The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Cellist Sara Sant’Ambrogio talks about the human quality of French music. She performs Saint-Saens’ Cello Concerto No. 1 on an all-French program with the Madison Symphony Orchestra this weekend.

November 16, 2015

By Jacob Stockinger

The award-winning cellist Sara Sant’Ambrogio (below) makes her solo debut with the Madison Symphony Orchestra (MSO) in an all-French program this coming weekend.

sara sant'ambrogio 1

Sant’Ambrogio will solo in Camille Saint-Saëns’ stormy Cello Concerto No. 1 in A Minor, a first-time performance of the work by the MSO under its music director and conductor John DeMain.

The opening piece, Maurice Ravel’s sensuous Valses Nobles et Sentimentales, showcases the classical simplicity and ultimate decadence of the waltz, and the colors of all the instruments in the orchestra.


Finally, the MSO will perform the groundbreaking Symphonie Fantastique by Romantic composer Hector Berlioz (below). It is an unorthodox five-movement work that vividly captures an artist’s tortured infatuation and the haunted hallucinations of an opium trip.


The concerts are in Overture Hall on Friday night at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday night at 8 p.m.; and Sunday afternoon at 2:30 p.m. in the Overture Center, 201 State Street.

Sara Sant’Ambrogio is an internationally-renowned soloist and founding member of the Eroica Trio (below). She launched her international career when she was a winner at the Eighth International Tchaikovsky Violoncello Competition in Moscow, Russia. She holds degrees from the Curtis Institute of Music and The Juilliard School, and won a Grammy Award for Best Chamber Music Performance for Leonard Bernstein‘s “Arias and Barcarolles.” She last appeared with the Madison Symphony Orchestra in 2001 as part of the Eroica Trio.


Written in 1872, Saint-Saëns’ Cello Concerto No. 1 was instantly regarded as a masterpiece by the Paris public. Saint-Saëns rejected the standard concerto form in this work by interlinking the piece’s three movements into one continuous musical expanse, held together by the rich lyrical power of the cello.

The composer found the Cello Concerto No.1 difficult to write, so much so that he vowed never to compose for cello again; Saint-Saëns broke this vow 30 years later with his Cello Concerto No. 2.

One hour before each performance, John DeMain, music director and principal conductor of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, will lead a FREE 30-minute Prelude Discussion in Overture Hall to enhance concertgoers’ understanding and listening experience.

More background on the music can also be found in the Program Notes at

Single Tickets are $16 to $85 each, available at and through the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street or call the Box Office at (608) 258-4141.

Groups of 15 or more can save 25 percent by calling the MSO office at (608) 257-3734. For more information visit,

Student rush tickets can be purchased in person on the day of the concert at the Overture Box Office. Students must show a valid student ID and can receive up to two $12 or $15 tickets. More information is at: Students can receive 20 percent savings on seats in select areas of the hall on advance ticket purchases.

Seniors age 62 and up receive 20 percent savings on advance and day-of-concert ticket purchases in select areas of the hall.

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

Find more information at

Major funding for the November concerts is provided by Barbara Ryder, DeEtte Beilfuss-Eager and Leonard P. Eager, Jr., in memory of Karen “Lovey” Johnson, and Rosemarie Blancke. Additional funding is provided by Martha and Charles Casey, Sunseed Research, LLC, and the Wisconsin Arts Board with funds from the State of Wisconsin and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Sara Sant’Ambrogio (below) recently agreed to an email Q&A with The Ear:

sara sant'ambrogio

Could you briefly bring readers up to date on your career since 2001 when you last appeared with the Madison Symphony Orchestra as part of the Eroica Trio and performed the Triple Concerto for piano trio? What are current and future major plans and projects?

Wow, a lot has happened since 2001! I had a son, Sebastian, who just turned 11. I’ve recorded for solo CDs, the complete Bach solo suites, the Chopin collection and “Dreaming,” which has had a number of tracks used in movie soundtracks such as the HBO movie “A Matter of Taste.” I’ve recorded another Eroica Trio CD, “An American Journey,” which was nominated for a Grammy award.

I’ve toured China and all over Asia, and also the Arabian peninsula, which was amazing and mind-blowing. Petra in Jordan was like being in an Indiana Jones movie. It has been a truly amazing 14 years!

There seems to be a revival or rediscovery going on of the works of the French composer Camille Saint-Saëns. Why do you think that is?

Saint-Saens (below) has been grossly underrated in my view. His music has a wonderful mix of gorgeous melodies that speak to the human condition, sparkling virtuous pyrotechnics and a joie de vivre, which is just infectious! What’s not to love!

camille saint-saens younger

You are performing on an all-French program with Berlioz’ “Symphonie Fantastique” and Ravel’s “Valses Nobles et Sentimentales.” What elements or traits do identify as being typically French in classical music, and does Saint-Saëns fit the mold?

I think there is a lushness to French music that Saint-Saens shares. There is also a very human quality to the best of French music.

What would you like to say about the piece you will be performing in Madison, the Cello Concerto No. 1? What is typical or unusual about it?  What in particular would you like the public to listen to and notice?

Just to have a blast! The Saint-Saens starts with a bang and never lets up till the joyous end! (Note: You can hear it played by the late Russian cellist, conductor and human rights activist Mstislav Rostropovich in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

What else would you like to say?

I can’t wait to come back and play in Madison again. I had such a fantastic time playing there last time with my trio that the town loomed so large in my imagination, I had no idea until this interview that it had been 14 years since I was last there.


Classical music: Are arts audiences and presenters in Madison rude or inconsiderate? One loyal patron thinks so.

October 24, 2015

By Jacob Stockinger

Arts patron Larry Wells wrote to The Ear to get something off his chest that might also pertain to other audience members, including you. Here is what he said:

I moved to Madison a little over a year ago after spending the last 40 years in San Francisco, Moscow and Tokyo, all of which had vibrant offerings for symphonic music, ballet and opera as well as great performance venues.

I have been very pleased to find that Madison offers the same. I can think of four different symphony orchestras I’ve heard in Madison this past year as well as opera and ballet performances. (Below is Overture Hall.)

Overture Hall

The difference has been the audiences.

I do not believe I have been to a single performance this year where there hasn’t been someone who has decided to unwrap a cough drop. This usually happens during a quiet passage, and often the culprit realizes that he or she is making a noise, so decides that the solution is to unwrap the cellophane more slowly, thus lengthening my agony.

In San Francisco, someone at the symphony came up with the solution to supply cough drops with silent wrappers in bowls at each door to the hall. Problem solved.

cough drops

Another source of noise in the audience is whispering. Usually when someone starts speaking to his neighbor, annoyed audience members glare at the culprit, and then he starts to whisper. I assume that the underlying belief is that when you whisper, you cannot be heard. That is, of course, incorrect. You can still be heard, just not as clearly. In Japan, no one would dream of speaking during a performance.

Woman whispering in man's ear, close-up (B&W)

Woman whispering in man’s ear

I was at the ballet the other night at the Capitol Theater for which I had bought the priciest ticket in the center orchestra. There were five middle school girls seated directly behind me. Each had a plastic cup filled with a drink and crushed ice. Throughout the first act I kept hearing the ice being sloshed around in the plastic cups as every last drop of icy goodness was being extracted.

I asked an usher during the intermission about this, and she said that it was each ensemble’s choice as to whether drinks were allowed in the theater or not. For example, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra does not allow drinks but the Madison Ballet does.

This is the first time I have heard of drinks being allowed into a ballet — they certainly weren’t allowed at the Bolshoi where they had very stern ushers, I can tell you — and I wonder if popcorn and hot dogs will be next. Perhaps it has to do with the prevailing current American fear of becoming dehydrated, although I think most people can endure 40 minutes without dessicating.

soda in a plastic cup

The Ear believes that I am a curmudgeon, and I halfway believe it myself. But when my enjoyment of a concert is jeopardized by inconsiderate audience behavior, then I believe I have a right to be miffed.

Curiously, I have not been to a single performance of anything this past year that hasn’t ended with a standing ovation. Now, I understand that the audience is just trying to be nice. But shouldn’t standing ovations be reserved for truly sensational once-in-a-lifetime experiences? Otherwise, the whole idea is cheapened, and Madisonians end up coming across as provincial.

BDDS standing ovation

I will end this diatribe with one more aspersion to be cast, but this time toward the ticket office at the Overture Center.

Last weekend, I was at the Madison Symphony Orchestra and had a spare ticket that I was trying to give away when I was yelled at by a box office clerk who said: “That’s illegal here!” Thinking that she thought I was trying to scalp a ticket to the symphony — probably not a major problem in Madison — I told her that I was merely trying to give the ticket away. She repeated, “That’s illegal here.”

I was very embarrassed. I seriously doubt that there is a city ordinance against giving away concert tickets, and if I want to give away a $75 ticket as a good deed, I think that should be my prerogative.

MSO ticket

With declining attendance at arts events, I feel that the Overture Center should have its patrons’ good will in mind instead of demonizing them for doing a good deed.


Classical music: On Saturday afternoon at 4 p.m., SoundWaves moves to Mills Hall to present a FREE and PUBLIC discussion and performance of inventions and music from the 1920s.

October 20, 2015

By Jacob Stockinger

Daniel Grabois (below, in a photo by James Gill), a professor of horn at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music and a friend of The Ear, writes:

Daniel Grabois 2012 James Gill

I’m not sure if you know about my FREE and PUBLIC series SoundWaves. But I’d like to tell you about it because we have our first-ever presentation in the UW-Madison School of Music next week. It is part of the statewide Wisconsin Science Festival.

The basic idea is this: I choose a theme and get four scientists from different disciplines (or sometimes academics from the humanities) to explore the theme — for the layman — in short 15-minute talks.

I then give a short talk about the theme as it relates to music.

Then, there’s a related music performance.

To make this concrete for you, our program coming up is about The Roaring ’20s.

Now in its fourth year, the SoundWaves series is underwritten by Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF, below with founder Prof. Harry Steenbock), which is celebrating its 90th anniversary. So it seemed fitting to explore the decade of its creation for our first event of the year.

Harry Steenbock WARF bldg

Accordingly, we will have a historian of science speaking about Vitamin D, which was discovered and synthesized by Steenbock,  explaining things like “What the hell IS a vitamin, anyway?”

Vitamin D

Then, a dermatologist will talk about bandaids (invented in 1920). Kids love them, but do they work? How? Why does someone invent a bandaid?


Next, a law professor will discuss the lie detector, also invented in 1920. We see them on cop shows, but do they work? Is their evidence admissible in court? How do they work?

lie detector

Then, an industrial engineer will speak about automotive breakthroughs from the 1920s that have shaped our driving experience. Power steering, the traffic light, the car radio (invented by Motorola, hence the “motor” in the company name) — all were invented in the 1920s and all have had a broad impact on cars and driving today.

traffic light

Then I’ll be talking about music of the 1920s. I’m particularly interested in what was then the recent invention of the 12-tone system by Arnold Schoenberg (below). If you are a composer, how on earth do you respond to that? Do you reject it, and if so, what do you do instead? How is the musical aesthetic reshaped by such a radical (and difficult to listen to) idea?

Arnold Schoenberg 1936

At the end, there will be a performance of the String Quartet No. 1 (subtitled “Kreutzer Sonata,” based on the short story by the Russian writer Leo Tolstoy) by Czech composer Leos Janacek (below top), written in 1923, played by the Rhapsodie String Quartet (below bottom, in a photo by Greg Anderson), made of Madison Symphony Orchestra players including Suzanne Beia, our own second violinist of the Pro Arte Quartet. (You can hear it in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

Leos Janacek

Rhapsodie Quartet MSO Greg Anderson

We’ve been getting around 175 people for our programs at the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery, including lots of people who come back over and over.

For me, doing this series is hugely stimulating — being able to collaborate across traditionally rigid academic boundaries is one of the reasons I was excited to come to Madison.

Here are the specifics:

Date: This Saturday, Oct. 24, at 4 p.m. in Mills Hall, FREE and OPEN TO THE PUBLIC

Speakers and performers:

Kevin Walters, WARF historian-in-residence

Klint Peebles, Department of Dermatology

Keith Findley, UW Law School

John Lee, Department of Industrial Engineering

Daniel Grabois, School of Music and SoundWaves curator

Rhapsodie String Quartet

For more information, visit:–events/soundwaves/soundwaves.cmsx

Sales pitch over!

Hope to see you there.


Classical music: The Middleton Community Orchestra will open its fifth season on Wednesday with an all-20th century program with guest conductor Kyle Knox and violin soloist Naha Greenholz. Plus, this afternoon is your last chance to hear the Madison Symphony Orchestra and violinist James Ehnes in music by Bruch, Haydn and Rachmaninoff. Read the glowing reviews!

October 18, 2015
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ALERT: This afternoon at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall is your last chance to hear the Madison Symphony Orchestra and violinist soloist James Ehnes in music by Max Bruch, Franz Joseph Haydn and Sergei Rachmaninoff.

Critics were unanimous in their praise of the performance.

Here are links:

Madison Symphony Delivers Again

Greg Hettmansberger // Madison Magazine

Idiomatic Eloquence: MSO and violinist James Ehnes Mix Masterpieces and Novel Choices

John W. Barker // Isthmus

MSO Feels Soul of Russia with Rachmaninoff Program

Jessica Courtier // The Capital Times

By Jacob Stockinger

The Middleton Community Orchestra (below) will give the first concert of its new season – marking MCO’s fifth anniversary – this Wednesday night, Oct. 21.

Middleton Community Orchestra press photo1

The concert will take place at 7:30 p.m. at the Middleton Performing Arts Center (below top and bottom) that is attached to Middleton High School, 2100 Bristol Street.

Middleton PAC2

Middleton PAC1

Opening MCO’s fifth anniversary season is an all-20th century program under the baton of guest conductor  and UW-Madison graduate student Kyle Knox (below top), with Madison Symphony Orchestra concertmaster Naha Greenholz (below bottom), as violin soloist. The MCO is made up of amateur and some professional musicians.

Kyle Knox 2

Naha Greenholtz playing CR Greg Anderson

The program features the catchy “El Salon Mexico” by American composer Aaron Copland; the neo-Classical Violin Concerto by Russian composer Igor Stravinsky; and the lyrical “Mother Goose” Suite and the wildly popular “Bolero,” both by French composer Maurice Ravel. (You can hear Ravel’s “Bolero” performed by Gustavo Dudamel and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra at the bottom in a YouTube video that has more than 3 million hits.)

A free meet-and-greet reception for the public and the musicians will follow the concert.

Middleton Community Orchestra reception

Tickets are $10 general admission. Students are admitted free of charge.  Tickets are available at Willy St. Coop West and at the door. The box office opens at 6:30 p.m. Hall doors open at 7 p.m.

For more information, call 608-212-8690.

To find out about the entire MCO season as well as how to join the orchestra or to support it, visit:

Classical music: Madison Symphony Orchestra’s Club 201 marks 10 years of reaching out to young professionals to promote classical music. Plus, the UW-Madison Contemporary Chamber Ensemble performs a FREE concert of new music on Wednesday night.

October 10, 2015
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ALERT: The UW Contemporary Chamber Ensemble will perform a FREE program of new music this coming Wednesday night at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall. It will play under the direction of UW-Madison composer Laura Schwendinger. The program includes two works by “post-tonal” American composer Cindy Cox (b. 1961, below in a photo by K. Karn), who teaches at the University of California-Berkeley.

Cindy Cox, composer, University of California, Berkeley

By Jacob Stockinger

Club 201, a group affiliated with the Madison Symphony Orchestra (MSO, below), will hold its first event of the 2015-16 season on this coming Friday, Oct. 16. (Club 201 is named after the address of the Overture Center, which is located at 201 State Street.)

MSO playing

Later this year, Club 201 will celebrate its 10th anniversary, fulfilling its mission as the premiere organization promoting classical music to the young professional community in Madison.

For a $45 ticket – a savings of $36-$56 — young professionals, aged 22 to 40, will have access to outstanding seats in Overture Hall to hear the 7:30 p.m. performance by violinist James Ehnes (below), conductor John DeMain and the Madison Symphony Orchestra perform three highly regarded staples of the classical repertoire: Symphony No. 85 “La Reine” by Franz Joseph Haydn; the “Scottish Fantasy” for violin and orchestra by Max Bruch; and the Symphonic Dances by Sergei Rachmaninoff.

James Ehnes playing 2

The ticket also includes access to an exclusive post-performance party in the Promenade Lounge on the second floor of the Overture Center with food, one drink ticket and a cash bar.

Conductor John DeMain, as well as young musicians who play in the symphony, will be attending to mingle with Madison’s young professionals.

The deadline to purchase tickets is this Wednesday, Oct. 14. Tickets can be purchased for this event, as well as the other three events throughout the 2015-16 season at the Club 201 website:

Additionally, interested parties can stay up-to-date by liking the Club 201 Facebook page:

MSO Club 201 Pic 2


Classical music: What piece first hooked you on classical music?

October 9, 2015

By Jacob Stockinger

So there we were.

Riding in the car and listening to music.

“What piece do you remember first getting hooked on and loving?” The Ear asked The Friend.

Turned out it was Soviet composer Reinhold Gliere’s “The Red Poppy” Suite. (You can hear that work in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

That seemed a pretty sophisticated and rarefied work, compared to The Ear’s more predictable choices.

He recalls two first works, both of which he was exposed to through a budget set of vinyl LPs that his mom brought back each week from the A&P grocery store way back when.

One was the sweeping tone poem about the Bohemian river and landscape called “The Moldau” by Czech composer Bedrich Smetana, which you can hear below  performed by the City of Prague Philharmonic in a YouTube video that has more than two million hits.

The other was the popular Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor Op. 18, by Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff as performed by Artur Rubinstein (now generally spelled Arthur, as he wanted, although The Ear prefers the more exotic Artur) and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under conductor Fritz Reiner. (I think copyright and licensing agreements were a lot less restrictive and less expensive back then, which may help explain the larger audience for classical music and classical recordings in those days.)

Here is that work and that historic performance in a YouTube video:

And The Ear still loves both works passionately. And all three works testify to the largely Romantic taste of young listeners.

Anyway, it was a fun recollection to have and got The Ear to thinking:

Maybe readers of this blog would be willing to share their first memory of the classical music that they loved first and got hooked on?

The Ear would love to hear from the general public but also from professional musicians. Especially professional musicians.

You can  leave the title, composer and performer in the COMMENTS section along with a link to a YouTube video if possible.

Classical music: The Ear gives a hearty Shout Out! to the All-Festival Concert of early Slavic music by the Madison Early Music Festival.

July 22, 2015
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By Jacob Stockinger

Last Saturday night, in Mills Hall, The Ear saw and heard the All-Festival Concert by the Madison Early Music Festival (MEMF).

MEMF 2015 All Festival group

Historically, that concert – which brings together students, faculty and guest artists – is the closing wrap-up of the festival, and The Ear has been to quite a few of them over the past years.

But this year’s event proved one of the best ever, right at the top of the list.

The topic this year was “Slavic Discoveries: Early Music from Eastern Europe.”

MEMF 2015 Slavic banner

To be honest, the music itself was not one of my all-time favorites of MEMF, although it had many beautiful moments.

What proved most impressive to my ears and eyes was the incredible variety that the various performers managed to instill into a concert that otherwise could have been pretty monotonous.

But this concert was anything but monotonous. The performances were well-rehearsed and quite polished.

The program presented a wide variety of works by Polish, Hungarian, Ukrainian and Russian composers from the 16th through the 18th centuries.

MEMF 2015 John Barker

There was, as usual, a lot of vocal music by some of the biggest orchestral and choral forces I recall seeing.

But there was also some impressive instrumental music that featured some pretty eye-catching instruments, including the oversized lute-like theorbo (below top) and the Celtic harp (below bottom).

MEMF 2015 All Festival Theorbo

MEMF 2015 All Festival Celtic harp

And the forces used the entire hall, even putting brass at the top of the back balcony at one point.

Plus, early music expert and retired UW-Madison professor Medieval history John W. Barker served as the narrator in an engaging piece about the slain Polish trumpeter whose battle call is still played today in Krakow in his honor.

MEMF 2015 All Festival John W. Barker

The singers sang in large groups and small groups — solo, duets (below) and quartets — and all permutations performed superbly. The voices were strong and clear, and the diction always seemed excellent.

MEMF 2015 All Festival duet

Conducting duties – split between guest main conductor Kristina Boerger (below top) and assistant conductor Jerry Hui (below bottom) – were exemplary.

It can be easy to lose a sense of balance and control with such large forces. But the range of dynamics from soft to loud, from slow to fast, never felt awkward or wrong. Not here. The blending and flow were superb.

MEMF 2015 All Festival Kristina Boerger

MEMF 2015 All Festival Jerry Hui

So The Ear offers a hearty Thank You! to all the participants of this year’s Madison Early Music Festival who made this final concert so satisfying.

And to listeners, I say: If you can only make one concert during the Madison Early Music Festival each summer, the All-Festival Concert is a good bet — and a great place to start if early music is new to you. 

Judging from this latest installment, you won’t be disappointed.

And you just might catch The Bug!


Classical music: The opening of this week’s Madison Early Music Festival blossomed with a stunning performance of early Slavic choral music by The Rose Ensemble of St. Paul, Minnesota.

July 13, 2015
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By Jacob Stockinger

The 16th annual Madison Early Music Festival opened on Saturday night.

The coming week of daily workshops, lectures and concerts could hardly have enjoyed a more promising opening than the stunning a cappella singing turned in by the justly acclaimed Rose Ensemble (below) of St. Paul, Minnesota. (You can hear the Rose Ensemble in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

MEMF Rose Ensemble 12

The group consists of 12 singers and one string player – she plays a Medieval violin-like instrument called “la vielle” — with some singers doing double duty and playing a drum or recorder.

MEMF 2015 solo and instruments

Somewhere around two-thirds of a house (below) turned out in Mills Hall to hear a thoroughly masterful display of early Eastern European music from the 11th century through the 16th century, which is the topic of this year’s festival.

MEMF 2015 Slavic banner

MEMF 2015 Rose audience

Start with the basics.

As far as The Ear could tell, there was not a single weak link in the chain. Each singer sang strongly and with conviction.

Each excelled at pitch and diction, even in multiple Slavic languages from Poland, Bohemia, Czechoslovakia and Russia.

And the balance that allowed different lines to emerge was nothing short of miraculous.

They sang as a large group of 12.

They sang smaller motets with groups of six women or six men (below).

MEMF 2015 Rose 6 women

MEMF 2015 Rose 6 men

They sang duets and they sang solos.

And all of the permutations proved successful.

They were terrific in all the liturgical music that makes up the bulk of the early Slavic repertory.

But The Ear’s favorite pieces were some of the folksongs from Ukraine and elsewhere. The performers moved around the stage and used their voices in what American poet Walt Whitman aptly described as a “barbaric yawp” that came close to artful shouting.

The singing was nothing short of thrilling as the performers cut loose with chopping arms, moving feet and howling mouths. Yet it all remained controlled and convincing. It reminded The Ear of plain chant and shape-note singing.

The Rose Ensemble organized a masterful display of varied programming and performances that, to be honest, helped offset a lot of the similarities of so much of the music.

MEMF Rose folk

One other thing: If you wonder about attending the lectures, just go. They start one hour before the concerts, at 6:30 p.m. in 2650 Mosse Humanities Building.

For this concert, John W. Barker, a veteran music critic and retired professor of Medieval history at the UW-Madison, provided a terrific historical context that help the audience appreciate the achievement of early Slavonic music. His lecture was filled with wit and facts as he pointed to the map to show how Slavic culture was born and how extensive it became.

What we learned in one hour!

MEMF 2015 John Barker

For more detail about events, venues and prices, go to the comprehensive website:


Classical music: A play about Sergei Rachmaninoff’s composing block sounds so good, The Ear wants to see it staged in Madison.

July 12, 2015
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By Jacob Stockinger

It is a famous story about writer’s block –- or, in this case, composer’s block.

The young Russian Romantic composer Sergei Rachmaninoff (below, 1873-1943) was so devastated by bad reviews of his first symphony in 1897 that he fell into a deep depression and couldn’t compose music for three years.


But then he sought the help of a hypnotherapist Nikolai Dahl who kept repeating, “You will write a great piano concerto.”

And eventually he did.

Out of those sessions came Rachmaninoff’s popular Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18. (You can hear the concerto in a YouTube video that features pianist Yuja Wang at the bottom.)

Now that legendary incident has been depicted in a new play called “Preludes.”

Here is a review by critic Ben Brantley that appeared in The New York Times.

It makes The Ear hope that one of the local theater companies will produce it, much as they did with the play about music education called “Master Class,” written by famed playwright Terrence McNally about the temperamental opera diva Maria Callas and some students.

“Preludes” is a chamber drama in which actors play multiple parts, many of the other famous artistic figures of the day such as the singer Fyodor Chaliapin (below right, played by Joseph Keckler in a photo by Tina Fineberg for The New York Times) and the writer-playwright Anton Chekhov.

Rachmaninoff and Chaliapin Tina Fineberg NYT

It also involves two Rachmaninoffs (below in a photo by Tina Fineberg for The New York Times): one, called Rach, is the composer, portrayed by Gabriel Ebert, left; the other, called Rachmaninoff, is the pianist played by Or Matias.

Rac and Rachmaninoff Tina Fineberg NYT

Those of us who are not creative artists find it endlessly fascinating to try to get inside the head of important artistic figures.

Moreover, the drama gets a rave review that whets one’s appetite to see this play about a composer who was once dismissed as hopelessly sentimental but whose gorgeously melodic and stirringly harmonic music has had remarkable staying power and appeal – and continues to do so.

See what you think and whether the play stimulates your own curiosity.

Here is a link to the review:

Classical music: What makes early Slavic music different? What composers are being rediscovered? And what will the All-Festival concert offer? Co-artistic director Cheryl Bensman Rowe talks about the Madison Early Music Festival (MEMF). The festival starts this coming Saturday and runs through the next Saturday. Here is Part 2 of 2 parts.

July 7, 2015

By Jacob Stockinger

The 16th annual Madison Early Music Festival opens this coming Saturday night and runs through the All-Festival concert the next Saturday night. The topic is “Slavic Discoveries: Early Music from Eastern Europe.”

Here is a link to the home website where you can information and event, times and prices:

MEMF 2015 Slavic banner

Cheryl Bensman Rowe (below), who co-directs the festival with her husband, UW-Madison baritone Paul Rowe, agreed to talk about the festival and its lineup of workshops, lectures and concerts. Her interview is running in two parts.

Here is a link to Part 1, which ran yesterday:

Today is Part 2.

Cheryl Rowe color 1

How does early Slavic or Eastern European music differ from its counterparts in, say, Western Europe such as Italy, France, Spain and England. What is the historical origin and role of the music from that era in that part of the world?

The early Slavs came from Indo-European lands, spreading from various parts of Asia into Eastern Europe around 2000 B.C. Under the pressure of nomadic hordes, the Slavic tribes crossed the Carpathian Mountains and pushed their way down to the Balkans. Others moved westward toward the upper Danube, and still others eastward toward the River Dniper and Black Sea.

This migration continued from the fourth through the eighth century, giving birth to the Slavic nations that we know today. East of the River (below) explores the dance music and traditional melodies from these indigenous cultures, and you will hear the haunting and virtuosic melodies from these Slavic traditions that influenced the music of many Eastern European compositions.

East of the River

Bob Wiemken (below), from Piffaro explains: “It would seem at first consideration that an immersion in music of Slavic lands and peoples to the East during the medieval through baroque periods would yield some sounds, styles and repertoire strikingly different from that produced by composers from western lands, and in some cases and during certain times that assumption yields expected results.

“However, when comparing what might be considered composed art music, the fodder of courts and cathedrals, a surprising similarity between the two, between East and West, emerges, at least insofar as the lands bordering on what is normally considered “western Europe” are concerned.

“On closer examination the reasons for this similarity seem clear. Political and cultural interchange between East and West burgeoned during the late 15th through early 17th centuries. Eastern rulers, especially in Poland and Hungary, sought to build their courts and chapels after western fashion. They thus attracted some of the best western composers to create and/or head their musical establishments for a time. Easterners studied and worked in western environs, most notably the Slovenian Jakob Handl in Vienna and the Hungarian Bálint Bakfark in Paris and Padua, and many western composers occupied lofty musical positions or spent a portion of their professional careers at eastern courts.

“As a result, western sacred polyphony, the international musical language of the day, traveled east and settled in Slavic courts and cathedrals, and eastern dances, such as the Polnischer Tanz, the Passamezzo ongaro and the Ungarescha journeyed east, creating a tale of cross-cultural influence and engagement in the musical interaction between western and eastern composers.”

And Jordan Sramek, director of the Rose Ensemble, writes:

“During the 17th century there is an often-forgotten relationship between Poland and Italy and there is a striking influence the Italianate style had on Polish composers of the time. Also, Italian composers were invited to the Imperial Russian court to be in residence in St. Petersburg.”

Bob Wiemken

What music and composers of the era have been most neglected and least neglected by historians and performers?

Many composers and their works have only been neglected because the music was unavailable to us in Western countries. The music in some of the Eastern European collections has been out of print, or inaccessible in libraries. It’s the same with recordings—Amazon does not have everything!

Ancora String Quartet violist and Wisconsin Public Radio host Marika Fischer Hoyt (below center) should be interviewed about her experience in Hungary. Tom Zajac was in Poland several years ago, and talked to Polish musicians, went to libraries, and tried to soak up as much information as he could while he was there.

Ancora 2014 2 Marika, Benjamin, Robin

As time goes by, it will become easier to travel to some of these countries, and more materials will become available, there will be more ensembles presenting this music. Music historians from the East have been doing research, but a lot of their books and articles need to be translated into English.

Jordan Sramek (below), the director of the Rose Ensemble, describes the situation so well, “Among scholars and performers of early vocal music, there is, perhaps, an unreasonable lack of attention paid to music from what is contemporarily referred to as “Eastern Europe.” While some musicians spend their careers digging in the “Western” libraries of Florence and Paris, the shelves of the manuscript libraries and monasteries of Krakow, Moscow and Prague often remain dusty, either due to lack of interest or perceived inaccessibility.”

The Rose Ensemble concert features only a glimpse of the great wealth of early vocal repertoire from Poland, Russia, Ukraine and Bohemia, in an attempt to shine some light on some truly brilliant gems.

Jordan Sramek 

Can you tell us about the All-Festival concert program on Saturday, July 18th?

At the All-Festival Concert (below is a photo of last year’s, held in Luther Memorial Church instead of Mills Hall) at the end of the festival on Saturday, July 18, at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Concert Hall, there will be a wonderful program of Slavic music. The first half will feature Polish composers:

“Missa Lombardesca” by Bartołomiej Pękiel:

That will be followed by a triple-choir “Magnificat” by Mikołaj Zieleński: and motets by Mikołaj z Krakowa.

The second half of the program will feature excerpts from a wonderful Hungarian collection that Marika Fischer Hoyt found for MEMF when she was in Hungary this past summer. She was visiting family, but also spent a lot of time in the library researching music that is only available in Hungarian libraries. Libraries are still so valuable, and it’s wonderful to know that we can’t find everything on the Internet!

Take Harmonia Caelestis, a cycle of 55 sacred cantatas attributed to the Hungarian composer Paul I, First Prince Esterházy of Galántha (1635–1713) and published in 1711. They are in the Baroque style, and each of the cantatas consists of one movement, composed for solo voices, choir, and orchestra.

The program will end with Ukrainian composers Ephiphanius Slavinetsky (below, depicted revising service books), a sacred choral concerto by Dmitri Bortnianski.

Epiphanius Slavinetsky

Next on the program, you will hear a stunningly beautiful a cappella choral work, “Now the Powers of Heaven,” by Giuseppe Sarti.

In 1784, Sarti was invited by Catherine the Great to succeed Paisiello as director of the Imperial Chapel in St. Petersburg. We will end the program with a work by Nikolai Diletski.

Many of these works have not been recorded, so we hope the Madison community will join us to hear these unknown works. Also, it’s not too late to sign up to sing or play in the workshop!

MEMF 2014 All-Festival

Are there other sessions, guest lectures and certain performers that you especially recommend for the general public?

I think everything is highly recommended, and I’m looking forward our first day on Saturday, July 11, with the opening concert of the Rose Ensemble. John W. Barker, who is well known to The Ear, will be presenting the opening 6:30 p.m. pre-concert lecture, “Discovering the ‘Other Europe’”, which will give a wonderful overview for the week. There will be other lectures throughout the week, and the Balkan Dance event with live music, on Wednesday, July 15, will be really fun.

I’ve included the link, which has more information about these and all the other events. Try to see them all!

Is there anything else you would like to add?

We’re looking forward to an entire week immersed in the wonderful Slavic sounds.

And in 2016 we will be celebrating Shakespeare!

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