The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Madison Symphony Orchestra opens its new season with a strong and memorable concert that had something for everyone — with no outside help from a guest artist

October 4, 2019
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ALERT: On this Saturday, Oct. 5, from 4 to 5 p.m., cellist Amit Peled will teach a master class at Farley’s House of Pianos, 6522 Seybold Road, near West Towne Mall, where he will instruct local students. This is a FREE event that the public is invited to observe, and is part of the two concerts by Peled and pianist Daniel del Pino. For more information, go to:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2019/09/29/classical-music-cellist-amit-peled-and-pianist-daniel-del-pino-open-the-salon-piano-series-this-friday-and-saturday-nights-with-music-by-beethoven-strauss-and-others/

By Jacob Stockinger

Many orchestras, including the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below, in a photo by Peter Rodgers), often use the opening concert of a new season as a chance to lure audiences by wowing them with some big-name guest soloist.

But last weekend maestro John DeMain (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson) once again preferred to show off his own ensemble. And it worked, making for a memorable concert.

The MSO opener had something for everyone, and what you saw as the highlight probably depended more on your personal taste or preference than on the overall impressively tight playing and singing of the MSO, its principals and its chorus.

It seemed clear that, for most listeners the MSO’s young organist Greg Zelek (below, in a photo by Peter Rodgers) filled the role of the impressive imported star or guest artist.

The virtuosic Zelek is simply so good that he managed to turn a second-rate piece by Samuel Barber into a first-rate crowd-pleaser that brought huge applause and a long standing ovation, then an encore and another standing ovation.

As music, the concerto-like “Toccata Festiva” (1960) is simply not on par with Barber’s Violin Concerto or his Adagio for Strings or his Overture to “The School for Scandal.” It is 15 minutes of mostly loud and bombastic music meant to show off the new organ that it was commissioned for.

The King of Instruments seems to invite such bragging. And the boyish, vest-clad Zelek milked the score by Barber (below) for all it was worth, including an astounding three-minute cadenza played only with the feet. It’s hard to argue with such dramatic success.

If you preferred more serious fare, there was the Symphony No. 7 in D minor by Antonin Dvorak (below). Last spring, DeMain announced his fondness for Dvorak – in the spring the MSO will perform his Requiem.

DeMain’s feeling for Dvorak showed in a convincing and engaging performance of this darker, non-programmatic Brahmsian work that goes beyond the Czech folk dances, folk song-like melodies and nature mimicry of Dvorak’s other major symphonies and chamber music.

If you wanted exciting Romanticism, it would be hard to beat Wagner’s rhythmic strings soaring in the Overture to the opera “Tannhauser” by Richard Wagner (below). And that flowed into Wagner’s sensual “Venusberg” music that featured the MSO chorus singing offstage.

But The Ear thinks that the best measure of musicianship – orchestral, instrumental or vocal — is not how loudly they can play or sing, but how softly.

For that reason, he found the standout work at the concert to be “Prelude to The Afternoon of a Faun” by Claude Debussy (below). The balance among various sections proved ideal at expressing subtlety. You could hear everything combining to make a distinctive and atmospheric tonal color.

For example, it is hard to imagine more sensual playing of the opening theme than how principal flutist Stephanie Jutt (below) did it. The performance and interpretation projected the exact kind of impressionistic seductiveness that the composer meant for it to have. For sheer beauty of sound, it took the top spot. (You can see a graphic depiction of Debussy’s score in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Still, there seemed to be more than the usual number of empty seats. Was it the rainy weather? The football weekend? Or do people still miss the thrill of hearing a well-known guest artist opening the season?

What do you think?

What was your favorite piece on the opening MSO program? And why?

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: The Madison Symphony Orchestra opens its 94th season this weekend with the sonic sensuality of music by Wagner, Dvorak, Debussy and Barber

September 24, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

It has been warmer than the usual fall weather, so why not go sultry?

That’s what the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below, in a photo by Peter Rodgers) will do when it opens its 94th season this coming weekend.

The program “Love, Lust and Redemption” will combine the power of the Klais organ (below top) with MSO principal organist and curator of the Overture Concert Organ Greg Zelek who opens the season with Samuel Barber’s Toccata Festiva.

The all-orchestral program also features the Madison Symphony Orchestra exploring the sonic sensuality of Wagner’s “Tannhäuser”Overture, Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun” and Dvorak’s Symphony No. 7.

Performances will are in Overture Hall, 201 State Street, on Friday, Sept. 27, at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, Sept. 28, at 8 p.m., and Sunday, Sept. 29, at 2:30 p.m.

Tickets are $19 to $95. For more information, see below.

MSO music director and conductor John DeMain (below) says of the program:

“Our opening concert is both festive and gorgeously romantic as we present our star organist Greg Zelek (below) in his MSO concerto debut.

“We open with one of the most beautiful overtures ever written, Wagner’s Overture to the opera Tannhäuser and then, after intermission, the great Symphony No. 7 in D Minor by Dvorak.

In between is the little jewel by Debussy, his quintessential impressionistic masterpiece, Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun. All are favorites of mine, and I look forward to making them favorites of yours, if they aren’t already.”

Tannhäuser: Overture and Venusberg Music” by Richard Wagner (below) is frequently performed as a separate work in orchestral concerts, the first such performance having been given by Felix Mendelssohn conducting the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra in February 1846.

Wagner began revisions to the opera immediately, which resulted in two more versions: the Paris version in 1861 and the Vienna version in 1875. Members of the Madison Symphony Orchestra Chorus also perform in this piece.

TheToccata Festiva was written by the American composer Samuel Barber (below) as an occasional work for the Philadelphia Orchestra and Eugene Ormandy. It pairs organ and orchestra, and celebrated the inauguration of a new organ for the Academy of Music in Philadelphia, a gift from longtime patron Mary Curtis Zimbalist who had also commissioned the new piece.

Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faunby French composer Claude Debussy (below) is a musical evocation of Stephane Mallarmé’s poem “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun,” in which a faun — a half-man, half-goat creature of ancient Greek legend — awakes to revel in sensuous memories of forest nymphs. Debussy begins the piece with a sinuous and well-known flute melody evocative of a graceful female form.

Symphony No. 7 by Czech composer Antonin Dvorak was greatly influenced by Johannes Brahms. Dvorak decided to compose this symphony after hearing Brahms’s new Symphony No. 3.

The piece is distinguished for its somber and dramatic atmosphere and its lack of Slavic-inspired melodies, a characteristic with which the composer’s style is usually associated. (You can hear the vivacious Scherzo in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

TICKETS AND EVENT DETAILS

The lobby opens 90 minutes prior to each concert. One hour before each performance, Randal Swiggum (below) will lead a 30-minute Prelude Discussion in Overture Hall to enhance concertgoers’ understanding and listening experience. It is free to ticket holders.

The MSO recommends that concert attendees arrive early for each performance to make sure they have time to pass through Overture Center’s security stations, and so they can experience the Prelude Discussion.

Program notes for the concerts are available online: http://bit.ly/msosept19programnotes.

 

  • Single Tickets are $19-$95 each and are on sale now at: https://madisonsymphony.org/event/love-lust-redemptionthrough the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street, or by calling the Box Office at (608) 258-4141. Fees apply to online/phone sales.
  • Groups of 10 or more can save 25% by calling the MSO office at (608) 257-3734. For more information, visit, https://www.madisonsymphony.org/groups.
  • Student rush tickets can be purchased in person on the day of the concert at the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street. Students must show a valid student ID and can receive up to two $15 or $20 tickets. More information is at: https://www.madisonsymphony.org/studentrush
  • Seniors age 62 and up receive 20% savings on advance and day-of-concert ticket purchases in select areas of the hall.
  • Flex-ticket booklets of 8-10 vouchers for 19-20 symphony subscription concerts are available. Learn more at: https://madisonsymphony.org/flex
  • Subscriptionsfor the 2019–2020 season are available now. Learn more at: https://madisonsymphony.org/19-20

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


Posted in Classical music
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Classical music: You must hear this – how Debussy provided a soft way to end a season

May 24, 2018
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

It seems perfectly normal and natural that big groups like to close their season with a big ending.

So the Madison Symphony Orchestra closed this past season with the “Glagolitic Mass” by Leos Janacek, which used a lot of brass and a large choir.

The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra went for an all-Beethoven program that featured the Piano Concerto No. 3, with soloist John O’Conor, and the forceful, driven Fifth Symphony.

Yet there was something particularly soothing and reassuring about the way the Ancora String Quartet (below) closed its 17th season last Friday night. (Member, below from left, are Wes Luke and Robin Ryan, violins; Benjamin Whitcomb, cello; and Marika Fischer Hoyt, viola.

The group opened with a welcome rarity: the fourth and final string quartet by Danish composer Carl Nielsen. It proved a fine offering, especially noteworthy for the hymn-like slow movement that brought to mind the open harmonies of Aaron Copland.

But the concert ended ever so quietly and warmly with the only String Quartet, Op. 10, written by French composer Claude Debussy (below).

The poet T.S. Eliot said the world ends not with a bang but a whimper.

But this ending was neither bang nor whimper.

The Ear would call it a sigh, a long and sensual sound bath that left you leaving the performance less with admiration or wonder than with gratitude for the group and for the music.

Plus, it was all the more affecting for the way that violinist Wes Luke (below) clearly explained how the main themes of all movements grow out of one motif and cohere.

The Debussy string quartet, he explained, is one of the most performed and recorded of the entire string quartet repertory. Yet its sensuality always makes it seems so fresh and so French.

The highlight was, as always, the third movement, the slow movement. And as the spring season completes winding down and the summer seasons starts to pick up, here it is for your enjoyment in a YouTube video of the Juilliard String Quartet.

What did you think about the season-closing concerts this spring? Did you have a favorite?

What do you think of the Debussy string quartet?

If you know of a better slow movement from a string quartet, please leave a COMMENT and a link, if possible, to a YouTube performance.


Classical music: Don’t miss tango weekend at the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society

June 15, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

If there was ever a genre of music created specifically for the talented, eclectic and fun-loving musicians of the Madison-based Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society, it is surely the tango.

It is hard to imagine a more perfect kind of music because it seems so suited to the temperament of the BDDS and its participants. The tango and BDDS simply seem made for each other.

BDDS 25th poster

The sexy and sensual tango has become both a popular and populist form of South American dance music. It started in brothels and then went mainstream. Then it crossed over into the classical repertoire, thanks to composers Astor Piazzolla, Carlos Guastavino and others.

If you have heard the BDDS perform tangos before, you know how captivating the performances are.

This weekend, the BDDS Silver Jubilee season will feature two programs with tangos, arranged by Pablo Zinger (below), a Uruguayan native who now calls New York City home.

Pablo Zinger at piano

Last time they performed, Zinger and his BDDS colleagues were absolutely terrific. The Ear will never forget the BDDS version of Piazzolla’s “Oblivion,” a fantastic, soulful and heart-breaking piece of music. (You can hear another version of “Oblivion” in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Here are links to the program with tango this weekend to be performed at the Playhouse in the Overture Center and in the Hillside Theatre (below) at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin compound in Spring Green:

http://www.bachdancinganddynamite.org/schedule.php

taliesin_hillside2

Besides tangos, there will also be music by Maurice Ravel (Piano Trio); Arnold Schoenberg (Chamber Symphony); Franz Schubert (Piano Trio No. 1); Joseph Haydn (Piano Trio No. 25, “Gypsy Rondo”); and movie music by Nino Rota, Henry Mancini and Luis Bacalov.

But featured prominently are tangos by Uruguayan composer Miguel del Aguila (below top) and by Argentine composer Astor Piazzolla (below bottom), who turned to the tango of his native land at the advice of Nadia Boulanger, the famous French teacher of Aaron Copland, Philip Glass and others.

Miguel del Aguila

astor piazzolla

If you are looking for a preview sample, you can of course go on YouTube. But you could also listen to the new CD of South American tangos by BDDS co-founder and co-artistic director Stephanie Jutt, who teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music and who is also principal flute of the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

Not long ago, Jutt (below) spent a sabbatical year in Argentina, if The Ear recalls correctly. She clearly fell in love with tango music and is anxious to share her enthusiasm with others. That enthusiasm and her flair for the dance form show in the terrific performances on the CD.

Stephanie Jutt with flute

The new CD (below), on the Albany label, features pianists Elena Abend and the versatile arranger-pianist Pablo Zinger, whom you can hear live this weekend. It features 20 modern Latin American and Spanish works by Piazzolla and Guastavino as well as by Angel Lasada, the Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos and the Basque composer Jesus Guridi. (It is on sale at BDDS concerts for $15.)

Stephanie Jutt tango CD

Dance has always inspired classical music. Historically, the tango seems a natural modern progression from the Baroque minuets and allemandes of Johann Sebastian Bach, the Classical landler of Haydn, the Romantic waltzes of Franz Schubert and Frederic Chopin, the Hungarian Dances of Johannes Brahms and the Slavonic Dances of Antonin Dvorak.

But don’t take The Ear’s word for it.

Go listen for yourself. And be captivated, be transported. You won’t be disappointed.


Classical music: YOU MUST HEAR THIS – the sensual sound and sexy music of Gabriel Faure’s Piano Quintet No. 1

June 1, 2016
3 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

The other night The Ear heard a recording of Gabriel Faure’s Piano Quintet No. 1 in D Minor, Op. 89.

He had forgotten quite how quietly and intimately sensual, even sexy, it is.

The Ear has never heard the work in a live performance because, unfortunately, it isn’t programmed often – a fate it shares with most of Fauré’s music save his Requiem. But Fauré also wrote beautiful chamber music, songs and solo piano music.

Just listen to the opening watery sounds of the piano and the luscious string sounds. Just listen to the melodies and harmonies. It is such seductive music, filled with yearning and softly stated passion.

See if you don’t agree when you listen to the first movement in the YouTube video at the bottom. (You can also find a complete performance of the work in YouTube.)

It offers more proof that Faure (1845-1924, below), who taught Maurice Ravel, is severely underestimated and underperformed in the non-French music world.

faure-1

In The COMMENT section, tell The Ear if you agree and what other sexy pieces of chamber music you want others to listen to.


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