The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The experts said his music wouldn’t last. But Rachmaninoff and his fans proved them wrong. Hear for yourself this Wednesday night at this summer’s final Concert on the Square

July 30, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

The experts sure got it wrong.

Only 11 years after the death of Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff (below, 1873-1943) – also spelled Rachmaninov — the 1954 edition of the prestigious and authoritative “Grove Dictionary of Music” declared Rachmaninoff’s music to be “monotonous in texture … consist[ing] mainly of artificial and gushing tunes” and predicted that his popular success was “not likely to last.”

That opinion probably came from the same academicians who favored the atonal and serial composers at the time.

But Rachmaninoff’s music is so emotional, so beautiful and so easy for audiences to connect with that it can be a challenge to remember its serious backstory.

For example, much personal turmoil and anguish went into his Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor, Op. 18, which headlines this Wednesday night’s final summer Concert on the Square by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra.

(Other works on the program, to be performed at 7 p.m. on the King Street corner of the Capitol Square, are the Overture to “The Magic Flute” by Mozart, the Firebird” Suite by Igor Stravinsky, the “Cornish Rhapsody” for piano and orchestra by Hubert Bath.)

For more information – including rules, food and etiquette — about the concert, go to: https://wisconsinchamberorchestra.org/performances/concerts-on-the-square-6-4/

The perfectly chosen soloist is the Russia-born and Russia-trained pianist Ilya Yakushev (below), who has appeared several times with Andrew Sewell and the WCO as well as in solo recitals at Farley’s House of Pianos, where he will perform again this coming season as part of the Salon Piano Series.

Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 (1901) may well be the most popular piano concerto ever written, one that has often been used in many novels, movies and popular songs. Some would argue that Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 (1910) has surpassed it in the popularity and frequency of performance.

True or not, the second concerto is a triumph of the human spirit and individual creativity. (You can hear the dramatic and lyrical opening movement, played live by Yuja Wang at the Verbier Festival, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

It was written in 1900-01 after the composer’s first symphony had not succeeded with the critics and when personal problems had overwhelmed him (below, around 1910).

Rachmaninoff fell into a severe depression that lasted four years. During that time he had daily sessions with a psychotherapist whose cure used hypnosis and repeating to the composer that one day soon he would write a piano concerto that prove very good and very popular.

And so it was. The therapist was Dr. Nikolai Dahl (below) — and that is whom the concerto is dedicated to.

Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 is often considered the Mount Everest of piano concertos for the sheer physicality and stamina required to play it.

Yet the composer himself — who premiered, recorded and often performed both concertos — said he thought the second concerto, although shorter, was more demanding musically, if not technically.

For more information about Rachmaninoff and his Piano Concerto No. 2 as well as its place in popular culture, go to these two Wikipedia websites where you will be surprised and impressed:

For the Piano Concerto No. 2: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Piano_Concerto_No._2_(Rachmaninoff)

For general biographical details about Rachmaninoff: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sergei_Rachmaninoff


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Classical music: Looking for serious fun? The thoroughly successful opening concerts by the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society bode well for the upcoming second weekend

June 19, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

After 28 summers, going to a concert by the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society still feels like attending a family reunion – the best kind of family reunion where everyone is familiar and friendly, where everything is fun, and where you always leave glad that you went.

That’s not by chance.

The first thing that co-founders and co-artistic directors Stephanie Jutt and Jeffrey Sykes did last Friday and Saturday nights was to thank the loyal audience. And the audience, full of longtime fans, returned the favor by being attentive to and appreciative of the first-rate music-making as well as responsive to the horseplay and antics – such as the surreal scene of virtuoso Axel Strauss playing “The Skater’s Waltz” on his violin while rollerblading around the stage (below).

BDDS players really mean it when they say that their audiences are in for something different, something they won’t find elsewhere and won’t forget.

Last weekend that meant the return of two longtime guest performers: San Francisco cellist Jean-Michael Fonteneau and Montreal violinist Axel Strauss (below, with pianist Jeffrey Sykes). Neither disappointed as they performed very varied music by Franz Joseph Haydn, C.P.E. Bach, Johannes Brahms, Gabriel Faure, Lili Boulanger, Maurice Ravel and Ned Rorem. And as always, the amazing  pianist Jeffrey Sykes proved a chameleon who blended masterfully into the style of each period and each composer.

But for The Ear, the unexpected standout last weekend was guest accordion player Stas Venglevski from Milwaukee. Born in Russia and trained at the Moscow Conservatory, he is a virtuoso player, a sensitive arranger and a convincing composer – all done with good humor and a charismatic stage presence.

The Ear never thought of the accordion – the Russian bayan, to be specific – as an instrument for chamber music. But he does now, after hearing Venglevski play serious Russian, French and Latin American music that ran the gamut from a graceful waltz and a sprightly polka to torchy tangos. And then there were his flying fingers punching out “The Flight of the Bumblebee,” a real crowd-pleaser.

The large audience responded on both nights with wild applause and a standing ovation every time that Venglevski (below) played, and Jutt promised the audience that he will be back.

“As you can see, we have fun here,” Jutt deadpanned.

She is not exaggerating.

Which bodes well for the second weekend of three that will happen this coming weekend.

The second weekend — two programs in three venues — celebrates Jutt and Sykes, plus two of BDDS’ favorite guest artists: violinist Stephanie Sant’Ambrogio and Madison pianist Thomas Kasdorf.

Kasdorf (below) and Sykes are both featured in a program called “Rock the Sykes-o-delic Kas-bah.” Kasdorf is featured in Brahms’ Horn Trio with guest horn player Karl Kramer Johansen, and in the appealing and accessible Café Concertino by the contemporary Australian composer Carl Vine.

Sykes will perform another chamber transcription of a Classical-era symphonic work, which over the years has become a welcome specialty of BDDS. In this case it is Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s snappy and appealing Piano Concerto No. 9 in E-flat Major, K. 271, the “Jeunehomme” concerto. (You can hear the irresistible last movement of the piano concerto, used in the film “Amadeus,” in the YouTube video at the bottom.) Sykes will also perform in Robert Schumann’s “Fairy Tales” for clarinet and viola.

A Madison native, cellist Alison Rowe (below) — an artist from the Dynamite Factory, which is BDDS’ program for emerging talent — will be featured in the Sonata for Cello and Piano in D Major by Johann Sebastian Bach.

“Rock the Sykes-o-delic Kas-bah” will be performed at the Stoughton Opera House on Friday, June 21, at 7:30 p.m. Braisin’ Hussies Food Cart will be parked outside the Opera House prior to the performance. The program will also be performed in Spring Green at the Hillside Theater, Sunday, June 23, at 2:30 p.m.

Jutt (below top) and Sant’Ambrogio (below bottom, in a photo by Stephanie Ann Boyd) worm their musical way into the most unexpected places in the other program, “Steph Infection.” The Nocturne for flute, violin, horn and piano of Franz Doppler opens the program, which continues with Jutt’s own arrangement of Antonin Dvorak’s popular “American” String Quartet, with a flute substituting for one of the two violins.

Dmitri Shostakovich’s Five Pieces for flute, clarinet and piano add spice to the program, and the evening concludes with Ernst von Dohnanyi’s epic Sextet for clarinet, horn, violin, viola, cello and piano. A work that ranges from stormy and turbulent to tender and funny, it features an all-star cast including audience favorite clarinetist Alan Kay, horn player Karl Kramer Johansen, violist Carol Cook (principal at the Lyric Opera of Chicago), and Madison’s own cellist of the UW-Madison’s Pro Arte Quartet, Parry Karp (below).

“Steph Infection” will be performed at The Playhouse, Overture Center for the Arts, Saturday, June 22, at 7:30 p.m.; and in Spring Green at the Hillside Theater, Sunday, June 23, at 6:30 p.m.

And of course there could also be some unannounced surprises – more door prizes, perhaps a mystery guest, or more shenanigans and antics that correspond to the “Name Dropping” pun theme of the programs.

For tickets ($43-$49) and more information, go to: https://bachdancing.org


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Classical music: Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras perform the Evelyn Steenbock fall concerts TODAY and next Friday night. The Edgewood Chamber Orchestra performs this Sunday afternoon

November 10, 2018
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ALERT: This Sunday afternoon, Nov. 11, at 2:30 p.m. in the St. Joseph Chapel, 1000 Edgewood College Drive, the Edgewood Chamber Orchestra will give its fall concert. Conducted by Blake Walter, the chamber orchestra will play Franz Joseph Haydn’s “The Word on the Moon” Overture, Arthur Honegger’s Pastorale D’été (Summer Pastoral) and Symphony No. 1 in C minor by Felix Mendelssohn. Tickets are $5 for general admission, free with Edgewood College ID.

By Jacob Stockinger

The Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO, below) will present their first concert series of the 2018-19 season, the Evelyn Steenbock Fall Concerts TODAY, Saturday, Nov. 10, and next Friday, Nov. 16.

WYSO orchestras will perform works by Igor Stravinsky, Aram Khachaturian, Soon Hee Newbold and more. The Youth Orchestra concert will include a performance of Tchaikovsky’s “Rococo” Variations with special guest cellist Joseph Johnson.

“Joseph Johnson is an extraordinary artist and person and it will be a treat for us all to hear and collaborate with someone of his stature,” says Youth Orchestra Conductor Kyle Knox (below).

Johnson has been heard throughout the world as a soloist, chamber musician and educator. Principal cellist of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra since the 2009-10 season, he previously held the same position with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. (You can hear an interview with Joseph Johnson in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

He also serves as principal cellist of the Santa Fe Opera, and during the 2008-2009 season was acting principal cellist of the Honolulu Symphony Orchestra. Prior to his Milwaukee appointment, Johnson was a member of the Minnesota Orchestra cello section for 11 years.

“The Youth Orchestra couldn’t be more excited to present a program of all-Russian music for our first concert of the season,” Knox says. “We will begin with a rarely performed gem by 20th-century composer Igor Stravinsky, followed by one of the great solo works in the cello repertoire, the “Rococo” Variations by Tchaikovsky. Finally, we will finish the evening with the mighty Symphony No. 4 by Tchaikovsky, one of the most famous orchestral works in history, which features all sections of the orchestra.”

TODAY’S concerts begin at 11:30 a.m. in Mills Hall at the UW-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music, 455 North Park Street, Madison.

The Nov. 16 Youth Orchestra concert with guest soloist Joseph Johnson begins at 7:30 p.m. at the Middleton Performing Arts Center, 2100 Bristol Street, next to Middleton High School, with a reception to follow.

WYSO students travel from communities throughout southern Wisconsin and northern Illinois each weekend throughout the concert season to rehearse on the UW-Madison campus.

Each orchestra performs three concerts per season, with additional performance opportunities available to students, including ensembles and chamber groups.

Concert admission is $10 for adults, and $5 for youth 18 and under, with tickets available at the door.

Full concert repertoire is available at https://www.wysomusic.org/evelyn-steenbock-fall-concerts-repertoire/

To learn more about Joseph Johnson, go to: www.joecello.com.

Evelyn Steenbock Fall Concerts

Saturday, Nov. 10, Mills Concert Hall
11:30 a.m. Opus One and Sinfonietta
1:30 p.m. Harp Ensemble & Concert Orchestra
4 p.m. Percussion Ensemble (below) and Philharmonia Orchestra

Friday, Nov. 16, Middleton Performing Arts Center
7:30 p.m. Youth Orchestra, reception to follow
With guest artist Joseph Johnson, cello


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Classical music: The amateur Middleton Community Orchestra, with pianist Thomas Kasdorf, closes its eighth season impressively by shining new light on music by Schumann and Brahms

June 2, 2018
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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 hosts an early music show once a month on Sunday morning on WORT FM 89.9 FM. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.

By John W. Barker

The amateur Middleton Community Orchestra (below) closed its eighth season with another program of mainstream works. Maestro Steve Kurr clearly likes to challenge his players not only with demanding music, but also with works so familiar that audience expectations are extra high.

Of the two works presented, the first was the beloved Piano Concerto in A Minor by Robert Schumann. He wrote it for his wife, born Clara Wieck and an acclaimed pianist, to show off her talents. The soloist was the ubiquitous Thomas Kasdorf (below), a Middleton native and UW-Madison graduate who finds the MCO a wonderful platform in which he can have experience with a range of concertos.

Kasdorf is clearly working to make this concerto his own. He strove to integrate the polarities of melodiousness and showiness in the first movement, and seemed to have settled nicely into the extravagance of the final movement.

But it was the middle movement that intrigued me. (You can hear that movement, played by Sviatoslav Richter, in the YouTube video at the bottom.) Usually treated as a simplistic interval between the other movements, it emerged here as music of true delicacy, much of it a dialogue between the soloist and the orchestra. I daresay Kasdorf (below) will be able to make even more of this work as he grows in it, but he is off to a persuasive start.

The other warhorse — if you will — on the program was the Symphony No. 1 of Johannes Brahms. Kurr was the more daring in tackling it since the Madison Symphony Orchestra had already performed it just this past February. It is a deliberately monumental work, an ostentatious demonstration by Brahms that he had truly arrived as symphonist. Consequently, the composer made his players work hard to bring this off.

Though it sounds unfair, my initial grading would be an “incomplete”: a performance in the making. This was true certainly in the first movement, which did not yet have full coordination and coherence.

A major problem was the orchestra’s horn section. Brahms certainly wrote strong music for them in this work, but these players were occasionally inaccurate and, most damaging, far too loud and out of balance with the full ensemble. That distorted or undercut the performance all the way.

On the other hand, the string choir (below) continues to mature, and it delivered a very satisfying sound in the passages featuring it.

Most important of all, however, was Kurr’s interpretative approach, particularly in the second and third movements. These are usually presented as bits of superficial repose between the big flanking movements. But Kurr almost made them the genuine center of the work.

Taking much slower tempos than we usually hear, Kurr (below) turned the slow movement into a flow of beautiful sound, the third movement a subtly clever piece of whimsy. And the introduction to the finale, again taken more slowly than usual, unfolded with a powerful eloquence of its own, the more to pave the way for the Big Tune in the remaining body of the movement.

I am not sure I would advocate always treating Brahms’s First this way. But I salute Kurr for making me think anew about a score I had assumed I already knew well. He was able to lead his players, despite any shortcomings, in a performance of genuine artistic perceptions—an achievement in which this orchestra can take great pride.


Classical music: Today is Earth Day 2018. Listen to a new one-hour symphony commissioned by National Geographic to mark the event in sound and pictures

April 22, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Today is April 22, 2018 – Earth Day.

A lot of classical music is appropriate to the occasion, from the sound paintings in oratorios by Johann Sebastian Bach, George Frideric Handel, Franz Joseph Haydn and Felix Mendelssohn to the chamber music and songs of Franz Schubert; from the symphonies of Ludwig van Beethoven, Johannes Brahms, Antonin Dvorak and Gustav Mahler to the contemporary award-winning environmental music by John Luther Adams, much of whose work can be found on YouTube.

But of special interest this year is the one-hour “Symphony for Our World.” It is a five-movement symphony that was commissioned from two different composers – Austin Fray (below top) and Andrew Christie (below bottom) — by National Geographic to celebrate the planet.

The presentation premieres TONIGHT at 6 p.m. on the TV channel National Geographic WILD. (In the Madison area, the Spectrum/Charter cable channel is 147, 707 for HD.) Here is a link to a search engine that finds the channel where you live. Just plug in your ZIP code and your television provider:

http://channel.nationalgeographic.com/channel_finder/wild/

The performance tonight also marks the beginning of a national orchestra tour with the music. (You can see and hear the first two minutes in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Here is a link to a story with more information, including a trailer, the dates and places of the world tour, and quotes from the composers about the composition and which instruments evoke which natural phenomena:

https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2018/04/symphony-for-our-world-austin-fray-andrew-christie-culture-spd/

What composer or piece of classical music do you think best celebrates Earth Day?

Leave your answer with a YouTube link, if possible, in the COMMENT section.

The Ear wants to hear.


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