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: Tuesday night brings concerts of band music as well as organ and violin duets

October 21, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

This Tuesday night, Oct. 22, will see concerts of band music and organ-violin duets.

Here are details:

ORGAN AND VIOLIN CONCERT

At 7:30 p.m. in Overture Hall, the Overture Concert Organ Series, sponsored by the Madison Symphony Orchestra and organized by MSO principal organist Greg Zelek, offers a concert of music for organ and violin.

The organist is Michael Hey (below right), a Wisconsin native who won first prize at an organ competition in Shanghai, China, and is the organist at the famed St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City.

The violinist is Christiana Liberis (below left) who recently toured with the rock band The Eagles.

Tickets are $20.

The program includes music by Johann Sebastian Bach, Sir Edward Elgar, Maurice Ravel, Charles-Marie Widor, Giovanni Battista Vitali, Naji Hakim and Fritz Kreisler.

In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear the duo perform a haunting version of the popular “Gymnopedie No. 1” by Erik Satie

For information, including specific works on the program and detailed biographies about the performers, go to: https://madisonsymphony.org/event/organ-michael-hey-christiana-liberis/

UW-MADISON CONCERT BAND

At 7:30 p.m. in the new Mead Witter Foundation Concert Hall of the  Hamel Music Center, 740 University Avenue, the UW-Madison Concert Band (below) will perform a FREE concert.

The band will perform under director Scott Teeple (below) and guest conductor Ross Wolf.

The program includes:

“Lux Arumque” by Eric Whitacre
“Firefly” by Ryan George
“Colonial Song” by Percy Grainger/ed. Mark Rogers
“Huntington Tower Ballad” by Ottorino Respighi
“George Washington Bridge” by William Schuman

For information, go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/uw-concert-band-and-winds-of-wisconsin/


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Classical music: The eclectic fusion group Mr. Chair plays music by Stravinsky, Satie and others on Monday night in Spring Green

August 17, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement from the Rural Musicians Forum:

Mr. Chair looks like a jazz quartet, sounds sometimes like a rock band, but in actuality is a contemporary classical music group in the guise of a modern band.

Classically trained musicians who are well versed in jazz, the players in Mr. Chair create a new sound using both acoustic and electric instruments.(You can hear Mr. Chair perform the original composition “Freed” in the the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The Rural Musicians Forum audience will have the chance to enjoy the soundscapes of this fascinating eclectic fusion group on this coming Monday night, Aug. 19, at 7:30 p.m. at Taliesin’s Hillside Theater (below) in Spring Green.

Members of Mr. Chair (below) are Professor Mark Hetzler, trombone and electronics; Jason Kutz, piano and keyboards; Ben Ferris, acoustic and electric bass; and Mike Koszewski, drums and percussion. All have close ties to the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music, where they also perform as an ensemble.

Mr. Chair’s compositions are long-form journeys, telling stories through sound by using and exploring the three pillars of music: melody, harmony and rhythm. Think cinematic, orchestral, surreal, romantic, emotional and gripping, and always equal parts dissonant and consonant. Their influences are far-reaching from classical, blues and rock to soul, funk, jazz and beyond.

For this concert, Mr. Chair will perform re-imagined excerpts from Igor Stravinsky’s Neo-Classical ballet masterpiece Pulcinella as well as music by Erik Satie and selections from their debut album, NEBULEBULA, which will be released on Thursday, Sept. 5, on vinyl, CD and digital streaming platforms.

The genre-bending quartet will perform in the beautiful Hillside Theater designed by Frank Lloyd Wright as part of his Taliesin compound. It is located at 6604 State Highway 23, about five miles south of Spring Green.

Admission is by free will offering, with a suggested donation of $15.


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Classical music: The inaugural LunART Festival — celebrating women creators and performers — will take place this coming Thursday through Saturday

June 26, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

The timing couldn’t be better or more relevant, given the rise of the #MeToo movement and the increased attention being paid to the role of women in the creative and performing arts.

So The Ear is pleased to post the following announcement about the inaugural LunART Festival, which will take place this coming Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

The announcement comes from festival co-directors flutist Iva Ugrcic (below top) and oboist Laura Medisky (below bottom). Both women are doctoral graduates from the UW-Madison Mead Witter School of Music, and both are members of the Black Marigold woodwind quintet and have played with the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra.

The first-ever LunART Festival will be held in Madison, Wisconsin, from this Thursday through Saturday, June 28-30, with the mission to support, inspire, promote and celebrate women in the arts through pubic performances, exhibitions, workshops and interdisciplinary collaboration.

The festival — showcasing 40 international women artists — will provide accessible, high-quality, engaging concerts and events with diverse programming through various arts fields. All artistic creators represented at LunART (composers, visual artists, writers, speakers) will be women.

To showcase women in the arts and bring their work into the spotlight, this three-day event includes a variety of FREE and ticketed concerts, outreach events and educational programs.

The artistic goal is to share works of women artists, and ensure the progress women have made will continue to flourish and grow, overcoming issues of gender inequity in the Arts. LunART supports artistic development of all aspiring regional, national, and international artists, whether emerging or established in their fields.

“This festival will raise awareness of the position of women in the arts through engaging, accessible concerts and events,” says founder and executive director Ugrcic. “The LunART Festival offers diverse programs representing current and relevant women in the arts,and we are committed to expanding and strengthening community ties through public performances and exhibitions. As we establish the festival’s reach into our local community and beyond, we see tremendous potential for growth in future years, with opportunities to expand our vision to theater, dance, opera and the visual arts, creating an interdisciplinary festival dedicated to women in all the arts.”

Through LunART’s mission and vision, the greater Madison community, audiences, festival musicians, artists, and the global music community will be directly impacted by:

  •  Raising awareness of the position of women in the arts
  •  Empowering women artists and creating a sense of unity and community
  •  Establishing artistic relationships and opening doors for future collaborations
  •  Creating lines for global connections rooted in Madison
  •  Introducing underrepresented artists to Wisconsin audiences
  •  Reaching diverse audiences, and drawing from underserved populations
  •  Providing opportunity for local businesses to be involved in the arts, supporting an 
organization with a specific social cause. 
The inaugural festival includes three ticketed evening Gala concerts of contemporary classical music and two “Starry Night” late-night performances featuring a local woman hip-hop artist, singer-songwriter, and a rock band.

Also on the schedule is an outreach concert featuring emerging women composers, a lecture about the influence of women in the arts, and a panel discussion about collaboration in the arts.

The festival’s 2018 Artist-in-Residence is award-winning composer Jenni Brandon from Long Beach, California. Brandon’s instrumental and vocal works will be showcased at the Gala concerts, including one world premiere. (You can hear a sample of her work in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

To connect with women composers globally, the festival held a call for scores, from December to March, that was open to women composers of all ages and nationalities, and received scores from over 90 applicants from more than 20 countries.

  • LunART Festival has partnered with area art organizations including Overture Center for the Arts, Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, First United Methodist Church, Madison Public Library, Capitol Lakes Retirement Center, and First Unitarian Society of Madison, as well as local businesses Robinia Courtyard, Bos Meadery, and Field Table. LunART is supported by Dane Arts and Madison Arts Commission, won second place at the 2018 UW Arts Business Competition, and is a finalist for the 2018 National Flute Association’s C.R.E.A.T.E. Project Competition.

For a complete schedule of the varied events, go to this website and click on Learn More:  https://www.lunartfestival.org/events

The main concluding event is the gala concert of “Women’s Voices” on Saturday, June 30, at 7 p.m. in the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive. Tickets are $20 for general admission, $10 for students. They can be purchased in advance by going to the website for the concert, which is below.

The website also has the full list of performers and the full program – including works by Hildegard von Bingen, Fanny Mendelssohn and Amy Beach and many contemporary women composers.

Go to: https://www.lunartfestival.org/womens-voices


Classical music: UW choral groups and a jazz quintet join forces Saturday night for a FREE concert of world premieres to honor the bicycle

April 27, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Here is an announcement from the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music:

A FREE concert — called ”Free Wheeling: A Tribute to the Bicycle” – takes place this Saturday night at 7 p.m. in Mills Hall.

The UW Madrigal Singers (below) and Chorale, under the direction of Bruce Gladstone, will join forces with a jazz group.

The concert opens with five world premieres, written specifically for this concert.

“I was surprised, given the bicycle’s popularity, that there weren’t many choral works about bikes,” noted Gladstone (below, in a photo by Katrin Talbot). “It seems to be more the domain of the solo popular ballad or rock bands. There are loads of poems about bikes though, so I just commissioned new works from composers I know.”

There are two works from John Stevens (below), veteran composer and UW-Madison emeritus professor. “Toasting Song” is a rollicking number about the pleasures of both cycling and wine. “A Bicycler’s Song” takes a poem in praise of bicycles and cycling and sets it in a vocal jazz idiom reminiscent of the Manhattan Transfer.

UW-Madison alumus and former Madrigal Singer Scott Gendel (below) also provided two new works for this event. “She Waits for Me” is a lush ballad that celebrates the joys of love and loyalty, while “Little Things” offers us a cautionary tale of a cyclist’s visit to church one Sunday morning.

Carl Buttke, a current graduate student, composed the fifth new work for this concert, a picturesque tale of a memorable day spent in the Austrian Alps, “Cycling the Rosental.”

The program will also include a fast and fun work for women’s voices, “The Bike Let Loose,” by composer Edie Hill.

This concert occurs at the end of the School of Music’s Jazz Week by design, since the major work in the concert is scored for massed choirs and jazz quintet.

The singers are joined by the UW’s Blue Note Ensemble (below top), directed by UW professor Johannes Wallmann (below middle), for a performance of “Song Cycle” by Alexander L’Estrange (below bottom and in the YouTube video at the bottom).

The work was written in 2014 for the grand start of the Tour de France in York, England. Comprised of 10 movements, the work looks at the invention of the bicycle, the social changes that it wrought, and the joys that cycling offers to all.

It’s a charming and witty trip that is fun for the whole family, even giving the audience an opportunity to sing along.

The concert is free and all are encouraged to wear their favorite biking togs and join in the fun!


Classical music: The University Opera performs an unusual and original Kurt Weill cabaret this coming Friday night and Sunday afternoon and next Tuesday night

October 23, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

This fall, University Opera is taking a short break from strictly operatic offerings – in the spring it will stage Puccini’s “La Bohème” — as it turns to the music of Kurt Weill (1900-1950).

No ordinary medley, A KURT WEILL CABARET is an organized pastiche of 21 solos and ensembles from many diverse works by Kurt Weill (below, in a photo from the German Federal Archive), and will be presented at Music Hall on the UW-Madison campus at the foot of Bascom Hill.

(One of the most famous and popular Kurt Weill songs to be performed, “Alabama Song,” once covered by the rock band The Doors in the 1960s, can be heard performed by Lotte Lenya in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Performances are this Friday, Oct. 27, at 7:30 p.m.; this coming Sunday, Oct. 29, at 3 p.m.; and next Tuesday night, Oct. 31, at 7:30 p.m.

University Opera director David Ronis (below, in a photo by Luke Delalio)  will direct the show.

Chad Hutchinson (below), adjunct professor of orchestras, will conduct.

Musical preparation will be by UW-Madison collaborative pianist and vocal coach, Daniel Fung (below bottom).

Tickets are $25 for the general public; $20 for seniors; and $10 for UW students.

Here is a link to a full-length press release from the Mead Witter School of Music at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. It has information about the performers and the program as well as historical background about Kurt Weill and how to purchase tickets.

http://www.music.wisc.edu/2017/09/27/university-opera-presents-a-kurt-weill-cabaret/

For more information in general about University Opera, got to:

http://www.music.wisc.edu/opera/


Classical music: Fresco Opera Theatre turns rock band and gives a “Farewell Concert” this Friday night at the Overture Center.

September 24, 2014
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By Jacob Stockinger

This Friday night a local opera company turns rock band and says a belated goodbye as it reunites — even before it makes it real debut.

Although they are not one of the resident performing arts companies, our friends at the ever-inventive Fresco Opera Theatre will take part — in a figurative sense and as a preview —  in the 10th anniversary celebration this weekend of the Overture Center for the Arts.

Band Fresco as RAMONES

Here is what the topsy-turvy Fresco folks sent over as a preview:

“What would Bizet sound like with a heavy rock drum beat?

“How about Richard Wagner with electric guitar?

“And what if Giuseppe Verdi’s famous aria “La donna e mobile” (at bottom in a popular YouTube video that has over 6 million hits and is performed by famed tenor Luciano Pavarotti) was sung from the point of view of 3 sopranos instead of 3 tenors?”

Find out at 8 p.m. on this Friday, Sept. 26, in The Playhouse at the Overture Center when Fresco Opera Theatre presents “Opera Unplugged,” the story of the formation, success, breakup and reunion of a fictional band called “The Band Fresco.” Tickets are $20. Visit the Overture Center box office or call (608) 258-4141.

Band Fresco recording in studio

Here is a description from the Overture Center’s website:

“The Band Fresco thrilled audiences with their fresh take on a traditional art form. Through the whirlwind years, there were highs and lows. Virtuosos all of them -– the group soon felt the pressure that comes with skyrocketing fame. Ego. Addiction. Heartbreak. Love.

“Their meteoric rise inevitably crashed before the group could say a proper goodbye.

“Until now.

“Fresco Opera Theatre in association with Eddie Slim Productions is proud to present a once in a lifetime event.

This is the story of “The Band Fresco –- Behind The Music,” including a live concert celebrating their legacy, coinciding with the 10th anniversary of the Madison Overture Center for the Arts.

Band Fresco backstage strumming

The “band” is made up of three singers, bass, violin, cello, guitars and drums. In between numbers, the story of “The Band Fresco” will be told in the style of VH1’s “Behind The Music.”

The story is very much like that of the popular satirical movie spoof “This Is Spinal Tap.” But instead of heavy metal, the subject matter is opera, and the trials and tribulations that are associated with operatic performers and performances.

 

 


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