The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Madison Symphony Orchestra opens its new season with a strong and memorable concert that had something for everyone — with no outside help from a guest artist

October 4, 2019
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ALERT: On this Saturday, Oct. 5, from 4 to 5 p.m., cellist Amit Peled will teach a master class at Farley’s House of Pianos, 6522 Seybold Road, near West Towne Mall, where he will instruct local students. This is a FREE event that the public is invited to observe, and is part of the two concerts by Peled and pianist Daniel del Pino. For more information, go to:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2019/09/29/classical-music-cellist-amit-peled-and-pianist-daniel-del-pino-open-the-salon-piano-series-this-friday-and-saturday-nights-with-music-by-beethoven-strauss-and-others/

By Jacob Stockinger

Many orchestras, including the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below, in a photo by Peter Rodgers), often use the opening concert of a new season as a chance to lure audiences by wowing them with some big-name guest soloist.

But last weekend maestro John DeMain (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson) once again preferred to show off his own ensemble. And it worked, making for a memorable concert.

The MSO opener had something for everyone, and what you saw as the highlight probably depended more on your personal taste or preference than on the overall impressively tight playing and singing of the MSO, its principals and its chorus.

It seemed clear that, for most listeners the MSO’s young organist Greg Zelek (below, in a photo by Peter Rodgers) filled the role of the impressive imported star or guest artist.

The virtuosic Zelek is simply so good that he managed to turn a second-rate piece by Samuel Barber into a first-rate crowd-pleaser that brought huge applause and a long standing ovation, then an encore and another standing ovation.

As music, the concerto-like “Toccata Festiva” (1960) is simply not on par with Barber’s Violin Concerto or his Adagio for Strings or his Overture to “The School for Scandal.” It is 15 minutes of mostly loud and bombastic music meant to show off the new organ that it was commissioned for.

The King of Instruments seems to invite such bragging. And the boyish, vest-clad Zelek milked the score by Barber (below) for all it was worth, including an astounding three-minute cadenza played only with the feet. It’s hard to argue with such dramatic success.

If you preferred more serious fare, there was the Symphony No. 7 in D minor by Antonin Dvorak (below). Last spring, DeMain announced his fondness for Dvorak – in the spring the MSO will perform his Requiem.

DeMain’s feeling for Dvorak showed in a convincing and engaging performance of this darker, non-programmatic Brahmsian work that goes beyond the Czech folk dances, folk song-like melodies and nature mimicry of Dvorak’s other major symphonies and chamber music.

If you wanted exciting Romanticism, it would be hard to beat Wagner’s rhythmic strings soaring in the Overture to the opera “Tannhauser” by Richard Wagner (below). And that flowed into Wagner’s sensual “Venusberg” music that featured the MSO chorus singing offstage.

But The Ear thinks that the best measure of musicianship – orchestral, instrumental or vocal — is not how loudly they can play or sing, but how softly.

For that reason, he found the standout work at the concert to be “Prelude to The Afternoon of a Faun” by Claude Debussy (below). The balance among various sections proved ideal at expressing subtlety. You could hear everything combining to make a distinctive and atmospheric tonal color.

For example, it is hard to imagine more sensual playing of the opening theme than how principal flutist Stephanie Jutt (below) did it. The performance and interpretation projected the exact kind of impressionistic seductiveness that the composer meant for it to have. For sheer beauty of sound, it took the top spot. (You can see a graphic depiction of Debussy’s score in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Still, there seemed to be more than the usual number of empty seats. Was it the rainy weather? The football weekend? Or do people still miss the thrill of hearing a well-known guest artist opening the season?

What do you think?

What was your favorite piece on the opening MSO program? And why?

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: There was so much to like about the Grand Tour finale of the 2019 Madison Early Music Festival. But where were the high notes in Allegri’s legendary “Miserere”?

July 19, 2019
7 Comments

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By Jacob Stockinger

Fair is fair.

Before he talks about last Saturday night’s conclusion of the successful 2019 Madison Early Music Festival – which marked its 20th anniversary — The Ear has a confession to make: He generally prefers later Baroque music and he generally prefers instrumental music to vocal or choral music.

That said, he nonetheless had a memorable and very enjoyable time on the “Grand Tour” during the well-attended All-Festival concert. There was so much to like and to admire.

The concert used the conceit of a Grand Tour by a composite 17th-century traveler going to London, Venice, Rome, Naples, Paris and Dresden to take in the local sights and local music, and included lesser-known composers such as William Lawes and William Child as well as such famous figures as Claudio Monteverdi, Giovanni Gabrieli , Jean-Baptiste Lullyand Heinrich Schütz.

Like most journeys, this one – once again assembled in an ingenious scissors-and-paste job by early music specialist Grant Herreid (below) – had many entertaining and uplifting moments.

But it also had one big disappointment.

The Ear really looked forward to hearing a live performance  of the famous “Miserere” by Gregorio Allegri (below) as a high point. But those haunting, ultra-high descant notes that give you goosebumps and that you never forget hearing just never materialized.

Maybe it had to do with the different ornamentation that the MEMF forces used. Maybe it was based on a different manuscript or score. Maybe there was no one capable of singing those spellbinding and unforgettable high notes.

Whatever the reason, The Ear’s hope for a live performance of the dramatic and iconic work were dashed and the famous, even classic, recorded versions – the 1980 recording by the Tallis Scholars is heard in the YouTube video at the bottom — remain for him the unsurpassed standard.

The evening also had its ironies. That same night on the NBC TV news The Ear saw a story about “overtourism” in Europe and China. Venice, for example, has now shrunk to only about 50,000 unhappy residents who put up with some 20 million tourists a year.

But centuries ago, travel was a rare and exotic luxury of the wealthy and well-educated, not an affordable indulgence or curiosity by ever-expanding middle classes. And this metaphorical trip proved an ideal vehicle to sample 16th- and 17th-century music in England, France, Germany and Italy.

Combining high culture and low, Herreid chose witty and detailed travelogue texts that gave the audience the rich flavor of various cultures at the time.

Details mattered to the four sharp-eyed travelers on which this tour was based. So as “our hero” wandered, we got to hear about the “libidinous ladies” of Naples and the musical talented courtesans of Venice as well as the richly attired archbishop of Paris attending a feast day service in the newly finished Notre-Dame cathedral.

Such descriptions were well delivered by unnamed narrators (below) from the chorus and proved a refreshingly earthy and entertaining counterpoint to the more serious spiritual and religious music of the era.

Another big satisfaction was the exceptional quality of the ensemble playing – exhibited even in large amounts of less interesting music — by the many singers and instrumentalists on the stage of Mills Hall, and, at one point, in the hall’s balcony.

Whether the players and singers were conducted by Herreid or by assistant conductor Jerry Hui — a UW-Madison graduate who is now a tenured professor at UW-Stout — the music sounded tight, authentic and expressive.

As for more superficial pleasures, it is great visual fun watching such early versions of modern string, wind and percussion instruments being played — trombone-like sackbuts, oboe-like shawms, flute-like recorders and lute-like theorbos. (Below are cello-like viols.)

The players, both faculty and students, were particularly convincing on their own in the sound painting done to depict battle scenes and political upheaval. And who will ever forget the surprise of loud foot-stomping by all the performers and conductor?

Herreid was absolutely spot-on to keep the program to about 80 minutes with no intermission. It helped the audience stay in the spirit of the Grand Tour and added cohesion to the program.

The Grand Tour, in short, proved outstanding in concept and excellent in execution.

But was The Ear alone in missing to those high notes?


Posted in Classical music
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