The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Acclaimed Canadian violinist James Ehnes discusses Max Bruch’s “Scottish Fantasy,” which he will perform this weekend with the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

October 12, 2015
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By Jacob Stockinger

This weekend, the acclaimed Canadian-born violinist James Ehnes returns to Madison to perform with the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

James Ehnes playing 2

Ehnes will play Max Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy for violin and orchestra, a piece that blends rustic folk tunes and tender themes to convey the stark Scottish landscape.

Opening the program will be Joseph Haydn’s spirited Symphony No. 85, nicknamed “La Reine” (The Queen) because it was the favorite of French Queen Marie AntoinetteSergei Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances will close out the concert.

The concerts are in Overture Hall of the Overture Center, 201 State Street, on Friday, Oct. 16, at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, Oct. 17, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Oct. 18, at 2:30 p.m.

James Ehnes made his major orchestral solo debut with the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal (Montreal Symphony Orchestra) at age 13 and was awarded the Avery Fisher Career Grant in 2005. Today, he is a sought-after chamber musician, recitalist and soloist with the world’s finest orchestras. (You can hear his astonishing playing in Antonio Bazzini’s “Dance of the Goblins” in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

One hour before each performance, Tyrone Greive, retired MSO Concertmaster and Professor of Violin at University of Wisconsin-Madison, will lead a 30-minute Prelude Discussion in Overture Hall to enhance concertgoers’ understanding and listening experience.

Background about the music can also be found in the Program Notes by bass trombonist and UW-Whitewater professor Michael Allsen at: http://www.madisonsymphony.org/ehnes

MSO playing

Single Tickets are $16 to $85 each, available at www.madisonsymphony.org/singletickets and through the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street or by calling 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, www.madisonsymphony.org/groups

Student rush tickets can be purchased in person on the day of the concert at the Overture Box Office at 201 State Street. Students must show a valid student ID and can receive up to two $12 or $15 tickets. More information is at: www.madisonsymphony.org/studentrush. Students can receive 20% 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 can NOT be combined.

Find more information at www.madisonsymphony.org.

Major funding for the October concerts is provided by Margaret C. Winston, Kenneth A. Lattman Foundation, Inc., Capitol Lakes, the Madison Symphony Orchestra League, and Peggy and Tom Pyle. Additional funding is provided by Dr. Stanley and Shirley Inhorn and the Wisconsin Arts Board with funds from the State of Wisconsin and the National Endowment for the Arts.

James Ehnes kindly agreed to an email Q&A with The Ear:

james ehnes cr Benjamin Ealovega

Could you bring readers up to date with your career and achievements – including future recordings and events — since your last appearance in Madison in 2012?

A lot has happened in my life since 2012! Most importantly, the birth of my second child in 2014.

Musically, I’ve had a lot of wonderful experiences. It’s hard to narrow it down, but some of the highlights were the BBC Proms last summer, a play-conduct recording of Antonio Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” with the Sydney Symphony, and performances with all of the so-called Big Five orchestras here in the states (New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Cleveland, Chicago).

James Ehnes Four Seasons CD cover

What should people know about composer Max Bruch and his Scottish Fantasy? What distinguishes it from his concertos?

Bruch (below) was one of the great melodists of the Romantic era, but interestingly this piece uses “borrowed” Scottish tunes, hence its title.

I think the piece has just about the perfect combination of elements — virtuosity, beautiful melodies, and interesting and colorful orchestration (the harp plays a very major role). Unlike a “standard” concerto, there is an introduction and four movements in this piece, so it’s a bit unusual in a formal sense.

max bruch

You are especially known for your interpretations of modern composers like Bela Bartok. What do you think of the Romantic composers and repertoire? Do you try to bring anything special to them?

I didn’t realize that was the case! I play lots of different styles of music, and having that variety in my career is probably my greatest inspiration. I love the Romantic repertoire. It is probably this music above all other that made me initially fall in love with the violin as a boy.

Is there anything else you would like to say about the music or Madison or the Madison Symphony Orchestra?

I’m very much looking forward to my return. The performances in 2012 were my first visit to Madison, and I really enjoyed the city. I look forward to having a bit more time to explore, and I’m delighted to be able to bring my family this time.


Classical music: Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society’s concert of Couperin, Schubert and Haydn at the Stoughton Opera House to air Monday night and Sunday night on Wisconsin Public Television.

July 23, 2012
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By Jacob Stockinger

Well, it’s final.

Here are the two dates — both are this week, starting tonight — that Wisconsin Public Television will broadcast a one-hour edited version of the terrific “Kir Royale” concert last month that the Madison-based Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society performed at the restored historic Stoughton Opera House (below).

TONIGHT, MONDAY, JULY 23, at 9 p.m.

THIS COMING SUNDAY, JULY 29, at 9:30 p.m.

The concert, which featured a rarely played dance suite by Couperin; a rarely performed chamber version (below) of Haydn’s Symphony No. 85 (“La Reine” or The Queen, named after French queen Marie-Antoinette, who really liked the work); Schubert’s sublimely beautiful Cello Quintet; and, for the first time in all 21 seasons of BDDS, co-fonder and co-artistic director pianist Jeffrey Sykes performing solo, in Haydn’s Piano Sonata, No. 49 in E-flat. (Flutist Stephanie Jutt is the other co-founder and co-artistic director.)

I am not sure which pieces will be shown in whole or in part, though it seems as if Syke’s playing of the Haydn sonata (below) is included.

The program is part of the summer’s “Jewel Box” concert series on WPT, which takes viewers to various historic venues for concerts for different kinds of music, from jazz, swing and pop to classical. It is part of WPT bills as its “Summer of the Arts” programming. Here is a link to a description of the series of four concerts:

http://wpt.org/pressroom/index.cfm?&id=111

For a review of the full Stoughton concert, done for this blog by guest critic John W. Barker of Isthmus, with concert photos by The Ear, visit:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2012/07/02/classical-music-madisons-bach-dancing-and-dynamite-societys-superb-concert-of-couperin-haydn-and-schubert-in-the-stoughton-opera-house-will-air-in-late-july-on-wisconsin-public-tel/

Bravo, The Ear says while giving a Shout-Out not only to BDDS for 21 years of great music-making, but also to Wisconsin Public Television for bringing this kind of local arts coverage — and not just national shows such as  “Great Performances” or “Live From Lincoln Center” — to the state’s tax-paying public.

Let WPT know what you think: Leave a remark in the COMMENT section here or send them an e-mail at comments@wpt.org


Classical music: Here are 7 reasons why Madison’s Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society is Big League and The Ear can’t wait for their next season.

July 3, 2012
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A REMINDER: Tonight (July 3) at 7 p.m. in Olbrich Gardens, on Madison’s far east side, the Youth Orchestra (below) of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras, will perform a free concert. (A $1 donation is suggested to benefit the gardens.) The concert is a preview of the group’s concert tour to Vienna, Prague and Budapest July 7-17.

By Jacob Stockinger

Every fall, concert-goers look forward to the opening of The New Season by such big-name local classical music groups as the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Madison Opera, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, the Wisconsin Union Theater and the University of Wisconsin School of Music – to name just a few of the most prominent.

Over many years, those seasons have become recognizable landmarks in our cultural landscape.

But more than ever, The Ear is convinced that that same kind of reception, that same excitement and anticipation, should await the annual three-week summer season of Madison’s Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society (below, pianist Jeffrey Sykes, violinist Axel Strauss and cellist Jean-Michel Fonteneau perform Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio No. 2 in C Minor ).

With no more than six or eight players on the stage at any one time, BDDS is a small group that makes big and beautiful music.

Between June 15 and July 1, BDDS played six programs in four different venues, and once again proved remarkable for the quality of its programs, performers, performances, venues and audiences.

Everything it did showed that BDDS is indeed Big League, despite being a modestly sized chamber music ensemble and despite performing after the close of the main concert season and the arrival of The Heat of Summer.

So after thinking about the four programs I heard in the past three weeks, let me offer seven reasons why BDDS deserves gets my respect and support, and deserves yours. (You can help by attending, but also by going to the donation site www.power2give.org  and to BDDS’ home page: www.bachdancinganddynamite.org)

1. BDDS takes chances and risks, and so succeeds in allowing listeners to have fun with serious music. Their enthusiasm is contagious.

BDDS advertises itself as offering “Chamber Music with a Bang.” And they mean it.

Sometimes they do it through sheer affability and cordiality. Sometimes they do it through the doors prizes, which this season ran from a gift card for cocktails to homemade pies. Sometimes they use an unusual Mystery Guest like the Yiddish singer Henry Saposnik or the Madison Hoop Team or a black leather jacket cello duo (below) furiously playing a Michael Jackson song.

But even the music they play takes chances. BDDS did its own arrangement (below) of Stravinsky’s popular and jauntily tuneful neo-Classical “Suite Italienne” or “Pucinella Suite,” which is normally heard in a violin and piano arrangement. They used eight players and turned it into a kind of modern-day Brandenburg Concerto, a Baroque concerto grosso in which each “section” or individual got a chance to show off – including twirling two cellos and mixing the modern grand piano and the harpsichord in the same program. Guess what? It all worked superbly. And it is completely within the aesthetic that Stravinsky was shooting for. Igor would be pleased.

2. BDDS gets you to hear music you otherwise wouldn’t hear.

There were many examples this season. Some of my favorites are the orchestral miniatures. They included Salomon’s chamber arrangements of Haydn’s late symphonies, of which they have done three out of 12. (This year’s offering, below, was Symphony No. 85, “La Reine.”) Then there was the Hummel’s similar arrangement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto in D minor. And when was the last time you heard a complete Couperin Suite?

3. BDDS plays masterpieces masterfully. All the untraditional shtick and stuff could serve to compensate for other shortcomings. But that is decidedly NOT the case with the BDDS. If you heard the BDDS perform Schubert’s sublime Cello Quintet or Brahms’ driving Piano Quintet in F Minor (below), you heard fiery and committed as well as subtle performances that rival or surpass any performances you will hear live and even recorded.

BDDS doesn’t need to rely on gimmicks or make any excuses. Just because it chooses to stray from the beaten path doesn’t mean it isn’t a first-rate guide to take you down that beaten path and let you see – and hear – new things about old and familiar music.

4. BDDS takes the music – NOT themselves – seriously and teaches the audience new things.

We went to hear the rarely performed “The Apotheosis of Lully” by Couperin, and ended up getting a mini-lesson in the French Baroque style versus the Italian Baroque style. And pianist Jeffrey Sykes hammed it up just right as the pseudo-pious narrator (below left). The audience listened, laughed and learned.

5. BDDS gets away from the celebrity culture of the contemporary classical music scene and brings us great artists from outside whose names are unknown.

Sure, you can pay $100 or more to hear superstar violinist Itzhak Perlman or cellist Yo-Yo Ma. But I’ll take BDDS. I don’t think any local group does a better job of finding and presenting low-profile but absolutely first-rate musicians than BDDS.

Here are some examples: Harpsichordist Layton James (below) was the principal harpsichordist of the renowned St. Paul Chamber Orchestra for an astonishing 41 years (1969-2010). Animated violinist Carmit Zori founded and directs the Brooklyn, New York Chamber Music Society. San Francisco-based violinist Axel Strauss and cellist Jean-Michel Fonteneau joined pianist Jeffrey Sykes in piano trios performances that are consistently outstanding. Percussionists Dane Richeson (from Lawrence University in Appleton) is as interesting and accomplished to me as the world-famous Evelyn Glennie. And you won’t find a better piano partner than Randall Hodgkinson from the New England Conservatory of music.

And this year The Ear finally got his wish: To hear BDDS co-founder and co-director pianist Jeffrey Sykes (below) perform a solo work, Haydn’s Piano Sonata No. 49. There is no better ensemble pianist than Sykes, but I hope we get to hear him in some solos again in future seasons.

6. BDDS is refreshingly unapologetic and candid in its down-to-earth approach. Because they have fun, we feel we can have fun.

Co-founder and co-director flutist Stephanie Jutt publicly admitted one night that she herself gets bored when she goes to concerts and all there is to watch are the musicians. Wow! She is just like a lot us!

So BDDS commissions on-stage installations and backgrounds to maintain audience interest. They get local artists from the UW-Madison — Carolyn Kallenborn, Teresa Getty and Michael Villequette – to design and construct wondrously beautiful and inexpensive sets of that can be subtlety changed with lights, with little trinkets like plastic glasses and cut-outs, and with pieces of abstract dyed fabric to match different concerts, different moods and different works. The effect is original, welcoming and civilized.

7. BDDS is militantly eclectic and likes to mix it up. You won’t find purism or snobbery here!

Consider just the range of repertoire: from the 18th century, they played works by Couperin, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven; from the 19th century, works by Schubert, Mendelssohn, Brahms and Tchaikovsky; from the 20th century, works by Bartok, Barber, Bernstein, Rorem, Jolivet and Stravinsky; and from the 21st century, a piece by Kenji Bunch.

Put it all together and you realize that, as I said in another recent post, when you go to one BDDS concert, you always end up wanting to hear others.

I can’t wait for next June and BDDS’ 22nd season next summer.

And neither should you.

Do you have COMMENTS to leave about any BDDS programs you heard this season?

The Ear wants to hear.


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