and about his confidence in himself and the abilities of his student players, who performed superbly.  

The varied works came from the early 19th century, the mid-19th century, the early 20th century and the 21st century. And it seemed that each piece in the ambitious program was chosen to put the spotlight on a different section – percussion, brass, strings and winds.

Curiously, The Ear found the most successful pieces were the most traditional ones.

The Prelude to the opera “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg” by Richard Wagner received the right mix of horn pomp and string zest. It made The Ear realize again how much more he prefers Wagner’s instrumental music to his vocal music. Let’s hear more Wagner preludes, since we are unlikely to hear more Wagner operas.

The orchestral transcription by Leopold Stokowski (below) of the piano prelude “The Sunken Cathedral” by Claude Debussy was the least successful work of the night. This is the second overblown and bombastic Stokowski transcription that The Ear has heard performed live in a month.

Clearly, Stokowski’s aesthetic was Bigger is Better. This particular transcription strips away the mystery, sensuality and subtlety, the watery softness,  of the original. It works more as an etude for orchestra than as an authentic expression of Impressionism.  The Ear’s objections are to the transcription, not to the performance, which was well voiced, precise and tightly controlled.

“Mothership” by the popular American composer Mason Bates (below), who wrote the recent successful opera based on the life of the late Apple guru Steve Jobs, proved an interesting foray into contemporary music culture. It was also the Madison premiere of the 2011 work.

The electronic music in the pulsating and highly atmospheric score, including the computer-generated disco dance beat, highlighted the percussion section and the UW’s new Electro-Acoustic Research Space (EARS), which collaborated with the symphony orchestra.

The dramatic work, a novelty that is pop-infused and resembles music by John Adams a little too closely, has its pleasing and engaging moments. But overall it seems a triumph of style over substance. (You can judge for yourself from the performance with Michael Tilson Thomas in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

That said, Hutchinson nonetheless held the complex and coordinated score together, and the young audience seemed to take to the new music — a major achievement in itself.

Expect to hear many more contemporary works from Hutchinson, who says he is an unabashed champion of new music. He will include other living composers in many other concerts, including the next one on Nov. 4 and then again on Feb. 22.  

To these ears, the most impressive performance came in the Symphony No. 3 “Eroica” by Ludwig van Beethoven. In its day, the difficult and long work proved revolutionary and perplexing. More recently, more than 100 conductors named it the best symphony ever written. You can’t get more establishment than that.

Yet despite being so mainstream, the “Eroica” remains a difficult and challenging work, both technically and interpretively. And this performance succeeded on both counts. That is no small feat for a new conductor and his young students to pull off in the first six weeks of school.

Especially impressive was Hutchinson’s choice to skip any pause between the third movement and the finale. It worked dramatically to maintain momentum. Such exciting attacks should be a more common practice in performing symphonies and concertos as well as chamber music.

Hutchinson seems a congenial and humorous concert hall host. His pre-concert talk (below), which he is slated to do at all performances, was helpful and informative, even if he repeated some major points when he introduced  the actual performances. Hutchinson, intent on expanding the audience for classical music, is worth listening to.

Hutchinson may not possess an especially graceful or fluid podium presence that is pleasing to watch, but he gets results. Certainly both the student players and the large audience (below) seemed pleased and excited by these performances.

In the end, the concert provided plenty of reasons to look forward to hearing more from Chad Hutchinson and seeing how he develops and leaves his mark on programming and performing at the UW.

Were you there as either a performer or an audience member?

What did you think of the concert and of Chad Hutchinson’s debut?

The Ear wants to hear.


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