The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Playing softly is the mark of great music-making

April 5, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

Like so many young pianists, when The Ear was young he wanted to project strength. He wanted to play BIG virtuosic pieces and play them FAST and LOUD — even though they were usually way beyond his ability.

Pieces such as the “Appassionata” Sonata and “Emperor” Concerto by Ludwig van Beethoven.

The Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18, and Prelude in C-sharp minor (“Bells of Moscow”) by Sergei Rachmaninoff.

The Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor by Peter Tchaikovsky.

The “Great Gate at Kiev,” from “Pictures at an Exhibition,” by Modest Mussorgsky.

The ”Military” Polonaise and the “Revolutionary” Etude by Frederic Chopin.

You know, the kind of piece that can easily descend into pounding and banging, but that makes an impression on listeners and people who don’t play — and on the player too!

Back then, doing that kind of muscular music-making seemed the task of a real virtuoso.

But no longer.

Maturity brings an appreciation of subtlety and softness, which are much better hallmarks of musicality. Softness is definitely NOT weakness. In fact for The Ear, softness has become a kind of test of mature musicianship.

The past year or so has been a wonderful opportunity to demonstrate that the mark of a really great and mature virtuoso artist is the ability to play softly.

The most recent example came this past Sunday afternoon when The Ear heard pianist Garrick Ohlsson (below) play the Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor, Op. 15, by Johannes Brahms with the Madison Symphony Orchestra under the baton of MSO’s longtime music director and conductor John DeMain.

Garrick Ohlsson

To be sure, the MSO performed absolutely superbly on its own in the 2011 Symphony by Steven Stucky and the tone poem “Don Juan” by Richard Strauss.

But the second half of the concert, devoted to the concerto, was both ear-opening and heart-rending.

The first concerto is a product of Brahms’ youth and is dramatic. Ohlsson, who possess both power and great technique, has no problem getting a huge sound out of the piano when he wants to or playing the most virtuosic passages with absolute fluidness and complete command.

But here is what really mattered: Ohlsson took away the bombast and bluster you so often hear in this early work. You felt as if you were hearing the concerto for the first time or at least hearing it anew.

What emerged was a uniquely convincing and beautifully poetic reading of this famous work – and not just in the slow movement but also in various interludes during the first and third movements. Plus, Ohlsson was joined by DeMain and the MSO whose accompaniment bought into his interpretation and also emphasized subtlety. It was complemented perfectly by the quietly songful encore, which was the lyrical Nocturne in D-flat major by Chopin.

There have been other occasions like that over the past year or so.

Here are just a few.

The duo-pianists Alessio Bax and Lucille Chung (below) at Farley’s House of Pianos played an all-Schubert recital and proved how seductive quiet and restrained playing can be.

Lucille Chung and Alessio Bax 2015

UW-Madison pianist Christopher Taylor (below, in a photo by Michael R. Anderson) can compete with the best when it comes to forceful playing. But what lingers in The Ear’s mind is hearing Taylor’s seductive playing of the slow movement from the Piano Sonata No. 3 in F minor, Op. 5, by Johannes Brahms as a great example in how playing softly draws in listeners but requires great virtuosity and control.

Christopher Taylor Recital

Christopher Taylor Recital

Pianist Emanuel Ax (below), who played the Piano Concerto No. 4 by Beethoven with the Madison Symphony Orchestra, also demonstrated an uncanny ability to play softly with deep tone.

Emanuel Ax portrait 2016

There were other examples in various kinds of music. The Ear recalls beautifully soft singing in some songs by Franz Schubert during the Schubertiade (below) at the UW-Madison in late January.

Schubertiade 2016 Shepherd on the Rock

He also remembers some fantastic quiet playing of Johann Sebastian Bach and Brahms in the debut recital by UW violinist Soh-Hyun Park Altino (below, in a photo by Caroline Bittencourt).

Soh-Hyun Park Altino CR caroline bittencourt

There are many other examples from other individuals and groups, including the violinist Benjamin Beilman with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra; the UW Choral Union in the Gloria by Francis Poulenc; the Madison Opera’s productions of Puccini’s “La Boheme” and Mark Adamo’s “Little Women”; pianist Joyce Yang at the Wisconsin Union Theater; and the Pro Arte Quartet among others.

But you get the point.

It isn’t easy to play softly. In fact, it can be downright hard.

But it makes music so beautiful.

So moving.

So unforgettable.

As listener or player, try it and see for yourself.


Classical music: Meet Mexican tenor Javier Camarena who got to perform an encore at The Met. Plus, today is your last chance to hear pianist Garrick Ohlsson and the Madison Symphony Orchestra in a program that gets raves from the critics

April 3, 2016
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ALERT 1: This afternoon at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall at the Overture Center, is your last chance to hear pianist Garrick Ohlsson and the Madison Symphony Orchestra under conductor John DeMain in a program of the Piano Concerto No. 1 by Johannes Brahms; the tone poem “Don Juan” by Richard Strauss; and the Symphony No. 1 by Steven Stucky. Critics have loved the performances.

Here is a link to a review by John W. Barker for Isthmus:

http://isthmus.com/music/enterprise-and-mastery-madison-symphony-orchestra/

Here is a link to a review by Lindsay Christians for The Capital Times:

http://host.madison.com/ct/entertainment/arts_and_theatre/brahms-and-strauss-dabble-in-love-on-mso-s-april/article_eca654f4-f889-11e5-a327-af48290d204d.html

ALERT 2: UW-Madison clarinetist Wesley Warnhoff will perform a FREE recital, with renowned UW-Madison pianist Christopher Taylor, on Tuesday night at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall. They perform a sonata by Johannes Brahms and a rhapsody by Claude Debussy among others. Here is a link to more information and the compete program:

http://www.music.wisc.edu/event/wesley-warnhoff-clarinet/

By Jacob Stockinger

At the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, not many singers get to stop the show — the big, complex and expensive show — and sing an encore aria.

In recent years, since 1942, there have been only three. There was Luciano Pavarotti and Juan Diego Florez, who astonished the audience by repeating the nine high C’s in Gaetano Donizetti’s “La Fille du regiment” (The Daughter of the Regiment).

But just recently there was a third.

His name is Mexican tenor Javier Camarena (below in a photo by Marty Sohl for The Met). He was singing in Don Pasquale,” also by Donizetti, one of the masters of the show-offy and impressively embellished “bel canto” or “beautiful singing” style.

Tenor Javier Camarena CR Marty Sohl for The Met

Camarena wowed the crowd with a high D-flat, a half-step higher than the high C that his predecessors sang.

Here is a story, with an interview, on NPR or National Public Radio, that gets you excited about the man and the event just by reading about them:

http://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2016/03/28/471842692/the-show-stopping-singing-of-javier-camarena

And here in a YouTube video is the aria he sang —  and then sang again:


Classical music: Read about American composer Steven Stucky, who recently died. The Madison Symphony Orchestra will perform his Symphony No. 1 this weekend.

April 1, 2016
3 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

A musician in the Madison Symphony Orchestra, whom The Ear holds in very high regard, says that the four-section, continuous movement Symphony No. 1 by contemporary American composer Steven Stuckey (below) is “beautiful.”

This is a discerning man and musician, and The Ear – who has never heard works by Stucky — trusts his judgment.

Steve Stucky

Even so, the work will be The Big Unknown on the MSO program this weekend. It also features pianist Garrick Ohlsson in the Piano Concerto No. 1 by Johannes Brahms and the tone poem “Don Juan” by Richard Strauss. Both works are major standards of the Romantic and Late Romantic repertoire.

Here is a link with more information about the performances, which will be held tonight, Saturday night and Sunday afternoon.

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2016/03/29/classical-music-pianist-garrick-ohlsson-will-solo-in-the-piano-concerto-no-1-by-johannes-brahms-with-the-madison-symphony-orchestra-this-weekend/

John DeMain, the longtime music director and conductor of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, recently told The Ear about how he had wanted to program a work by a living composer. After all, DeMain has championed other new music, including the world premiere of John Adams’ famous opera “Nixon in China.”

But a very aggressive form of brain cancer took away that chance when Stucky, who composed chamber music and choral music as well as symphonic music, taught at Cornell University and the Juilliard School, died just two months ago at 66.

Steven Stucky

So The Ear thought that it might be good to have more background about Stucky.

Here is Stucky himself talking about his 2012 Symphony that will be performed by the MSO and its emotional journey. It includes a performance by superstar conductor Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which commissioned the work:

Here is a terrific background piece on Stucky that appeared on the Deceptive Cadence blog hosted by NPR or National Public Radio:

http://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2016/02/16/466942466/remembering-composer-steven-stucky

And here is a lengthy and detailed obituary about Stucky that appeared in The New York Times. It also includes excerpts of reviews of his works and gives readers a context by which to judge Stucky’s achievement.

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/16/arts/music/steven-stucky-composer-who-won-a-pulitzer-dies-at-66.html

The Ear is looking forward to hearing the work. (Another sample, in a YouTube video at the bottom, is his 2011 work “Silent Spring,” composed to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the publication of Rachel Carson’s landmark book about DDT and pollution in the environment and nature.

He is also looking forward to hearing from others about the work.

So if you go to the MSO concert and hear Steven Stucky’s Symphony No. 1, why not leave your opinion or assessment in the COMMENTS section?

The Ear wants to hear.


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.

 

 


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