The Well-Tempered Ear

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

July 30, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

The experts sure got it wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Classical music: This Friday night, the Wisconsin Union Theater presents a world-class Spanish string quartet and will also announce the special concerts to mark its centennial anniversary next season

February 28, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Think of it as a two-fer, and then some, at the Wisconsin Union Theater this Friday night, March 1.

The main event is the Madison debut of a world-class string quartet from Spain.

The other event is the announcement of the schedule for the Concert Series’ 2019-2020 season — the series’ 100th season.

The first event is the concert by Cuarteto Casals (below) at 7:30 p.m. in Shannon Hall.

Prices for the event are: the general public, $25-40; for Union members, $25-36; for UW faculty and staff members, $25-38; for young people, $20; and for UW-Madison students, $10. Tickets can be bought online, by phone at 608-265-ARTS (2787) or in person. See locations and hours here.

The program includes the String Quartet in C Major “The Bird,” Op. 33, No. 3, by Franz Joseph Haydn; the String Quartet No. 3 by Bela Bartok; selections from the Fantasies for String Quartet by Henry Purcell; and the String Quartet in G Minor, Op. 10, by Claude Debussy. (You can hear the Cuarteto Casals play a movement of a different Haydn string quartet in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Cuarteto Casals was founded in 1997 at the Escuela Reina Sofia in Madrid. They are named after great 20th-century Catalan cellist Pau (Pablo) Casals (below). Members of the quartet are Vera Martinez Mehner and Abel Tomas, violins; Jonathan Brown, viola; and Arnau Tomas, cello.

The group achieved international recognition after winning First Prizes at the London and Brahms-Hamburg competitions. After receiving the prestigious Burletti-Buitoni Trust award designed to assist young musicians, the quartet acquired a matching set of Baroque and Classical period bows, used to distinguish between musical styles.

The year 2017 marked the 20th anniversary of the quartet, and also the start of a commemorative project: a six-concert series of the complete Beethoven quartets, accompanied by six commissioned works from great composers since the 17th century.

The quartet was selected as ambassadors of Catalan culture by the Generalitat of Catalunya, and accompanies the King of Spain on diplomatic visits.

It is the quartet-in-residence at the Spanish Royal Palace through 2020 and the quartet-in-residence at the Escola Superior de Musica de Catalunya in Barcelona.

Carol Carlson (below) will offer a free pre-concert lecture at 6 p.m. Carol holds both Doctor of Musical Arts and Master of Music degrees in violin performance from the UW-Madison.

Carlson dedicates herself to music education as co-founder, co-director and teacher of Music con Brio, a non-profit organization that provides affordable violin lessons and equipment for students at Emerson Elementary School in Madison. Music con Brio (below, in a photo by Scott Maurer) will perform on the stage of Shannon Hall from 7 to 7:20 p.m.

This program was supported in part by a grant from the Wisconsin Arts Board with funds from the State of Wisconsin and the National Endowment for the Arts. The media sponsor is WORT 89.9 FM.


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