The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Pianists Emanuel Ax and Garrick Ohlsson plus Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 and Carl Orff’s cantata “Carmina Burana” highlight the Madison Symphony Orchestra’s new 2015-16 season.

March 11, 2015
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

The Madison Symphony Orchestra has just announced its next season for 2015-16. It is the 90th season for the MSO, and marks the 22nd season of music director and conductor John DeMain’s tenure.

Here is the press release that The Ear received.

More news and comments from music director and conductor John DeMain, who will conduct seven of the eight concerts, will follow. 

Concerts are in Overture Hall on Fridays at 7:30 p.m; Saturdays at 8 p.m.; and Sunday afternoons at 2:30 p.m.

Single tickets for the Season 2015-16 will range from $16 to $85. (They are currently $16 to $84.)

Subscriptions to five or more concerts in Season 2015-16 are on sale now at www. madisonsymphony.org or by calling the MSO office at (608) 257-3734. New subscribers can receive up to 50 percent off.

Single tickets from $16 to $85 will go on sale on Saturday, Aug. 15, 2015, at the Overture Center Box Office. You can also call (608) 258-4141 or go to  http://www.madisonsymphony.org 

mso from above

Madison Symphony Orchestra Announces 2015-2016 Season

The incomparable pianist Emanuel Ax and the soul-stirring orchestral/choral music of “Carmina Burana” are just two of the exciting highlights of John DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad) and the Madison Symphony Orchestra’s (MSO) 2015-2016 Season.

MSO Music Director DeMain said, “We want audiences to be moved with great classical music as we excite their imaginations, lift their spirits, and stir their emotions.”

John DeMain full face by Prasad

Beginning with a September program that focuses on the highly talented musicians in the orchestra, DeMain will lead the audience through an exhilarating variety of themes and cultures throughout the season. France and Scotland are just two of the sound worlds the MSO will explore, while monumental works central to the repertoire, such as Orff’s Carmina Burana and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4, will anchor the year.

A world-class roster of guest artists will also join the season’s performances, including pianist Emanuel Ax, violinist James Ehnes, cellist Sara Sant’Ambrogio, violinist Alina Ibragimova, and pianist Garrick Ohlsson.

The MSO’s own Principal Clarinet Joseph Morris will play a pivotal role in the September concert also.

The immeasurable talent set to perform in Overture Hall ensures that the coming season is not to be missed!

(* below denote first-time performances for the MSO under Conductor John DeMain.)

John DeMain and MSO from the stage Greg Anderson

Sept. 25, 26, 27, 2015: Tchaikovsky’s Fourth. John DeMain, Conductor. Joseph Morris, Clarinet (below)

LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN       Leonore Overture No. 3

AARON COPLAND                  Clarinet Concerto*

PETER ILYICH TCHAIKOVSKY    Symphony No. 4

  • The most popular of the four overtures Beethoven penned for his opera Fidelio, Leonore Overture No. 3 packs more than its share of heroic energy into 13 minutes.
  • Commissioned by the clarinetist and legendary bandleader Benny Goodman, Copland’s jazz-infused Clarinet Concerto uses slapping basses and thwacking harp sounds to simulate a rhythm section.
  • Tchaikovsky’s monumental Symphony No. 4 unites blazing brass fanfares, dance-like passages, and aching melodies to explore ideas of fate, happiness, and longing.
  • joe morris playing CR Cheryl Savan

Oct. 16, 17, 18, 2015: Scottish Fantasy

John DeMain, Conductor, James Ehnes, Violin (below)

JOSEPH HAYDN                      Symphony No. 85 (La Reine)*

MAX BRUCH                          Scottish Fantasy*

SERGEI RACHMANINOFF        Symphonic Dances

  • Nicknamed “La Reine” because it was the favorite of French Queen Marie Antoinette, Haydn’s spirited Symphony No. 85 is one of six symphonies commissioned by the private concert society Les Concerts de la Loge Olympique in Paris.
  • Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy for violin and orchestra blends rustic folk tunes and tender themes to convey the stark Scottish landscape. Droning tones imitate bagpipes, while the violins mimic the sound of a country fiddle.
  • Written during World War II, Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances features an extended saxophone solo, as well as quotes from Russian Orthodox chant and the Mass of the Dead. The piece was the composer’s final score, and he died believing that it would never be as popular as his earlier music.

M~ prv021405 EHNES 01

Nov. 20, 21, 22, 2015: French Fantastique. John DeMain, Conductor. Sara Sant’Ambrogio, Cello (below bottom)

MAURICE RAVEL                    Valses Nobles et Sentimentales*

CAMILLE SAINT-SAËNS            Cello Concerto No.1*

HECTOR BERLIOZ                    Symphonie Fantastique

  • Inspired by Schubert and originally written for piano, Ravel’s sensuous Valses Nobles et Sentimentales combines the classical simplicity of the waltz with the colorful aural array of the sounds of all the instruments in the orchestra.
  • Saint-Saëns eschewed standard concerto form in his Cello Concerto No.1 by interlinking the piece’s three movements into one continuous musical expanse, held together by the rich lyrical power of the cello.
  • Meant to depict the haunted hallucinations of an opium trip, Berlioz’s grand and imaginative Symphonie Fantastique is marked by an obsessive return to a striking theme symbolizing Berlioz’s beloved, Shakespearean actress Harriet Smithson, who did not return his affections.

Sara Sant-Ambrogio

Dec. 4, 5, 6, 2015. A Madison Symphony Christmas. John DeMain (below top), Conductor. Emily Fons, Mezzo-soprano. David Govertsen, Bass-Baritone. Madison Symphony Chorus, Beverly Taylor, Director. Madison Youth Choirs (below middle), Michael Ross, Artistic Director. Mt. Zion Gospel Choir (below bottom), Tamera and Leotha Stanley, Directors.

John DeMain and the Madison Symphony Orchestra don their Santa hats for this signature Christmas celebration. This concert is filled with traditions, from caroling in the lobby with the Madison Symphony Chorus to vocal performances by hundreds of members of Madison’s musical community. Christmas classics are interwoven with enchanting new holiday music. The culminating sing-along is Madison’s unofficial start of the holiday season!

MSO John DeMain in Santa Hat

Madison Youth Choirs Scotland Tour CR Jon Harlow

MtZion

Feb. 12, 13, 14, 2016: Music, the food of love…

Daniel Hege, Guest Conductor (below top). Alina Ibragimova, Violin (below bottom)

PETER ILYICH TCHAIKOVSKY    “Romeo and Juliet” Fantasy Overture

MAURICE RAVEL                    “Daphnis and Chloe” Suite No. 2

LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN       Violin Concerto

Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture tells the story of Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers through thunderous passages portraying the conflict between the Montagues and the Capulets and a rapturous love theme.

  • With music from a ballet premiered by the Ballet Russes in Paris in 1912, Ravel’s lush Daphnis and Chloe Suite No. 2 depicts lovers Daphnis and Chloe reuniting at daybreak, followed by a Bacchanalian dance.
  • Beethoven’s technically challenging Violin Concerto premiered in 1806. The composer’s only violin concerto, this work paved the way for the great 19th-century German violin concertos by Mendelssohn, Bruch, and Brahms.

Syracuse Symphony Orchestra

alina ibragimovic

Mar. 11, 12, 13, 2016. John DeMain, Conductor. Emanuel Ax (below top), Piano. Alisa Jordheim, Soprano (below bottom)

DMITRY KABALEVSKY             Colas Breugnon Overture*

CÉSAR FRANCK                     Symphonic Variations*

RICHARD STRAUSS                Burleske

GUSTAV MAHLER                            Symphony No. 4

  • Composed in 1938 in Russia, Dmitry Kabalevsky’s dynamic Colas Breugnon Overture preceded the opera glorifying a working man’s struggle against a corrupt aristocracy—an unsurprising theme in the time of Stalin.
  • Knit together by themes presented in the introduction, Franck’s tightly polished Symphonic Variations for piano and orchestra became better known after his death due to the efforts of the composer’s adoring students.
  • Richard Strauss wrote his showy and seductive Burleske for piano and orchestra at the age of 21. When the composer presented it as a thank-you gift to his mentor, Hans von Bülow, the prominent conductor and pianist pronounced the work “unplayable”!
  • Sometimes referred to as Mahler’s pastoral symphony, Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 is light, sunny, and childlike. The finale features a soprano singing a text based on folk poetry.

Emanuel Ax playing LA Times

Alisa Jordheim

Apr. 1, 2, 3, 2016. John DeMain, Conductor. Garrick Ohlsson, Piano (below)

STEVEN STUCKY                     Symphony No. 1*

RICHARD STRAUSS                Don Juan

JOHANNES BRAHMS               Piano Concerto No. 1

  • Described by the composer as “a single expanse of music that travels through a series of emotional landscapes”, Steven Stucky’s Symphony No. 1 is one of the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer’s most recent works.
  • Richard Strauss’ tone poem Don Juan recounts the life, and death, of the eponymous fictional character through brazenly virtuosic flair matched by tender romantic melodies.
  • Brahms’ first major orchestral work, Piano Concerto No. 1, casts the piano and orchestra as equal partners working together to develop musical ideas. Written in D minor, this piece captures the composer’s grief over his friend Robert Schumann’s breakdown and eventual death in a mental asylum.

Garrick Ohlsson

Apr. 29, 30, May 1, 2016. John DeMain, Conductor. Jeni Houser, Soprano. Thomas Leighton, Tenor. Keith Phares, Baritone. Madison Symphony Chorus (below), Beverly Taylor, Director.

OTTORINO RESPIGHI               Pines of Rome

CARL ORFF                                     Carmina Burana

Respighi’s moving tone poem Pines of Rome illustrates four distinct scenes through music, and features one of the most stunningly beautiful melodies of the classical repertoire.

  • The epitome of “epic” music, Carl Orff’s spellbinding cantata Carmina Burana unites chorus and orchestra with rhythmic velocity and evocative lyrics. John DeMain calls it a “soul-stirring experience you’ll never forget” and “one of classical music’s most popular treasures.”

MSO Chorus CR Greg Anderson

The Madison Symphony Orchestra starts its 90th season with the 2015-16 concerts. The MSO engages audiences of all ages and backgrounds in live classical music through a full season of concerts with established and emerging soloists of international renown, an organ series that includes free concerts, and widely respected education and community engagement programs. Find more information at www.madisonsymphony.org.

 

 


Classical music: The Festival Choir of Madison gives a lovely and lovingly committed exploration of the rarely heard setting of the Russian Orthodox All-Night Vigil by Tchaikovsky.

November 5, 2014
1 Comment

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 for 20 years hosted an early music show every other Sunday morning on WORT 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

The Festival Choir of Madison (below top, in a photo by Stephanie Williams) undertook a brave venture into difficult novelty last Saturday night in the Atrium Auditorium (below bottom in a photo by Zane Williams) at the First Unitarian Society of Madison.

Festival Choir of Madison Tchaikovsky Fall 2014 CR Stephanie Wiliams

FUS Atrium, Auditorium Zane Williams

The venture involved the setting of the All-Night Vigil ritual for a cappella choir by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky .

One does not instantly think of Tchaikovsky as a choral composer, or in particular as a composer of sacred music. But he greatly admired the traditions of Russian Orthodox liturgical music, as it had been redefined in the 18th and 19th centuries, as bound up in the very special Russian propensity for powerful choral singing.

In 1879 he made a setting the text of the basic Orthodox Eucharistic service, the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, published as his Op. 41. It was not well received, but Tchaikovsky (below) went on in 1882 to set the cycle of Vespers and Vigil texts, his Op. 52. Indeed, during the 1880s, he composed a dozen other settings of Orthodox liturgical texts.

young tchaikovsky

By his time, the functioning choral music of the Russian Orthodox Church, used amid traditional chants, was generally written by composers who specialized in the genre, quite separate from the growing school of Russian secular composers.

There were some jealousy and resentment expressed by the former against the latter. Few Russian musicians managed personally to bridge the gap between the sacred and the secular. Alexander Gretchaninoff (below) was one of the few who were successful in both.

Alexander Grechaninov in 1912

Tchaikovsky was not given much credit for his religious writing, and his liturgical works are generally ignored. It was his successor, as it were, Sergei Rachmaninoff (below), who achieved true musical greatness in leaping from secular composition into sacred, with his own settings of the Chrysostom Liturgy and the All-Night Vigil. Indeed, the latter has come by now to be recognized as a masterpiece and is ever more frequently performed internationally. (You can hear a section in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

rachmaninoffyoung

The Festival Choir’s conductor, Bryson Mortensen (below, with singer Nancy Vedder-Shults in a photo by Jon Lanctot) chose to preface the performance of the Tchaikovsky score with one movement from the Rachmaninoff counterpart. It was a good idea, though the brief section chosen, gorgeous in itself, was not enough to point up the contrasts in the two composers’ approaches.

Festival Choir of Madison Tchakovsky Fall 2014 CR Jon Lactot  Bryson Mortensen and Nancy Vedder-Shults

Rachmaninoff’s setting is charged with imagination and rich elaboration of the traditional; chants that are the music’s foundations. He even included parts for solo voices, which Tchaikovsky did not.

On the contrary, Tchaikovsky’s approach is really quite conservative and even simplistic. He chose to devise harmonizations of the chants and their liturgical formulas, in accomplished but texturally unadventurous realizations, relying upon the sonorous Russian choral sound to carry the effects. The results are quite lovely, if a bit repetitive as a cycle.

Mortensen made one interesting attempt to bring some variety into the proceedings by having three spiritual poems by Russian writers interspersed with the music at three points. An interesting idea, but the poems chosen were rather bland, and were not well delivered.

It is more a question is the musical performance. Setting Western choirs to singing Church Slavonic texts not part of their culture is not always easy. The singers clearly were working earnestly at it.

But Church Slavonic (like modern Russian) is rich in consonants, and these were just not spat out with the spirit they required. In addition, it seems that only Russian choirs have the gutsy basses that can provide the rock-solid foundation needed for the overall texture. The Festival Singers just could not muster up such power.

Or perhaps, as I suspect, maestro Mortensen (below) chose to restrain them in the interests of a beautifully balanced and blended choral sound — which he certainly achieved — rather than to risk having a section run away with the show. On the other hand, it seemed to me that by the final sections of the score he was infusing a really exciting range of dynamic inflection into the performance.

Bryson Mortensen BW

All in all, one had to admire what this conductor and choir achieved. How often, anywhere, is one likely to encounter this music in live performance? In this concert we were given a chance, and one in which the challenges were met with devotion and lovely music-making. Slava!

 

 


Classical music Q&A: Co-conductors Beverly Taylor and Adam Kluck explain the appeal of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “Vespers” and why they are hard to perform and exotic to hear for Western ears. Hear them for yourself when the University of Wisconsin-Madison Choral Union performs this a cappella masterpiece on this Saturday night, April 26.

April 21, 2014
4 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

This Saturday night at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall, the University of Wisconsin-Madison Choral Union will perform Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “Vespers” or “All-Night Vigil.” (Below is St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow.)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

There is only one performance of this rarely heard work. One short and beautiful audio clip is at the bottom in a YouTube video, and will give you a sample of the gorgeous a cappella, or unaccompanied, sound.

Admission is $10 for adults and the general public. Senior citizens and students get in for free. Tickets may be purchased for concerts up to one month in advance. 
Remaining tickets will be sold at the door. 
You can call (608) 265-ARTS (2787) for ticket information and reservations.

The Ear asked co-conductors Beverly Taylor (below top) and Adam Kluck (below bottom) to answer a Q&A by email. Below are the answers provided by Beverly Taylor (BT) and Adam Kluck (AK).

Beverly Taylor MSO portrait COLOR USE

Adam Kluck conducting

Sergei Rachmaninoff is known primarily as a virtuosic piano and orchestral composer. How do his vocal compositions, in particular the “Vespers,” stand up in quality and characteristics of the melodies and harmonies, the rhythm and Russian feel, to his more popular works?

BT: I actually know little of his vocal output beyond the vespers, although I know there are some lovely works for women’s voices. Most of the Vespers are based on existing chant, and although the melodies are not always as expansive as Rachmaninoff’s symphonies, the flow and grace are part of his output, and his use of extreme dynamics from very soft ppp to very loud ff are those of a Romanticist.

AK: It is interesting to note that Rachmaninoff, lauded for his prowess as a “melodist” in his instrumental works, would choose to set the All-Night Vigil service of the Orthodox church (thus limiting himself to a composition that had to be completely a cappella or without accompaniment).

We know that Rachmaninoff grew up near the church in Novgorod (further down is an icon from a Russian Orthodox church in that city) and, although he was not a practicing Orthodox Christian, he certainly was familiar with the practices and — most importantly — the musical and liturgical aspects of the church. Interestingly, Rachmaninoff set another large-scale a cappella work based on another Orthodox church service, “The Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom.” Tchaikovsky and several other well-known Russian composers set this as well. Rachmaninoff did not like what he ended up with, and so he decided to set the All-Night Vigil.

Most movements are harmonizations and re-workings of chant melodies dating back to the Byzantines, although Rachmaninoff (below)  does create a few movements based on his own melodic content; and these latter movements are just as effective, if not more so.

The long melodic lines throughout much of the work are characteristic of Rachmaninoff, but even harmonically the compositional language is relatively conservative.

Rachmaninoff

How do the Vespers compare or rank when placed against some of the other great choral music by Johann Sebastian Bach, Franz Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, Johannes Brahms and other works and composers that the UW Choral Union performs?

BT: They’re simply–different! Most of what we sing in the UW Choral Union (seen below, with the UW Symphony Orchestra) is accompanied by orchestra, and most of the Classical and early Romantic works have more periodic phrasing, so that an overall form emerges. That is much less the case with these beautiful pieces; a few of them have verses and recognizable refrains.  Others are through-composed. They are more meditative, and show off particularly the low and mellow sounds.  The basses (and we have them!) are asked to sing low D’s, C’s and even a low B in the work.

AK: The pacing of the All-Night Vigil is atypical of those other composers. There are often several movements strung together with very similar tempi, and some of the movements are much longer than others.

The absence of any instrumentalists also means no break for the choir and a magnification of any intonation and tuning issues. Additionally, the first soprano and tenor parts sit quite high in the voice for sustained periods of time, compounding the difficulty.

It is certainly one of the most challenging pieces of any size and scope for these reasons, and for the audience it does require a somewhat different mindset as well. There won’t be the rollicking fugues we’ve come to love and expect from a Haydn or Mozart mass, or a Bach cantata. This piece is something else entirely.

UW Choral Union and UW Symphony 11-2013

Why do you think the Vespers aren’t better known or performed more frequently?

BT: They call for a fair amount of “divisi” — divided parts in all the ranges, but mostly it’s the lack of good low basses, which I think explains why they’re not done more often.

AK: Apart from the unique challenges it presents, I think that in the United States, Russian choral music is still intimidating to us. The language is still the primary barrier, but the choral sound in Eastern Europe and Russia is different to us as well. Rather than attempting to replicate these sonorities as accurately as possible, some directors often choose to program something that is more familiar to audiences and choristers alike. (Below is the interior of a Russian Orthodox Church.)

Russian Orthodox church interior

What specific things would you like to point out for the public to know about the Vespers and your performance of them?

BT: My assistant Adam Kluck loves this work, and so we’re splitting the conducting duties. We’re also doing some minor things involving projections and icons to convey somewhat the world of the senses in which these works would be performed — candles, beautiful art. (Below is an icon from a Russian Orthodox church in the city of Novgorod, where Rachmaninoff grew up.)

AK: In the Russian church tradition, there are many prescriptions for singing as part of a service. We will have one of our choir members, Father Michael, an Orthodox priest, sing the chant before the piece, so that it is permissible to sing the “amen” at the beginning of each of the first two movements.

Rachmaninoff’s setting of each movement illustrates the text very well, and so especially if you are able to follow along with the translations, the piece will really come alive.

Russian icon from Novgorod

Is there something else you would like to say or add?

BT: The concert will be lovely, but more meditative than some concerts.  It won’t always hit you in the face, but it will certainly be well worth listening deeply to.

AK: If your readers enjoy this piece of music, I would encourage them to seek out other choral music by Sergei Rachmaninoff, Peter Tchaikovsky, Alexander Gretchaninoff, and any other Russian composers. The sacred and secular music of the Russian-Baltic region just after the turn of the century is wonderfully expressive and unique.

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Classical music: British composer Sir John Tavener is dead at 69. He made being old-fashioned new again.

November 16, 2013
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

I know of two composers who seem like throwbacks to older time – very old times at that – and yet who stir passionate loyalty among lovers of contemporary classical music.

One is Sir John Tavener (below, in a photo by Simone Canetty-Clarke) and the other is Arvo Part.

john tavener Simone Canetty-Clarke,

Both seemed to draw inspiration from older forms of choral music, all the way to early chant and church music.

Both became quite popular, at least by the standards of contemporary classical music as compared to pop, rock, blues, and jazz. Tavener’s early work was even released on the Apple record label by the Beatles and by Sir Paul McCartney, who seems to have a good ear for whatever will catch on.)

But The Ear could never figure out why local groups, especially the Madison Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and the UW Choral Union – to name a few prominent local music groups – never performed more of their choral and instrumental works since both composers seem to connect widely with and resonate deeply with the public.

True the composers were hardly avant-garde or cutting edge, especially in their pursuit of an apparently old-fashioned spirituality and devotional kind of music.

But a lot of beauty, maybe even most of it that passes the test of history, in art is not cutting edge.

All this comes by way of introducing the fact that this past week, the British composer Sir John Tavener (below, at home composing in a photo by Steve Forrest for Insight-Visual), who found his abiding musical and spiritual roots in the Russian Orthodox Church, died this past week at 69 after a long period of protected illnesses.

John Tavener composing Steve Forrest Insight-Visual

Here is a roundup of some of the best stories The Ear could find on the web:

Here is a comprehensive obituary from The New York Times:

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/13/arts/music/john-tavener-dies-at-69-composer-with-eye-on-god.html?_r=0

Here is a wonderful story that was done by the outstanding NPR classical music blog “Deceptive Cadence”:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2013/11/12/244788638/remembering-holy-minimalist-composer-john-tavener

Here is an obituary from Gramophone, the well-respected British classical music magazine:

http://www.gramophone.co.uk/classical-music-news/the-composer-sir-john-tavener-has-died

And here is the story of one listener’s growing appreciation of Tavener’s music:

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/music/classicalmusic/10447276/John-Tavener-how-I-came-to-love-his-music.html

Did you know and like or dislike the music of Sir John Tavener?

Do you have a favorite piece of his? (Perhaps the “Funeral Canticle” that was used in the critically acclaimed 2011 film by Terrence Mallick “The Tree of Life” and  remains his most popular YouTube video at the bottom.)

The Ear wants to hear.


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