The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: This weekend, soloist Alban Gerhardt will give the Madison Symphony Orchestra’s first performances of the Cello Concerto by William Walton. Also on the program are an overture by Rossini and the Symphony No. 1 by Brahms

February 12, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

This weekend, cellist Alban Gerhardt (below) returns to the Madison Symphony Orchestra to play the lyrically bittersweet Cello Concerto by William Walton for the first time in the history of the MSO.

Filling out the program are the lush and sweeping Symphony No. 1 by Johannes Brahms and the rousing Overture to the opera Semiramide” by Gioachino Rossini.

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

Tickets cost $18-$90, and discounts are available. See below for details.

MSO music director John DeMain (below, in a photo by Peter Rodgers), who will conduct the performance, previewed the “Richly Romantic” program:

“Opening the concert is a favorite overture of mine by the prolific Rossini, from the opera Semiramide.

“Next, we welcome back Alban Gerhardt. This charismatic cellist has a huge repertoire and impeccable technique, as well as consummate musicianship. (NOTE: Gerhardt will also give a FREE and PUBLIC master class at the UW-Madison Mead Witter School of Music on Friday afternoon from 2:30 to 5 p.m. in Morphy Recital Hall.)

“In my search to program important works that have not been previously performed by the MSO, I realized that we have never performed the cello concerto by William Walton. It is a very beautiful and lyrical work, and I look forward to collaborating again with Alban on this project.

“I never like to let too much time pass without programming the Brahms symphonies. The first symphony was a huge success at its premiere, and has been proclaimed a masterpiece. It overtly pays tribute to the great master who gave us nine great symphonies. Indeed, many people have referred to the Brahms first as Beethoven’s 10th.”

Here is more background about the three works:

The Overture to Semiramide marks a departure from other operatic overtures of the early 1800s, in that the themes are drawn directly from the opera’s score.

Written by Rossini (below), one of the greatest opera composers in history, the piece also represents some of his best orchestral writing, starting from the rhythmic opening, to the entrance of the horn choir taken directly from the score of the opera, to the joyously frenetic ending.

Written in 1956 in Ischia, a volcanic island in the Tyrrhenian Sea, the Cello Concerto by William Walton (below) reflects the composer’s love of Italy and has been described as subdued, brittle, bittersweet, and introspective.

The composition is suffused with Italianate warmth and a lyrical, singing quality reflecting both bel canto opera as well as Italian popular song. (In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear the first movement played by Gregor Piatigorsky, for whom the concerto was written.)

Praised for the “warm songfulness of his playing” (The Telegraph) at the 2016 BBC Proms, Alban Gerhardt (below) has, for 25 years, made a unique impact on audiences worldwide with his intense musicality, compelling stage presence, and insatiable artistic curiosity.

His gift for shedding fresh light on familiar scores, along with his appetite for investigating new repertoire from centuries past and present, truly sets him apart from his peers.

Though he began writing sketches of the piece as early as 1854, the Symphony No. 1 by Brahms (below) was not completed for 21 years, premiering in Germany in 1876. The final movement contains melodies reminiscent of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, which has led some critics to dub the work “Beethoven’s Tenth Symphony” much to Brahms’ dismay.

One hour before each performance, Randal Swiggum (below), artistic director of the Elgin Youth Symphony Orchestra and interim artistic director of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO), will lead a 30-minute Prelude Discussion in Overture Hall to enhance concertgoers’ understanding and listening experience.

For more background on the music, please view the Program Notes by MSO trombonist and UW-Whitewater professor Michael Allsen (below, in a photo by Katrin Talbot) at: http://www.allsenmusic.com/NOTES/1718/6.Feb18.html

The Symphony 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 pre-concert talk that is free for all ticket-holders.

Single Tickets are $18-$90 each and are on sale now at https://www.madisonsymphony.org/singletickets, 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% 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 $12 or $18 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.

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

Major funding for the February concerts is provided by: The Madison Concourse Hotel & Governor’s Club, University Research Park, and National Guardian Life Insurance Company.

Additional funding was provided by Boardman & Clark LLP, Scott and Janet Cabot, Martha and Charles Casey, Gary and Lynn Mecklenburg, Rodney Schreiner and Mark Blank, and the Wisconsin Arts Board with funds from the State of Wisconsin and the National Endowment for the Arts.


Classical music: The “Eroica” Symphony gets a heroic reading from the amateur Middleton Community Orchestra in a popular all-Beethoven program that also featured an outstanding performance of the “Choral Fantasy.”

December 22, 2015
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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 for 12 years hosted an early music show every other Sunday morning on WORT-FM 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

Happily avoiding all the holiday falderal this month, the Middleton Community Orchestra (below) gave Ludwig Beethoven a slightly delayed birthday tribute in the form of an unusual concert program on last Friday night that drew a full house.

Middleton Community Orchestra press photo1

Led by the bold and enterprising conductor Steve Kurr (below center), the orchestra plunged straightway into no less than Beethoven’s epochal Symphony No. 3, the “Eroica.”

NOTE: For more background, here is a link to The Ear’s interview with Steve Kurr about this program: 

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2015/12/14/classical-music-conductor-steve-kurr-talks-about-the-all-beethoven-program-that-the-middleton-community-orchestra-performs-this-friday-night-with-pianist-thomas-kasdorf-and-the-madison-symphony-choru/

MCO Beethoven Kurr and orchestra

The 50-minute long “Eroica” is a work that transformed the symphonic genre, and it continues to challenge performers. Provocative sounds, passages of complex counterpoint and assertions of tonal power—all these call for a disciplined and confident performance.

Kurr brought that off handsomely, to his and his players’ great credit. I had the feeling that he asked of these players more than they had first thought they could give, and he drew it out of them, to their obvious pride and satisfaction.

To be sure, there were some occasional smudges here and there, but the ensemble standards were otherwise consistently high. I am always interested to hear, in an orchestra that does not have overwhelming strings, the more balanced audibility of the winds, especially the woodwinds.

Here it was the brass (complete with four horns) that offered particular heroics. At times Kurr perhaps allowed them too much freedom when only filling out chords; but where they deserved prominence they sounded magnificent—notably in the scherzo’s trio section. In all, the overall mix really brought out the daring  use by Beethoven (below) of pungent dissonances and harmonic shocks.

Beethoven big

Kurr took the opening movement at a particularly brisk speed, while the second movement, the profound funeral march, was paced much more slowly than most conductors would take it — but to truly eloquent effect. (You can hear the astonishing Funeral March movement performed by the Vienna Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

I found the symphony’s finale sometimes was given a rather foursquare quality, but the enthusiasm maintained momentum.

It was a difficult act to follow. But the choice of the other item on the program was a brilliant one, bringing us a remarkable Beethoven work that is rarely ever heard in concerts.

How often can an orchestra afford to assemble a brilliant pianist, six vocal soloists and a chorus — all for one 25-minute work? But those are the demands of Beethoven’s “Choral Fantasy,” a product of a time when concerts often brought together a whole circus of performers.

In a special way, this novelty made a perfect pairing with the “Eroica.” In the two works, we catch Beethoven in his two great instances of self-borrowing to the end of evolving perfection.

The finale of the “Eroica” was the fourth and final destination for a set of variations on a contradance tune. In its turn, the Fantasy, after opening with an improvisatory exercise for the pianist, turns into a concerto-like set of variations on a tune, which is finally taken up by solo vocalists and then the chorus.

That tune represents the second of three stages in what eventually became the triumphant “Ode to Joy” melody of the famous finale of the Ninth Symphony.

The brilliant and versatile Thomas Kasdorf (below), a familiar soloist around these parts who was raised in Middleton and studied at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music — was the energetic pianist.

thomas kasdorf 2:jpg

Six young singers were the solo battery, and a corporal’s guard from the Madison Symphony Chorus (below top and bottom) provided the brief but telling final justification for calling this a “Choral Fantasy.”

MCO Beethoven MSO Chorus left

MCO Beethoven MSO Chorus right

(The singers, below but not in order, were sopranos Allison Vollinger and Kirsten Larson; alto Jessica Lee Kasinski; tenor Richard Statz; baritone Gavon Waid; and bass Robert Dindorff.)

MCO Beethoven 3 women singers

MCO Beethoven 3 male singers

The orchestra played its role with gusto, and it’s wonderful how, by the end, it almost sounds as if we are moving into the Ninth Symphony.

This was an exhilarating concert, and a wonderful achievement for all involved.

 


Classical music: Today marks 70 years since the United States dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. The Ear commemorates the event with Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings.” What music would you choose?

August 6, 2015
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By Jacob Stockinger

Today is August 6, 2015 – the 70th anniversary of the United States dropping the world’s first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan in the hope of ending World War II. (That took a second atomic bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki.)

Controversy still rages about whether it was the right decision to make.

The Ear has an opinion about that, but is keeping it to himself.

All he wants to do today is commemorate the historic event with music.

hiroshima1ruinslarge

First, as background, here is a story from The Washington Post about what it was like to survive the bombing of Hiroshima:

http://www.msn.com/en-us/news/world/what-it-was-like-to-survive-the-atomic-bombing-of-hiroshima/ar-BBlpDXY,

I can’t think of a better piece of music to listen to this day than the sadly eloquent, heart-wrenching and poignant Adagio for Strings by Samuel Barber (below), which is at the bottom in a YouTube video and is performed by Leonard Bernstein conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic. The moving music does not take sides, but simply expresses profound sorrow.

Samuel Barber 2 composing

Perhaps you have other choices for this day. Maybe a chorale from a passion or cantata by Johann Sebastian Bach? Maybe an aria by George Frideric Handel? Perhaps a Requiem by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart or Johannes Brahms, Giuseppe Verdi or Gabriel Faure? Maybe the  Ninth Symphony “Ode to Joy” by Ludwig van Beethoven or the Symphony No. 2 “Resurrection” by Gustav Mahler? Maybe the opera “Doctor Atomic” by John Adams?

Leave your thoughts and choice in the COMMENT section.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: It’s Mother’s Day. What music would you play for her? What music would she like to hear? Tell The Ear. Plus, this afternoon is your last chance to hear the final, critically acclaimed concert of the Madison Symphony Orchestra’s season with Beethoven’s Ninth on the program. Read the reviews here.

May 10, 2015
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ALERT: This afternoon at 2:30 in Overture Hall is your last chance to hear the season finale by the Madison Symphony Orchestra: a program of  the “Serenade” after Plato’s “Symposium” by Leonard Bernstein, with concertmaster Naha Greenholtz (below) as soloist, and the famous Ninth Symphony — the “Ode to Joy” or “Choral” symphony — by Ludwig van Beethoven.

The reviews are unanimous in their enthusiastic praise.

Here is a link to the one that John W. Barker wrote for Isthmus:

http://www.isthmus.com/arts/stage/mso-closing-with-a-bang/

And here is one written by Lindsay Christians for The Capital Times:

http://host.madison.com/ct/entertainment/arts_and_theatre/review-big-voices-and-beethoven-bring-mso-season-to-a/article_ea23e056-f5bb-11e4-8b8f-5780d0daa395.html

And here is a review written by Bill Wineke for WISC-TV‘s Channel 3000.com:

http://www.channel3000.com/news/opinion/Symphony-review-MSO-ends-season-on-exuberant-note/32912810

Naha Greenholtz 2014 CR  Chris Hynes

By Jacob Stockinger

Today is Mother’s Day 2015.

Mothers Day clip art

And nothing says love like music.

So what music would you like to play for your mother?

And what music would she like to hear?

They aren’t necessarily the same.

So here are The Ear’s choices.

For the first I am torn between a work by Antonin Dvorak and one by Johannes Brahms.

The Dvorak work is “Songs My Mother Taught Me,” which you can hear below in a YouTube video by superstar violinist Itzhak Perlman playing a transcription from the original for voice.

The second is the movement of the “German” Requiem by Brahms in which he evokes his recently deceased mother. Here it is performed in a classic rendition by soprano Elizabeth Schwarzkopf with Otto Klemperer conducting:

And the piece my mother would love to hear? She loved it when I practiced the piano – and to think I wondered how anyone could enjoy listening to someone practicing? And she especially loved it when I practiced Chopin.

And her favorite piece by Chopin that I played was the bittersweet and elegant Waltz in C-sharp minor, Op. 64, No. 2, heard below in a YouTube video played by Arthur Rubinstein, whom she took me to hear when he played an all-Chopin concert in Carnegie Hall in 1961 – and we sat on stage.

What are your choices in each category?

Leave word plus, if possible, a YouTube link in the COMMENTS section.

The Ear wants to hear.

And wishes you a Happy Mother’s Day.


Classical music: Concertmaster Naha Greenholtz explains Leonard Bernstein’s “Serenade,” which she will perform with the Madison Symphony Orchestra this weekend in concerts that also feature Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

May 7, 2015
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear supposes that Leonard Bernstein’s Serenade for violin and orchestra  qualifies as program music since it aims to translate Plato’s famous dialogue about love — “Symposium” — into music. (At the bottom, is a YouTube video of Joshua Bell performing the work with the New York Philharmonic under conductor Alan Gilbert in 2013.)

This much is sure. The 1954 work by Bernstein — to be performed by the Madison Symphony Orchestra concertmaster Naha Greenholtz (below) — is part of what makes this weekend’s one of the most interesting programs, maybe THE most interesting, of the season from the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

Naha Greenholtz [playing

The combination of Romantic and post-WW II modern music includes the performance of a major symphony that is beloved around the world: the Ninth Symphony by Ludwig van Beethoven, also known as the “Choral” and Ode to Joy” symphony.

That was the symphony that Leonard Bernstein himself famously conducted in Germany to celebrate to fall of the Berlin Wall. So, what better offering is there to accompany it than something composed by Bernstein?

(John DeMain talked about the Beethoven symphony in a Q&A here earlier this week. Here is a link to that post: https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2015/05/04/classical-music-maestro-john-demain-talks-about-the-challenges-and-rewards-of-beethovens-ninth-the-choral-or-ode-to-joy-sympho/ )

Love and joy: Can there be a better way to finish out a season?

The program will be performed under the baton of longtime MSO music director John DeMain, who studied and worked with Leonard Bernstein. It will feature the Madison Symphony Chorus, as prepared by MSO assistant conductor Beverly Taylor, who heads the UW-Madison choral department.

Guest vocal soloists are: soprano Melody Moore; contralto Gwendolyn Brown; tenor Eric Barry; and bass Morris Robinson.

Performances are in Overture Hall in the Overture Center. Times are Friday at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday at 8 p.m.; and Sunday at 2:30 p.m.

Tickets are $12-$84.

For details, go to https://www.madisonsymphony.org or call the Overture Center Box Office at (608) 258-4141.

For more information, including audio samples and a link to program notes by MSO bass trombonist and UW-Whitewater professor Michael Allsen, visit: http://www.madisonsymphony.org/beethoven

Concertmaster Naha Greenholtz (below) recently agreed to do an email Q&A about Leonard Bernstein’s “Serenade” with The Ear:

Naha Greenholtz profile

How would you compare Leonard Bernstein’s work to the great historical violin concertos by Bach, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Tchaikovsky and Sibelius? What about to modern and contemporary violin concertos by, say, Samuel Barber and Philip Glass, Sergei Prokofiev and Dmitri Shostakovich? Are there any you would draw parallels or contrasts to?

The five-movement format in Bernstein’s “Serenade” differentiates it substantially from some of the 18th and 19th century classics. While there’s no literal program, there is the suggestion of a basic narrative in Bernstein’s re-imagination of Plato’s communal dialogue. This element alone connects the work more closely to the late 19th and 20th century sub-genre of “program music.” (Below is a portrait of Leonard Bernstein composing at the piano in 1955, around the time of the “Serenade.”)

In its familiar tonal language — combing modal and traditional harmonic elements — it has some resemblance to the Barber concerto. I don’t think middle-of-the-century American composers like Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber and Leonard Bernstein were consciously adhering to style parameters.

That said, there is a distinctive “American-ness” to their works.  Much the same way music by Dmitri Shostakovich and Sergei Prokofiev has a “Russian” sound, without necessarily being nationalistic.  It’s subtler than that.  It is more like these composers shared some common aesthetic DNA due to their national and cultural origins.

Leonard Bernstein composing in 1955

Where do you place it among Bernstein’s body of works? Is he generally underappreciated as a composer compared to his work as a conductor and his music for the Broadway theater?

To the latter question, this is certainly true.  He was such a charismatic public figure in music, especially in his work as an educator, conductor and composer of popular music. In light of this, I think his remarkable contributions to “art” music are easily overlooked.

In the Serenade he manages to blend many stylistic elements.  I hear the Devil’s Dance from Igor Stravinsky’s “Histoire du Soldat” and, in the fourth movement, glimpses of Gustav Mahler’s Ninth Symphony.  The instrumentation is a nod to Bela Bartok in his “Music for Strings Percussion and Celeste” and the tonal language shows Paul Hindemith’s influence.

But despite all of that, Bernstein’s unique language is apparent within the first five seconds of the piece when the rising augmented 4th resolves up a half step.  That’s what is so remarkable about Bernstein (below, in a photo by Jack Mitchell) — he manages to blend disparate elements of other great artists without losing his own intrinsic style.

Leonard Bernstein CR Jack Mitchell

How does Bernstein express the idea of Platonic dialogue?

Each of the movements is loosely based on the themes of the seven speakers in the work by Plato (below is an ancient sculptural depiction of the philosopher). The concerto begins with the soloist alone in a rhetorical statement and the piece unfolds as each orator presents his perspective on the topic of love. By the end of the fifth movement, drinking seems to have taken over the gathering, leading to a thrilling depiction of a boisterous dinner party.

Plato

How is the idea of love as a carnal and spiritual subject that the guests discuss get expressed?

On describing the duality of love, as a force that cuts both ways, Bernstein is explicit. For example in the third movement Erixymathus, he uses the soloist and orchestra as warring factions. The orchestra explodes with a three-note jab. Then the soloist introduces a quasi-tone row that’s passed back and forth with contrasting intensity. Further into the movement, he piles these themes on top of each other in a frenetic fugue that expresses the mystery and ecstasy of love.

In contrast, the next movement Agathon features the same three-note motive that opened the previous movement, but stretched to 10 times its initial length, utterly transforming it into a spiritual and intimate aria. Bernstein does this all over the piece, taking material from previous movements and showing them in a new light. (Below is a fresco depiction of the Symposium.)

Fresco of Symposium USE

What do you think of the work itself and how its fits with Beethoven’s Ninth? Have you played it before or is it new to you?

Until last year I’d only known the Serenade by recording, so I was thrilled when John suggested we perform it here with the MSO.

It’s strangely neglected in the solo violin repertoire. Maybe that is because of the unconventional five-movement format, or that the title “after Plato’s Symposium”   is somehow intimidating or off-putting.

It’s clearly one of Bernstein’s great orchestral works and is a firework of a showpiece for the violin. As far as pairing with Beethoven’s Ninth, the themes of brotherhood and platonic love feature prominently in both works.

How challenging is it to play and what are the challenges both technically and interpretively? What would you like the audience to pay special attention to?

I find all music challenging. Mozart is simpler in terms of notes and patterns than, say, Shostakovich or Bernstein, but in its own way it is just as hard to play and requires just as much diligent work to pull off.

The Bernstein is full of musical challenges and requires lots of imagination and characterization to communicate the narrative of Plato’s dialogue.

That being said, it’s a major 20th-century solo work so it’s also chock full of technical hurdles. Isaac Stern (below, in 1977) – for whom this piece was written — has left us fingering and bowing suggestions, so I know the thorny passages are at least theoretically possible!

Isaac Stern in 1979

In any event, I’m really looking forward to these performances and think these will be fantastic concerts for anyone who loves great music.

 


Classical music: Maestro John DeMain talks about the challenges and rewards of Beethoven’s “Ninth” – the “Choral” or “Ode to Joy” symphony that he will conduct this weekend with the Madison Symphony Orchestra and Madison Symphony Chorus plus soloists.

May 4, 2015
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By Jacob Stockinger

It could well be a case of saving the best for last.

This weekend brings what, for The Ear, is the one of the most interesting programs – maybe THE most interesting program — of the season from the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

The sonic combination of a Romantic classic and post-World War II modern music includes the performance of a major symphony that is a beloved icon around the world: the Ninth Symphony by Ludwig van Beethoven (below), also known as the “Choral” and “Ode to Joy” symphony.

Beethoven big

The Ninth was the symphony that Leonard Bernstein famously conducted in Germany to celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall.

So what better offering to accompany it than something composed by Bernstein – his 1954 “Serenade” for solo violin and orchestra, with MSO concertmaster Naha Greenholtz, that is based on the Socratic dialogue “Symposium” by the ancient Greek philosopher Plato. (Greenholtz will talk about the Bernstein work in a Q&A here later this week.)

Love and joy: Can there be a better way to finish out a season?

The program will be performed under the baton of longtime MSO music director John DeMain, who studied and worked with Leonard Bernstein. It will feature the Madison Symphony Chorus, as prepared by MSO assistant conductor Beverly Taylor (below), who also heads the UW-Madison choral department.

Beverly Taylor MSO portrait COLOR USE

Guest vocal soloists are: soprano Melody Moore (below top); contralto Gwendolyn Brown (below second); tenor Eric Barry (below third); and bass Morris Robinson (below bottom).

Melody Moore

Gwendolyn Brown

Eric Barry

Morris Robinson

Performances are in Overture Hall in the Overture Center. Times are Friday at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday at 8 p.m.; and Sunday at 2:30 p.m.

Tickets are $12-$84.

For details, go to https://www.madisonsymphony.org or call the Overture Center Box Office at (608) 258-4141.

For more information, including audio samples and a link to program notes by MSO bass trombonist and UW-Whitewater professor Michael Allsen, visit: http://www.madisonsymphony.org/beethoven

Maestro DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad) recently agreed to do an email Q&A about Beethoven’s Ninth with The Ear:

John DeMain full face by Prasad

Why does Beethoven’s Ninth always appeal and what makes it an icon in the public mind? What makes it at the same time so revolutionary and so typically Beethoven?

Aside from the Ninth Symphony being a great musical composition, one cannot get away from the inclusion of the poem by Friedrich Schiller (below, in a painting by Ludovick Simanowiz). The “Ode to Joy” literally shouting that all men in our universe are brothers is what makes this symphony an icon in the public mind. (At bottom is a more informal street scene flash mob performance in a YouTube video that has more than 8 million hits.)

The first three movements are typically Beethoven in style, though consummate in his compositional development. It is the inclusion of voices in the last movement, and the length and structure of the last movement that makes this symphony truly revolutionary. This was the first symphony to have included a chorus and soloists for its final movement.

Friedrich Schiller by Ludovike Simanowiz

It isn’t hard to guess what meaning it holds for the public and why audiences find it popular. But what does this music do to you? How do you feel when you perform it and have finished it?

Music for me is a powerful aural emotional experience. While there is great beauty, majesty and excitement to be found in the first three movements, it is that last movement that fires up my own emotions, not dissimilar to what the listening audience is feeling as well.

Literally shouting for a united brotherhood on Earth under our Maker in heaven, Beethoven develops this movement from a lovely and simple melody in the beginning, to a massive and wild declaration at the end.

It is always a uniquely significant event, often conjuring up whatever injustices are occurring in our contemporary world. Certainly our challenges in the Middle East, and our domestic situations, most recently in St. Louis and Baltimore, will resonate in people’s minds as they listen to this music. It’s a call for harmony in the universe.

When you finish conducting the Beethoven Ninth, you are emotionally and physically drained having conducted not one, but two symphonies, as the last movement is a symphony unto itself.

John DeMain conducting 2

What are the challenges, technically and interpretatively, for you, as a conductor and for the orchestra players, the soloists and the chorus?

There is rather elaborate contrapuntal writing for the orchestra, which always poses a problem for ensemble and clarity. Length poses a challenge for endurance, particularly for the strings. The recitative sections for the orchestral basses as well as the soloist are particularly challenging for the conductor, as are the on the spot pull backs in tempo during the last movement.

We all know that the vocal writing is a challenge to both the soloists and the chorus, but particularly for the chorus. The high tessitura (average pitch range) of the writing makes it extremely difficult for the sopranos and tenors to sustain a thrilling fortissimo, for example. (Below is a photo of the Madison Symphony Chorus by Greg Anderson.)

Beethoven was completely deaf at this point in his life, and was writing what was in his mind, not paying particular attention to what was doable. But then, isn’t that how musical innovation and the stretching of form sometimes happen?

MSO Chorus from left CR Greg Anderson

Why did you choose to pair The Ninth with the Bernstein’s Serenade? Do you see certain parallels or contrasts?

Well, Lenny was a real devotee of Beethoven, and in this composition, he does marvelous things with the use of leitmotif. I love juxtaposing 20th century harmonies with the musical language of the early 19th century. Both composers use dissonance as a part of their language, but in very different ways.

The Serenade, while not specifically programmatic, deals with the various aspects of love, and relates to the Beethoven in that love has to be the basis that binds all men and women together.

I  also love featuring our wonderful concertmaster, Naha Greenholtz (below), and when she suggested the idea, I thought it would make a wonderful contrast to the Ninth, and fill out the concert in a truly wonderful way to close our season.

Naha Greenholtz [playing


Classical music: Why is Beethoven so popular? And why do all-Beethoven concerts work so well? Conductor Andrew Sewell answers these questions even as he prepares to perform the all-Beethoven concert tonight by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra.

May 1, 2015
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By Jacob Stockinger

Tonight at 8 p.m. in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center, conductor Andrew Sewell (below top) will lead the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below bottom) and guest pianist Bryan Wallick, who won the Vladimir Horowitz Prize and is returning to Madison, in an all-Beethoven concert to wrap up this season of the WCO indoors Masterworks programs.

AndrewSewellnew

WCO lobby

The program includes the “Leonore” Overture No. 1, the Piano Concerto No. 5 “Emperor” and the Symphony No. 7.

Tickets are $15-$62. For more information, visit: http://www.wcoconcerts.org/performances/masterworks-v

The Ear asked the guest pianist Bryan Wallick and WCO’s longtime music director and conductor Andrew Sewell to explain why all-Beethoven concerts work so well and why Beethoven remains so popular with the general public. (Coincidentally, the Madison Symphony Orchestra will also close its season with Beethoven, specifically the Symphony No. 9 (“Choral” or “Ode to Joy”) on May 8, 9 and 10.

Wallick’s answers appeared here on Wednesday and offered the perspective of an instrumentalist. Here is a link to his answers:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2015/04/29/classical-music-why-is-beethoven-so-popular-and-why-do-all-beethoven-concerts-works-pianist-bryan-wallick-explains-these-questions-even-as-he-prepares-to-play-the-emperor-concerto/

And here are the answers by conductor Andrew Sewell (below), who kindly responded to an email Q&A:

andrewsewell

Beethoven (below), along with a handful of other composers, including Mozart and Tchaikovsky, is one of the few composers who can make up a single-composer concert that also attracts the public. What accounts for that, do you think?

I think his name is synonymous with classical music. His music defines it — the working out of themes, melody and development — from his overtures, symphonies, concertos, piano sonatas and string quartets.

Beethoven big

What role has Beethoven played in your career? Are there works in particular that you were drawn to as a student or a performing professional?

As a young concertgoer, at the age of 8, I heard his Symphony No. 9 “Choral” and fell in love with the “Ode to Joy.” I was captivated by his life and biography, about his deafness overtaking him, and stories of his inner personal struggles. I remember reading all about his life as a youngster, and I loved playing his music.

As a violinist, I loved getting to know his violin sonatas and symphonies. One of my first significant orchestral experiences at age 16 was playing his “Leonore” Overture No. 3 with the New Zealand Youth Orchestra, and a year later, the Fifth Symphony. Beethoven’s overtures and symphonies are the bread and butter of any orchestra.

Andrew Sewell BW

Beethoven consistently ranks as the general public’s favorite classical composer. Why is that, do you think? The consistently high quality of the music? The diversity of works and forms that his creativity expressed itself in? The sense of overcoming struggle and personal hardship you find in his works?

All of the above. You said it in the wide variety of forms he used –- symphonies, overtures, sonatas, chamber music. The string quartets alone, like Mozart’s Piano Concertos, are a lifetime testament in which we see his development as a composer and inner struggles.

His personal life is intertwined with the complexities of his later works, as he stretched the boundaries of form and development. His Ninth Symphony and the late string quartets testify to this. Overcoming struggle and personal hardship give the music its triumphal drive.

beethoven BW grim

Is there an aspect of Beethoven that you think the public needs to pay more attention to and that you intend to emphasize in your interpretations?

The “Leonore” Overture No. 1 is probably the least played of the four overtures related to his one and only opera, “Fidelio.” Inadvertently he created a new form, known as the Concert Overture, and which Mendelssohn later took up.

This overture, does not include the off-stage trumpet reverie, as in Nos. 2 and 3. For some reason, Beethoven was not satisfied, and continued to refine it in later compositions. What I find intriguing about this overture is the way he transitions from slow to fast sections and back again so seamlessly and how he experimented with a continuous form.

The Symphony No. 7  — below is a page of the work’s manuscript from Beethoven’s almost illegible notebooks — is among his most energetic symphonies. It never lets up and is physically demanding on all sections of the orchestra. One needs stamina for this music. It is also extremely exciting to play and to listen to, hence it is a very popular symphony. (At the bottom,  in a popular YouTube video with almost 8 million hits, you can hear the famous and well-known Allegretto movement from the Symphony No. 7 with an intriguing bar graph score.)

Beethoven Symphony no 7 MS

Is there anything you would like to say or add?

An all-Beethoven program is a great way to end the season, especially when you have pianist Bryan Wallick (below) returning to perform with us. We are most excited to hear and share his performance of the mighty “Emperor” Piano Concerto.

Bryan Wallick mug

 


Classical music: The Madison Symphony Chorus will give two performances of a concert to welcome spring this Sunday afternoon.

March 18, 2015
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By Jacob Stockinger

Here is the latest of what The Ear hears from the Madison Symphony Orchestra:

Spring might seem like a long way off, but it isn’t. In fact it officially arrives in the Northern Hemisphere this Friday at 5:45 p.m. CDT.

MSO chorus director and MSO assistant conductor Beverly Taylor and the Madison Symphony Chorus (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson) will usher in the warmer weather this Sunday, March 22, at 2 p.m. and 4 p.m.

That is when they present the “It Might As Well Be Spring” choral concerts in Promenade Hall at Overture Center for the Arts.

MSO Chorus CR Greg Anderson

The concerts will feature classical music selections from Johannes Brahms and Aaron Copland, a traditional spiritual, and the song “It Might as Well Be Spring” from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical “State Fair.” (You can hear the original in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

Audience members will also enjoy choral renditions of poems by Walt Whitman, Robert Bridges and the 13th-century Persian poet Rumi.

Madison Symphony Orchestra Principal Pianist Daniel Lyons (below) will accompany much of the music.

Dan Lyons

Tickets are $19, available at madisonsymphony.org/springchorusconcert, at the Overture Box Office (201 State Street) or by calling (608) 258-4141.

Formed in 1927, the Madison Symphony Chorus gave its first public performance in 1928 and has performed regularly with the Madison Symphony Orchestra ever since.

The chorus (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson) was featured at the popular Madison Symphony Christmas concerts in December and will be joined by four soloists for the MSO’s performance of Ludwig van Beethoven‘s “Choral” Symphony No. 9 (“Ode to Joy”) on May 8, 9 and 10.

MSO Chorus from left CR Greg Anderson

The Chorus, conducted by Beverly Taylor (below) is comprised of more than 125 volunteer musicians from all walks of life who enjoy combining their artistic talent., New members are always welcome. Visit madisonsymphony.org/chorus for more information.

Beverly Taylor MSO portrait COLOR USE

 


Classical music: A new movie traces the many political and cultural uses around the world of Beethoven’s iconic Ninth Symphony.

January 24, 2014
4 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Beethoven (below) would have approved.

And no doubt he would have been very, very happy.

Beethoven big

In his famous Ninth Symphony, Beethoven quoted a poem by German writer Friedrich Schiller to announce his solidarity with the revolutionary ideals of universal brotherhood and universal freedom.

And sure enough, all around the world, in many different cultures, Beethoven’s Ninth has found a place as an emblem of those aspirations. During the Pinochet Years, it was sung by Chilean women outside the walls of prisons where political activists were being tortured — the men could hear them and took heart from their singing,

Of course Hitler also appropriated the Ninth too. But then Leonard Bernstein used it to celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of East Germany. And protesting Chinese students (below) in the Tiananmen Square uprising where they rebelled to strains of the Ninth coming out of loudspeakers.

The Ear wonders if it was played anywhere in the Mideast or Northern Africa during the Arab Spring?

Beethoven and Tiananmen Square

I particularly like the way the Japanese sing it out loud en masse – in German no less — as a rite of ushering in the coming New Year. (Below is a photo of 10,000 Japanese singing the “Ode to Joy” as a huge stadium choir that spent months studying and rehearsing the music and the German language.)

As a ritual, it is kind of like dancing waltzes in Vienna or watching the ball drop in Times Square in New York City, only a lot more soulful, beautiful and personal in the public’s involvement and its own cultural meaning. (You can hear for yourself the Japanese stadium concert of singing “Ode to Joy” finale of the last movement in a YouTube video at the bottom. It has had about 1.5 million hits and is pretty impressive and moving to experience even in a audio-video recording.)

10,000 Japanese sing Beethoven's  Ninth

Here is the story that I first heard about the movie documenting Beethoven’s Ninth — “Following the Ninth: In the Footsteps of Beethoven’s Final Symphony” — around the world on NPR. It moved The Ear and I hope it moves you. I also hope someone out there knows if or when it is scheduled to play in Madison and will let the rest of us know the dates.

The film also redeems all the baloney we hear about classical music being outdated and old-fashioned and elitist and so on ad nauseam. Other music would be damn lucky to get even close to this kind of universality, significance and appreciation.

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2014/01/14/262481960/the-ode-to-joy-as-a-call-to-action

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