The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Listen to American violinist Hilary Hahn revive the old tradition of salon music by playing the 27 short encores she commissioned from today’s important composers.

November 23, 2013
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By Jacob Stockinger

A frequent critic and gifted guest reviewer on this web site recently referred to Chicago violinist Rachel Barton Pine as the most exciting violin talent to emerge on the American scene.

Well, Barton Pine is indeed special and very gifted, as she proved earlier this month when she opened the Wisconsin Union Theater season with the magnificent Violin Concerto by Johannes Brahms, performed with the University of Wisconsin-Madison Symphony Orchestra conducted under the baton of UW alumnus and Madison native Kenneth Woods.

Here is a link to that review:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2013/11/04/classical-music-the-wisconsin-union-theater-opens-its-new-season-with-a-winning-blockbuster-program-of-brahms-and-shostakovich-performed-by-native-son-conductor-kenneth-woods-chicago-violist-rachel/

But The Ear has to respectfully disagree.

For my money, or my taste, or my values — whatever you want to call it —  the most exciting violin talent on the American scene is Hilary Hahn (below).

hilary_hahn

Hahn performs the classics and the great masterworks terrifically, with a great sense of architectural shape and beautiful tone, plus exciting but not exaggerated or distorted interpretations.

She also plays modern works and commissions works, including a Pulitzer Prize-winning Violin Concerto by Jennifer Higdon (below) who teaches composition at the same Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia where Hahn trained.

And her two recitals with the then relatively unknown pianist Valentina Lisitsa at the Wisconsin Union Theater were among the best performed and most originally programmed recitals that I have ever heard.

Jennifer Higdon and cat Beau

Oh, and Hilary Hahn also blogs, by the way.

And she also did her own interviews, posted on YouTube, with the 27 composers — including Max Richter, Lera Auerbach and Avner Dorfman — who composed the encores.

Check out her website: http://hilaryhahn.com

Now the heirloom record label Deutsche Grammophon has released the “The Hilary Hahn Encores in 27 Pieces,” which features 27 recently composed pieces, all commissioned by Hahn for her use as concert encores. It is a welcome throwback, in a way, to salon music and to composers like virtuoso violinist Fritz Kreisler.

Hilary Hahn Encores CD cover

I don’t know how they did it – I suspect it was some kind of swap for advertising space – but NPR has terrific classical music blog “Deceptive Cadence” and a feature called “First Listen” that also allows you to hear some music before it is released commercially. (But, as I understand it, you can’t download it or recorded it from the NPR site.)

NPR did the same for Jeremy Denk’s acclaimed new recording for the Nonesuch label of Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations.

Anyway, here is a link to the new Hilary Hahn CD of encores. Enjoy the music and listening to it.

http://www.npr.org/2013/11/03/242090716/first-listen-hilary-hahn-in-27-pieces-the-hilary-hahn-encores

And let us know your Top 5 picks of the 27, or even just your Top Pick.

It will be interesting to see if there is a consensus and what ones are liked the most.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: The UW Choral Union and UW Symphony Orchestra will perform works by Mendelssohn and Vaughan Williams this Saturday night and Sunday afternoon.

November 21, 2013
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By Jacob Stockinger

Loyal readers of this blog know the name Mikko Utevsky. The young violist and conductor is a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin School of Music, where he studies with Pro Arte Quartet violist Sally Chisholm and plays in the UW Symphony Orchestra.

Utevsky, who has won awards and impressive reviews for his work in music education since his days at Madison’s East High School, is the founder and conductor of the Madison Area Youth Chamber Orchestra, which will perform its fourth season next summer. He was recently named the new Music Director of a local community orchestra, The Studio Orchestra. The ensemble has an out-of-date website here (www.disso.org).

You can check out his many honors and projects by typing his name into the search engine on this blog site.

Utevsky offered The Ear a guest preview of a concert this coming weekend by the University of Wisconsin-Madison Choral Union and the UW Symphony Orchestra. I immediately took him up on the offer. After all, he is a fine and perceptive writer who, you may recall, blogged for this post when he was on tour two summers ago with the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO) tour to Vienna, Prague and Budapest.

Here is the preview by Mikko Utevsky (below):

new Mikko Utevsky baton profile USE

By Mikko Utevsky

This weekend, UW-Madison Choral Director Beverly Taylor (below top, in a photo by Katrin Talbot) brings a wonderful and varied program to the stage of Mills Hall, consisting of a pair of choral and orchestral works performed by the UW Choral Union and the UW Symphony Orchestra (both below bottom, the latter fresh off of a critically acclaimed performance of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony and the Brahms Violin Concerto with soloist Rachel Barton Pine).

Beverly Taylor Katrin Talbot

Missa Choral Union and UW Symphony Orchestra

The choral concert, which can be heard Saturday night at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon at 2 p.m. — and in which, for full disclosure, this writer will be singing — features an unusual pair of secular and half-sacred cantatas: “Die Erste Walpurgisnacht” (The First Walpurgis Night) by Felix Mendelssohn (bellow top) and “Dona Nobis Pacem” by Ralph Vaughan Williams.

Mendelssohn

Ralph Vaughan Williamsjpg

Mendelssohn’s work, by far the stranger of the two, is on a text by the great German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (below), and is set for soloists (UW student Caitlin Miller, German tenor Klaus Georg, and UW student bass-baritone Erik Larson), chorus and symphony orchestra.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in 1828

It tells the story of a group of Druids who, by virtue of their guile and some clever trickery, scare away the Christian soldiers who occupy their land so they can celebrate May Day in peace. While the plot is set in May, some of the music today feels more appropriate for Halloween, particularly as the Druids masquerade as devil-worshippers and demons to frighten the Christians. Left to their own devices at last, the druids end the cantata in a blaze of light.

The poet had intended this text for musical treatment, but had expected his friend Carl Friedrich Zelter (below) to set it. Zelter tried twice, but only Mendelssohn eventually completed a setting in 1831 (which he revised extensively in 1843), probably attracted to the nocturnal mischief that at times recalls both atmosphere and Mendelssohn’s music for “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” The work runs about 35 minutes.

carl friedrich zelter

The second half of the program consists of a better-known 20th-century masterwork — of similar length and vastly greater weight — that treads the line between the sacred and the secular: “Dona Nobis Pacem” by Ralph Vaughan Williams.

This cantata, which will feature soprano and visiting UW professor of voice Elizabeth Hagedorn (below top) and student baritone Jordan Wilson as soloists along with the chorus and orchestra, is compiled from a variety of texts, primarily Biblical selections and poems of Walt Whitman (below bottom).

Elizabeth Hagedorn 1

Walt Whitman 2

Composed in 1936, it is both a spiritual and human prayer for peace, mourning the dead of the First World War (below) and praying that there will not be a Second.

The Latin “Dona Nobis Pacem” (“Grant us peace”) appears throughout the work as a refrain, interjected by the soprano soloist, who also features prominently in the first movement (“Agnus Dei”).

World War I trenches

The second movement, “Beat, beat drums!” portrays the chaos of war, and the third and fourth (“Reconciliation,” featuring the baritone, and a choral “Dirge for Two Veterans”) mourn the senseless loss of life that it brings. The fifth movement begins with a John Bright speech, “The Angel of Death has been abroad throughout the land,” and proceeds into a selection from the book of Jeremiah.

An optimistic English setting of the Gloria follows, and the work concludes quietly with the “Dona Nobis Pacem” sung by chorus a cappella and the soprano soloist. (See the YouTube video at the bottom.)

It is a profoundly moving work, with beautiful music and poetry, and can serve to remind us in times of strife that the truest service to the memory of the fallen is to strive for the end of conflict and the coming of peace.

I hope you will join us Saturday or Sunday for a program that is not to be missed.

Performances are in Mills Hall in the Mosse Humanities Building, 455 North Park Street, on Saturday night, Nov. 23, at 8 p.m.; and on Sunday afternoon, Nov. 24, at 2 p.m. 

Tickets are $15 for general admission, $8 for students and seniors. They are available by calling (608) 265-2787 and at the door.

Please note: There are sports games Friday night and parking will be difficult, so leave early and allow extra time for delays.


Classical music: The Wisconsin Union Theater opens its new season with a winning blockbuster, meaty program of Brahms and Shostakovich performed by native son conductor Kenneth Woods, Chicago violinist Rachel Barton Pine and the UW Symphony Orchestra.

November 4, 2013
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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 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

While the Wisconsin Union Theater is still under renovation, it is sharing its season’s programs with the University of Wisconsin School of Music, and the first one this year was a terrific winner!

Two guests graced the stage at Mills Hall, with the resources of the UW Symphony orchestra placed at the disposal of one of them, conductor Kenneth Woods, himself a product of the UW School of Music  who is now making a very individual career for himself from his home in Wales in the United Kingdom.

Kenneth_Woods

Woods chose to begin with a short orchestral piece, “In the Gale of Life,” composed in 2006 by Philip Sawyers (below). The British composer took his inspiration, and his title, from lines in a poem by A.E. Housman.

That fact matters little in the listening, for the piece is basically intended to be a zippy concert overture, designed to show off Sawyers’ mastery of a large orchestra. It might better be called an orchestral “Essay,” on the model of Samuel Barber’s works of that title, save that Sawyers lacks Barber’s clearly focused concision. Thematic materials appear but are denied explorations of their potentials. Just more of your in-one-ear-and-out-the-other repertoire, then.

Philip Sawyers

The first of the servings of real meat came with the appearance of the second guest, Chicago violinist  Rachel Barton Pine (below). She is surely the best violinist the US has produced, certainly presently active. I have long admired her versatile and imaginative work through her many prize-winning and best-selling recordings as well as at least one previous concert appearance (with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra).

Rachel Barton Pine

Her vehicle this time was Johannes Brahms’ monumental Violin Concerto.  She clearly regards it as a work of serious ideas, to which she is committed, rather than to simplistic showiness. In some ways, she understated the virtuosity, but when impassioned outbursts were called for she threw herself into them body and soul.

She also understands that any Brahms concerto is a partnership between soloist and orchestra. She was collegial, and even deferential when appropriate. The second movement opens with a gorgeous passage for wind ensemble, and when it briefly recurs at the end she joined in as if sharing their conversation.

Woods led the orchestra, meanwhile, in a solid and worthy realization of its role.

Pine also, by the way, eschewed the usual first-movement cadenza written by the concerto’s dedicatee, Joseph Joachim (below), and instead used her own–which she has published in a volume of such cadenzas and arrangements that was available in the lobby.

Joseph Joachim

A musician not only of rich talent but genuine personal grace, Barton Pine used the traditional encore slot to talk to the audience about the remarkable history of the instrument she plays, one selected by Brahms himself for a gifted lady violinist in his circle. She then played the composer’s familiar Lullaby in a solo arrangement by Albert Spalding. (You can hear it a YouTube video at the bottom and on her recent acclaimed CD of lullabies.)

As if one great masterpiece was not enough for a great concert, the second half offered another, the second serving of meat.

For a long time, the Fifth Symphony by Dmitri Shostakovich (below) was regarded as a vulgar capitulation to the brutal Stalinist regime, which had put the composer in serious jeopardy.  Shostakovich himself described it as “a Soviet artist’s response to just criticism,” and the work was immediately acclaimed as a model of accessible socialist art.

dmitri shostakovich

It has only been in recent years that all of Shostakovich’s music, and especially this work, have been perceived as carrying dark subtexts of personal and political import.

Woods himself clearly follows this line, and in an introductory talk pointed up the evidence for the Fifth as a work not of subservience but of defiance.  He then led a performance that was, in effect, a testimonial to that viewpoint.

It was a searing, powerful, riveting approach, its revisionism best displayed in the final movement.  Woods launched into its opening march ferociously, faster than most conductors. After its less hectic middle section, he approached its coda-apotheosis not as a paean of Soviet triumphalism, but as a slower, more unsettling challenge to the audience.

The UW Symphony Orchestra (below top, in a photo by John W. Barker) followed him magnificently.  How wonderful it is to see these students perform at a virtually professional level, utterly at one with their conductor.  Once more, a tribute to what UW Professor of Conducting James Smith (below) has done to build up a playing tradition of confidence and polish.

UW Symphony Orchestra 2013 CR John W. Barker

Smith_Jim_conduct07_3130

And, once more, this concert was a reminder of the kind of glorious musical experiences that are to be had on the UW-Madison campus, ones too often ignored or overlooked by the public and the media.


Classical music Q&A: Violinist Rachel Barton Pine talks about music education, her new projects, reaching new audiences, playing rock music and the Brahms Violin Concerto that she will perform Saturday night with the the UW-Madison Symphony Orchestra.

October 30, 2013
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ALERT: Radio host Rich Samuels, whose show “Anything Goes” airs from 5-8 a.m. on Thursday mornings on WORT 89.9 FM (it can also be streamed live) sends the  following word: “I’ll be airing back-to-back recorded interviews on my Thursday (10/31) WORT show with violinist Rachel Barton Pine and conductor Kenneth Woods, in anticipation of their Mills Hall performance with the UW Symphony Orchestra on Saturday night. Tracks from their latest CDs with be included.”

By Jacob Stockinger

Both in recordings and in live concerts, the acclaimed Chicago violinist Rachel Barton Pine (below) has the gift of making the familiar seem new and unusual, unfamiliar and exciting.

Rachel Barton Pine

Pine will put that talent on display this Saturday night at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall when she performs Johannes Brahms’ justly famous and beautiful Violin Concerto with the University of Wisconsin Symphony Orchestra under the baton of returning native son conductor Kenneth Woods (below), who will also conduct Dmitri Shostakovich’s powerful Fifth Symphony and British composer Philip Sawyer’s “Gale of Life.” (For more about Woods, the The Ear’s Q&A with him that was posted Monday. Here is a link:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2013/10/28/classical-music-qa-native-son-and-uw-madison-alumnus-conductor-kenneth-woods-talks-about-returning-to-madison-to-open-the-wisconsin-union-theater-season-this-coming-saturday-night/

Kenneth_Woods

The concert is the season opener for the Wisconsin Union Theater, which is using Mills Hall while the regular historic and landmark hall is undergoing extensive renovations.

For more information here is a link to the Wisconsin Union Theater’s website:

http://www.uniontheater.wisc.edu/Season13-14/Rachel-Barton-Pine.html

For information and tickets, call the Box Office at 608-265-ARTS (2787) for more information. Tickets are: $25 General Public, $21 Union Members, UW-Madison Faculty & Staff, and non UW-Madison Students, $10 UW-Madison Students.  Buy online, call the Box Office at 608-265-ARTS (2787), or purchase in person at the Campus Arts Ticketing box office in Vilas Hall, 821 University Ave. 

Celebrated as a leading interpreter of great classical works, Rachel Barton Pine’s performances combine her gift for emotional communication and her scholarly fascination with historical research.  Audiences are thrilled by her dazzling technique, lustrous tone, and infectious joy in music-making.

Pine is a former violin prodigy who performed with the Chicago Symphony at the age of 10, and at numerous other important venues throughout her teens.  Her broad range includes classical and baroque music, but unexpectedly for a classical musician, Barton Pine also performs with a heavy metal band, Earthen Grave.

Along with her regular performance schedule, Barton Pine has also turned her attention to classical music advocacy. The Rachel Elizabeth Barton Foundation and Global HeartStrings are dedicated to promoting the study and appreciation of classical music. 

Barton Pine recently granted an email interview to The Ear:

Rachel Barton Pine portrait

Could you briefly introduce yourself, touching on some highlights include when you started violin lessons, honors and awards,

When I was three years old, I saw some older girls in beautiful dresses who were playing violin at church. I immediately stood up in the pew and announced, “I want to do that!”  That summer, my parents let me start lessons with a teacher in the neighborhood.

By age five, I knew this is what my life would be about.  I made my professional debut at age seven with the Chicago String Ensemble and my earliest appearances with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra were at age 10 and 15.

Like many young violinist I took part in international competitions.  I was the youngest person (at age 17) and the first American to win a gold medal at the 1992 J.S. Bach International Competition in Leipzig, Germany, and I won top prizes in the Szigeti (Budapest), Paganini (Genoa), Queen Elisabeth (Brussels), Kreisler (Vienna), and Montreal international violin competitions.

Closer to home, I’ve been honored with the Great Performer of Illinois award and twice as a Chicagoan of the year. I had the pleasure of playing my own version of the Star-Spangled Banner for various events including Chicago Bulls playoff games. I’ve also received the Studs Terkel Humanities Service Award for my work in music education.

Stradivarius violin

What are your current and future projects?

For the last two seasons, my tour dates included performances of two demanding cycles, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s five Violin Concertos and the Paganini’s 24 solo Caprices (see the YouTube video below), each cycle in a single evening. Exploring a composer’s entire output in a single genre gives extra insight to both the interpreter and the listeners. In August, I recorded the complete Mozart concertos with Sir Neville Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields; the album will be released in the spring. This winter, I will record the Paganini caprices.

What things do you think make you special or unusual?

I like to think that every violin soloist is individual and unique; hearing my Brahms Concerto will be a little different from any other Brahms you’ve heard before because I’m a different person.

With that being said, I believe I’m the only international violin soloist who also plays in a doom/thrash metal band! When I’m not off playing concertos and recitals, I love rocking out (below) with my band Earthen Grave, playing my electric six-string flying V violin.

On the other end of the spectrum, I love indulging in early music when I get a chance. In fact, in 2009, I performed on the rebec (an ancestor of the violin from the 1200s) for a concert of medieval music at the Madison Early Music Festival.

Rachel Barton Pine  goth nails

You have recorded the Brahms Violin Concerto along with a concerto by Brahms’ friend and mentor Joseph Joachim. Can you explain what makes the Brahms a special work for you?

I have been fascinated with the Brahms Concerto since my earliest violin lessons. I began studying it when I was 14, and it rapidly became a mainstay of my repertoire. It was with the Brahms Concerto that I won several of my international prizes and made many of my debuts in Europe and America. It remains one of the most fulfilling works I perform.

My teacher in Berlin, Werner Scholz, was a student of a student of Joachim. I feel fortunate to have gained knowledge about the Brahms Concerto from one so close to the original source. In my lessons, Professor Scholz would say, “My teacher said that Joachim said that Brahms said to play it like this!”

In addition, I have been playing a very special violin since 2002, the 1742 “ex-Soldat” Guarneri del Gesu (below), on loan from my generous patron. In the 19th century, it was chosen by Brahms for his protégé, Marie Soldat. She was one of the first champions of the Brahms Violin Concerto, which became her signature piece. Marie Soldat and Brahms frequently played chamber music together, with Brahms at the piano, which means that my violin actually got to jam with Brahms! It’s amazing to play the music of Brahms on an instrument whose voice he personally selected.

Rachel Barton Pine with violin

I will be performing my own cadenza for the Brahms. Playing my own cadenza is the most organic way I can express my feelings about the music. I’m very honored that my cadenzas to great violin concertos such as Mozart, Beethoven, Paganini and Brahms have been published in “The Rachel Barton Pine Collection” along with others of my compositions and arrangements and editions. This sheet music book is part of Carl Fischer’s Masters Collection series; I am the only living artist (other volumes are the collections of works by Kreisler, Heifetz, etc.)

In 2004, I had the great pleasure of releasing my recording of the Brahms Concerto with my “hometown” orchestra, the mighty Chicago Symphony. That was really a dream come true, to do one of my favorite concertos with one of my favorite orchestras! For that album, I recorded both my own cadenza as well as that by Brahms’s friend and collaborator Joachim.

What was the relationship between Brahms and Joachim?

When Joseph Joachim and Johannes Brahms met in 1853, the 21-year-old Joachim was already an established violin virtuoso and composer. The extremely gifted Brahms, two years younger, was virtually unknown. They quickly became close friends and began a musical interchange that lasted throughout their lives.

Brahms and Joachim challenged each other constantly, trading counterpoint exercises along with their correspondence. In 1853, they roomed together in Göttingen, and Brahms began to study orchestration with Joachim. Joachim served as a mentor to Brahms, introducing him to Schumann and other leading musicians of the day.

Throughout their friendship, Joachim was unwavering in his support of Brahms’s compositions. He performed Brahms’s chamber works, premiering many of them, and conducted Brahms’s symphonies. Joachim was particularly fond of the Brahms Violin Concerto. He described the work, which Brahms dedicated to him, as one of “high artistic value” that roused in him “a peculiarly strong feeling of interest” (Joseph Joachim and Andreas Moser, Violinschule, 1902-05).

Brahms (below) began composing his Violin Concerto in the summer of 1878, during a vacation on Lake Wörther in Pörtschach, Carinthia (Austria). On August 22, Brahms sent the manuscript of the violin part to Joachim with this note: “Naturally I wish to ask you to correct it. I thought you ought to have no excuse – neither respect for the music being too good nor the pretext that orchestrating it would not merit the effort. Now I shall be satisfied if you say a word and perhaps write in several: difficult, awkward, impossible, etc.” Thus began one of the most intriguing musical exchanges in history.

brahms-1

By the time Joachim (below) premiered the concerto in Leipzig on January 1, 1879, the piece had undergone considerable changes. Two middle movements had been removed and replaced by a newly written Adagio, resulting in the three-movement concerto we know today. (Both of the original middle movements are now lost. Many scholars think that the Scherzo may have been converted into the Allegro appassionato of the Second Piano Concerto.) The score was passed back and forth at least a half-dozen times before the premiere, and the two friends’ debate over revisions, which is clearly evident in the surviving manuscript, has been left for posterity. In the end, Brahms incorporated most of Joachim’s suggested orchestral changes but considerably fewer of his revisions to the solo violin part.

Joseph Joachim

How do you feel about performing with a student orchestra such as the UW Symphony? Do you see advantages or drawbacks?

There is nothing more energizing than youthful talent and enthusiasm, and I always welcome the opportunity to perform with young people. These student musicians may not be as experienced with the Brahms Violin Concerto as older artists, but I’m sure they’ll learn it quickly and play it with great spirit. (Below are the UW Symphony Orchestra and the UW Choral Union under the direction of conductor Beverly Taylor.)

Missa Choral Union and UW Symphony Orchestra

Do you have any experience with conductor Kenneth Woods or know his reputation?

I was not previously familiar with Maestro Woods. One of the great pleasures of being a touring soloist is performing in a different city or country every week, experiencing the wonderful variety of reuniting with musicians with whom I have previously worked and collaborating with new colleagues. Fresh perspectives are always inspiring, and I really look forward to exploring the Brahms with Maestro Woods in a few weeks.

Do you have an opinion of Madison and its audiences? Do you have any personal or professional history here? Or will this be your local debut?

I have performed in Madison a number of times over the last decade as soloist with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below top). Maestro Andrew Sewell (below bottom), his wife and children have become close family friends. In fact, his son (six years old at the time, now a teenager) was the ring bearer at my wedding. I always enjoy visiting Madison. I’m looking forward to returning this month, and coming back to the WCO again next season.

My daughter Sylvia has been touring with me since she was three weeks old; she just turned two. This will be her first trip to Madison, and I’m sure she’ll enjoy it, too.

WCO lobby

andrewsewell

Was there an Aha! Moment that told you – a piece or performance or performer – that let you know that you wanted to be a professional concertizing violinist?

I began violin lessons at age three, and by the time I was five, I was signing my kindergarten papers “Rachel, Violinist.” I didn’t consider myself to be someone who played the violin; rather, being a violinist was my entire identity. It was through playing in church that I had come to the belief that creating music and sharing it was others to uplift their spirits is my calling, and that’s what I still believe.

What advice would you give to young violinists?

Commit to a daily minimum amount of practice and stick to it; inconsistency will slow your progress. Be focused, observant and goal-oriented when practicing; merely logging in the hours won’t magically cause improvement. Structure your practice sessions to include a balance between technical work and expressive work … and don’t forget to include a little creative time too, such as writing your own music, jamming along to the radio, or trying out a fun non-classical style of playing.

violin practice

And how do you think classical music can attract bigger and younger audiences?

Much has been written about this important topic. Traveling around the U.S., I’ve observed many efforts that have been successful in different communities. Being creative with programming and concert presentation is important, while always preserving what makes classical special in the first place.

It’s also important to find creative ways to connect with others so we can express our passion for classical music and get them excited about it, too. I do this in a variety of ways: visiting schools, participating in pre-concert talks, being accessible through social media such as Twitter and my Violin Adventures podcast, and playing classical pieces on rock radio stations or in alternative venues such as bars and cafes.

It’s the best feeling in the world when someone comes up to me after a concert to say that it was the first time they ever attended an orchestra performance and they loved it!

What else would you like to say or add?

I’m very excited to have just released my latest album, the Mendelssohn and Schumann Violin Concertos along with both Beethoven Romances. My last album, Violin Lullabies (see the YouTube video at the bottom to hear Rachel Barton Pine play Brahms’ Lullaby) debuted at No. 1 on Billboard magazine’s classical chart, which was a thrill. With all of my recordings, I hope that they will be enjoyed by classical music connoisseurs as well as by those who might be newly discovering the joys of classical music.


Classical music Q&A: Native son and UW-Madison alumnus conductor Kenneth Woods talks about returning to Madison to open the Wisconsin Union Theater season this coming Saturday night.

October 28, 2013
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Madison-born and Madison-bred, Kenneth Woods is almost a one-man band of classical music. This coming year he will have out new six CDs, including performances both as an orchestra conductor, chamber music cellist, and also as a composer and a rock guitarist . And he still finds time to write a fascinating, critically acclaimed and popular blog with an insider’s view of making music called “A View From the Podium.”

Here are links to his main website and to his blog:

http://kennethwoods.net

http://kennethwoods.net/blog1/a-view-from-the-podium/

And check out his impressive biography:

http://kennethwoods.net/blog1/bio/

You should also read the excellent interview he gave UW School of Music concert manager and public relations director Kathy Esposito on the music school’s terrific new blog “Fanfare,” Here is a link; 

http://uwmadisonschoolofmusic.wordpress.com/2013/10/22/woods-pine/

Woods attended West High School and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He was also a member of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO). He did undergraduate work at the University of Illinois Champaign–Urbana, and graduate work at the UW-Madison and the University of Cincinnati Conservatory of Music.

That makes him a perfect candidate to conduct the UW Symphony Orchestra this coming Saturday night at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall. The concert, which features acclaimed Chicago violinist Rachel Barton Pine in the famous Violin Concerto by Johannes Brahms, also includes the famously powerful Fifth Symphony by Dmitri Shostakovich, will open the Wisconsin Union Theater season.

For more details about the concert, including ticket prices ($10 for UW students up to $25 for the general public) and links to other sites and samples, visit:

http://www.uniontheater.wisc.edu/Season13-14/Rachel-Barton-Pine.html

Based in Wales, Woods — who can heard at the bottom in a YouTube video conducting Ralph Vaughan Williams’ haunting “Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis” performed by the Orchestra of the  Swan with a beautifully divided string section —  recently gave The Ear an email interview:

Kenneth Woods

You are a very busy man these days. Can you bring us up to date and fill us in briefly on your accomplishments over the past year or two?

Well, it’s been a very busy time, I must say. The most important step this year has been the beginning of my new partnership as artistic director and principal conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra.

When I last conducted here in Madison, I had just finished a long association with the Oregon East Symphony. Since then, I’ve basically been a freelance conductor without an orchestra to call my home. “It’s been an incredibly exciting time, but I’ve been wanting a chance to build something together with a group of colleagues I really respect.”

Otherwise, it’s been one of those years where you often feel like you are just holding on for dear life. At the Scotia Festival this summer, they told me I set some kind of record for most performances by a guest artist in the history of the festival. It has been that kind of year.

It’s all been very exciting but often quite draining. I’m hoping the next chapter, focusing more narrowly on building an orchestra, will be just as exciting but slightly less manic.

kenneth woods conducting english symphony orchestra

What does it mean to you to be returning to your alma mater to conduct the UW Symphony?

My father has been a professor in the Chemistry Department since just before I was born, so I pretty much grew up on and around the UW campus.

When I was growing up, the Madison Symphony Orchestra was not as well-established as it is now, and UW Symphony concerts were the big classical events in town, and I have so many memories of sitting in Mills Hall, where I first heard Bruckner, Mahler, Stravinsky, Brahms and any number of other composers.

The design of the Humanities Building — I’ve heard it described as a model for a dystopian prison — doesn’t tend to inspire much affection among people who work in it, but I’m very sentimental about the place.

Coming back to the UW for my Master’s was a great chapter for me. It was one of those miraculous moments in life when you have the good fortune to find exactly the mentors and teachers you need. Those years studying cello and chamber music with Parry Karp (below) were incredibly important to everything I’ve done since then, and I was also really lucky to work closely with David Becker, who gave me a good foundation as a conductor, and the late violinist Vartan Manoogian, who became a good friend and supported me a lot.

Parry Karp

David Becker full mug

What do you think about working with and conducting student orchestras?

Philosophically, I try to treat every orchestra the same. You go to the first rehearsal really well prepared, give an upbeat, and then see what happens.

What I admire most in any orchestra is preparation combined with flexibility, which, not coincidently, is what I always looked for in conductors when I was playing in orchestras.

Being truly flexible isn’t about, for instance, trying every possible version of a bowing- it’s something that happens more at the quantum level of playing. It’s listening to each other with such focus that you can all make the millions of tiny anticipations and adjustments needed to take the performance somewhere really special.

The playing level of student orchestras these days is always very high, so often my job is to help them develop the kind of ten-dimensional listening that lets them play as an ensemble. (Below is the UW Symphony Orchestra performing with the UW Choral Union under choral director Beverly Taylor.)

Missa Choral Union and UW Symphony Orchestra

What would you like to say about the two staple works you will conduct, the Brahms Violin Concerto (have you ever worked with Rachel Barton Pine?) and the Shostakovich Fifth Symphony?

Well, the symphony by Shostakovich (below) is a very special piece, and one I have a very personal relationship with. It was, in fact, the first piece of orchestral music I ever heard played live. When I was three or four, my pre-school teacher, Barbara Goy, founder of the Preschool for the Arts, took us to a rehearsal of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestra (WYSO) conducted by its founder Marvin Rabin – and they were working on it.

That morning in the Humanities Building changed my life. I’ve conducted it many times, given lectures on it, taught it and written at length about it, but doing it in the same building where I first heard it is going to be very, very special.

dmitri shostakovich

Brahms and Shostakovich make for an interesting pairing because they’re so completely different in some ways, and yet they have certain important qualities in common.

Shostakovich wrote so much, and could write in so many styles and so many genres- his versatility is almost unmatched in music history. Brahms (below) only left us a smaller body of work- so much of his music ended up in his fireplace- but it’s all so clearly the same voice, and so closely interconnected.

The large-scale orchestral music has this lovely symmetry- four symphonies, four concertos. That’s it! I just did the Violin Concerto back in June with Alexander Sitkovetsky, a favorite soloist with whom I’ve worked many times. I hadn’t done the piece in years and it was so humbling to come back to the score again after a break.

brahms3

Rachel Barton Pine (below) and I have never met, but I’ve certainly admired her work. Part of the joy of conducting concertos is in seeing how different each collaboration is going to be. My view of the Shostakovich symphony has developed over 30 years and doesn’t tend to change radically from one concert to another, but I might need to completely re-think the Brahms in order to suit Rachel’s take on it.

Rachel Barton Pine

And what do you want to say about the other composer Philip Sawyers (below) and the Overture to the “Gale of Life” piece by way of introducing them to readers?

Philip is one of the great composers of our time- someone whose music will, I’m sure, be discussed and performed and admired for generations to come. I feel incredibly lucky to be able to count him as a dear friend.

I first met Philip when I was conducting my first concert with Kent County Youth Orchestra in England, where he has coached the violins since the 1970s. Philip is a former member of the orchestra of Royal Opera Covent Garden.

Getting to know his music was a revelation.

I’ve just completed a recording of his Second Symphony, Cello Concerto and Concertante for Violin, Piano and Strings with the Orchestra of the Swan for Nimbus Records.

It’s a project I’m enormously proud of. I think the Concerto is probably the greatest British cello concerto since the one by William Walton, and the Second Symphony is a staggering masterpiece. I know that sounds like hyperbole, but I believe it.

When I took up my new gig with the English Symphony Orchestra (below), one of my first decisions was to commission a Third Symphony from Philip, which we’ll premiere in 2015 and record for Nimbus.

“Gale of Life” is a proper concert opener – it’s not one of his more ambitious works, but it’s immensely satisfying to play and a great introduction to his language. All the great composers used to write overtures and other concert openers, but that has really died off in the last 40 years.

I always like to try to bring something with me when I guest conduct that I have a personal connection to, which will be new to either the musicians or the audience, or maybe both. Hopefully, a good number of folks will come away from the concert anxious to hear his other works.

Philip Sawyers


Classical music: Pianist Jeremy Denk is named a MacArthur “genius.” Here is a sampler of his immense talent as displayed in concerts at the Wisconsin Union Theater, at NPR, in his blog “Think Denk” and on his latest Nonesuch recordings of Bach, Beethoven and Ligeti.

September 28, 2013
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

As you may have already heard, classical pianist Jeremy Denk (below) received a prestigious MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” this week. The stipend is $625,000 to be paid over five years and to be used for whatever the recipient wants, no string attached.

Here is a link to the MacArthur Foundation announcement (curiously, yet another year has gone by without any recipients from the UW-Madison):

http://www.macfound.org

Jeremy Denk 1

Several observations and interpretations come to mind.

One is that Jeremy Denk, a trained chemist as well as pianist, has already performed in Madison – TWICE – at the Wisconsin Union Theater. Both programs were mammoth undertakings. I met and worked with Denk both times, especially the first, and he is a remarkably deserving artist who is honest, droll, articulate and original. I also very much like his philosophy that radical music should stay sounding radical, no matter how many years later.

The first recital featured J.S. Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations on the first half with Charles Ives’ Sonata No. 1 on the second half. Whew!

While here for that concert, Denk, a master blogger as you can find in “Think Denk,” he gave a public master class for young pianists (below), a fascinating talk on pedaling in Chopin at the UW School of Music, and a panel on blogging. As you can tell, Denk is a terrifically gifted musician with many different achievements to his credit.

Jeremy Denk teaching 1

Then last season, Denk appeared again in recital, in Mills Hall, to a regrettably small audience, and he played Franz  Liszt and Bela Bartok, followed by J.S. Bach and Beethoven. It was nothing short of phenomenal and utterly convincing.

Both concerts were outstanding events.

And both events point to the wisdom of the Wisconsin Union Theater in finding and booking up-and-coming talent.

Not that Jeremy Denk is young.

At 43, Denk is a seasoned concert veteran and he has taken the time to make the music he plays his own. He is not fresh out of some competition win at 23 or 24, and still stretching to find his maturity and a personal point of view. He is writing a book for Alfred A. Knopf based, to be published this year, based on some articles (on making his first recording and on being a piano student under various teachers) that he wrote for The New Yorker magazine and on his blog “Think Denk.”

Denk is also a devout Francophile who loves Proust and Balzac as well as great food and drink. The Ear thinks that helps to explain the sheer beauty and sensuality as well as logic of his playing.

Jeremy Denk street 1 

If you have any qualms about the Wisconsin Union Theater concert series this year –which features violinist Rachel Barton Pine (below top) with the UW Symphony Orchestra under UW alumnus conductor Kenneth Woods on Saturday, Nov. 2, the Miro String Quartet (below middle, in a photo by Jim Leisy) on Friday, Feb. 21; the Chicago Symphony Orchestra principal tuba player Gene Pokorny with the UW Symphony Orchestra on Sunday, March 8; and pianist Inon Barnatan (below bottom) on Friday, April 18. The MacArthur’s high-profile recognition of Jeremy Denk is a good reminder to trust the WUD series, however unexpected its choices may seem.

Here is a link to the Wisconsin Union Theater series:

http://www.uniontheater.wisc.edu/season2013-14.html

Rachel Barton Pine

Miro Quartet Jim Leisy

Inon Barnatan

Here is a link to Jeremy Denk’s blog:

http://jeremydenk.net/blog/

And here are links to NPR, where Denk was an artist-in-residence  for a week and where you can hear both interviews and excerpts from his first Nonesuch recording of etudes by Gyorgy Ligeti and Beethoven’s final Piano Sonata No. 32 in C minor, Op. 111; and excerpts from his CD and DVD of J.S. Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations (the famous opening Aria is at the bottom in a YouTube video) that will be released this coming week. (He also recorded a fabulous album of Turn-of-the-20th-Century French violin sonatas with Joshua Bell for Sony Classical.)

http://www.npr.org/event/music/155236091/in-practice-jeremy-denk

jeremy denk ligeti-beethoven CD

http://www.npr.org/2013/09/21/224429650/first-listen-jeremy-denk-j-s-bach-goldberg-variations

jeremy denk bach golbergs cd

Personally, The Ear hopes Jeremy Denk records a lot more repertoire, and soon, especially now that he is a house artist of the prestigious Nonesuch Records label, which gives the notoriously difficult-to-record piano  outstanding sonic engineering. Several requests come to mind: Ludwig van Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1, Op. 15, for which he is well-known; Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 25 in C Major, K. 503, which he is touring with right now; the six Piano Pieces, Op. 118, by Johannes Brahms; some shorter J.S. Bach preludes and fugues as well as various suites; some sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti; and some works by Frederic Chopin, preferably the thorny and often underplayed mazurkas and the ballades that are so rich for fresh interpretation.

Did you hear Jeremy Denk perform in Madison?

Have you listened to his recordings?

What do you think of Denk’s playing and writings?

The Ear wants to hear.


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