The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra opens its winter Masterworks season with fiery pianism in Saint-Saens’ “Egyptian” Concerto plus fluid strings and energetic brass in Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Also, the Middleton Community Orchestra opens its fourth season on Wednesday night with music by Berlioz, Wagner and Mendelssohn.

October 14, 2013
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ALERT: The Middleton Community Orchestra (below) will open its fourth season this Wednesday night at 7:30 p.m. in the Middleton Performing Arts Center that is attached to Middleton High School. The program, conducted by Steve Kurr, features Hector Berlioz’ “Roman Carnival Overture,” Richard Wagner‘s Overture to “Tannhauser” and Felix Mendelssohn’s “Italian” Symphony. Admission at the door and advance tickets at Willy Street West are $10 for adults and free for students. Here is a review of a previous concert I attended with a lot of reasons why the MCO is a fun and fine event to attend:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2012/06/04/classical-music-review-let-us-now-praise-amateur-music-makers-and-restoring-sociability-to-art-here-are-9-reasons-why-i-liked-and-you-should-attend-the-middleton-community-orchestra/

And here is a link to the MCO’s website with information about the rest of its fourth season:

http://middletoncommunityorchestra.org

Middleton Community Orchestra Steve Kurr conducting

By Jacob Stockinger

Loyal readers of this blog know very well the name of Mikko Utevsky. The young violist and conductor is a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin School of Music, where he studies with Pro Arte Quartet violist Sally Chisholm and plays in the UW Symphony Orchestra.

Utevsky, who has won awards and impressive reviews for his work in music education since his days at Madison’s East High School, is the founder and conductor of the Madison Area Youth Chamber Orchestra, which will perform its fourth season next summer. He was recently named the new Music Director of a local community orchestra, The Studio Orchestra. The ensemble has an out-of-date website here (www.disso.org).

You can check out his many honors and projects by typing his name into the search engine on this blog site.

Utevsky offered The Ear a guest review of a concert this past weekend by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra. I immediately took him up on the offer. After all, he is a fine and perceptive writer who, you may recall, blogged for this post when he was on tour two summers ago with the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO) tour to Vienna, Prague and Budapest.

Here is the review by Mikko Utevsky (below):

MAYCO Mikko Utevsky by Steve Rankin

BY Mikko Utevsky

Following on the heels of the Madison Symphony Orchestra‘s season-opening concerts two weeks ago, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra opened its winter Masterworks season in the Overture Center’s Capitol Theater this past Friday night.

WCO lobby

The WCO offered an intriguing program: Benjamin Britten (in his centennial year, sadly overshadowed by the bicentennials of Richard Wagner and Giuseppe Verdi); Camille Saint-Saëns; and Beethoven.

Benjamin Britten

Madison is fortunate to have both of these accomplished ensembles, whose divergent repertoires provide a welcome breadth for local audiences.

We can always rely on WCO music director and conductor maestro Andrew Sewell (below) to bring us a work unfamiliar to our ears, and often quite a good one. He has a particular sympathy for British composers, Britten and Gerald Finzi among them.

andrewsewell

But to my ears, Friday’s opener was not up to the usually high standard of these under-appreciated offerings, but still an enjoyable piece to hear.

Britten’s texturally minimal fanfare for piano, string quartet, and string orchestra “Young Apollo” (at bottom in a YouTube video) showed off its soloists well, particularly WCO pianist Beth Wilson, whose virtuoso part was rendered with fire and flair, complemented by commendable work from both the solo quartet and the section strings.

The whole piece seemed to sag slightly, however, and overplayed its hand somewhat in terms of pacing and texture, leaving too little left for the final burst of energy.

This apparent lack of energy was remedied effectively by guest soloist Bryan Wallick, the pianist the  Piano Concerto No. 5 (“Egyptian”), Op. 103, by Camille Saint-Saens (below).

Camille Saint-Saens

The work’s “Egyptian” elements bear the crude imprint of indiscriminate French appropriation of anything “Oriental,” sounding more like a hodgepodge of exoticisms than a unified sonic world. But while they are jarring after the first movement, the second and third together feel more unified, if no more authentic.

Wallick (below) played with personality and a palpably propulsive energy, and the orchestra complemented his drive with lush, shimmering tutti playing in the slow movement in particular. Some discomfort with tempo was detectable in the first movement, but it was transitory and overshadowed by Wallick’s fiery performance. He was rewarded with a lengthy ovation.

His encore, in recognition of Verdi’s 200th birthday, was Liszt’s “Rigoletto” paraphrase, which brought the audience to their feet for a second time.

Bryan Wallick mug

The second half brought us a typical season-opening warhorse, the Fifth Symphony by Beethoven (below), which Sewell conducted from memory — a risk seemingly rewarded by his increased freedom on the podium.

Beethoven big

In contrast to what felt like a wind-heavy Ninth Symphony in the 2011-12 season, the Fifth was string-focused, even to the point that winds were obscured in a few critical places like the canon in the slow movement Andante con moto (though the difference could have been my seats).

The WCO has fine string players, and it showed in the Beethoven. The aforementioned slow movement featured particularly lovely, fluid viola, cello and bass work. The lack of a fourth cello was felt acutely at points in the work – I found myself desiring a bigger bottom end to the Finale from the low strings and contrabassoon, whose contributions were unfortunately lost in the mix, to support the widened middle range provided by the addition of trombones.

Energetic brass playing supplemented the core string energy of the WCO sound in the Finale of the Fifth, which unfortunately suffered from inconsistent tempi, disregarding the critical relationship between the Scherzo and Finale.

The latter movement is decisively slower than the preceding one, and whatever one may think of Beethoven’s metronome markings, the relationship they establish is indisputable.

In Friday’s performance, this disregard was to the work’s detriment, and whatever perceived excitement was gained from pumping up the majestic Finale was taken out of the Scherzo.

Tempo aside, the work was well-received by the audience (swelled by an encouraging influx of student listeners, particularly young players from the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras), and Sewell was generous in his recognition of the orchestra, beginning with the particularly deserving low strings.

WCO ovation B-9

The concert proved a worthwhile beginning to what should be a diverse and enlightening season (the appearance of yet another rendition of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto aside).

The orchestra returns with its holiday performances (A Canadian Brass Christmas on Nov. 30, and Handel’s “Messiah” on Dec. 13). Then its Masterworks season resumes Jan. 17 with guitarist Anna Vidovic and Bruckner’s Second Symphony.

For information , visit: http://www.wcoconcerts.org

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Classical music: Music critics of The New York Times name their favorite recordings — historical and current — of Richard Wagner to celebrate this year’s bicentennial of the famous opera composer’s birth. What are your favorite Wagner works and recordings?

August 27, 2013
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By Jacob Stockinger

This year is the bicentennial of the birth of composer Richard Wagner.

Just about everything about Richard Wagner (below) is epic and titanic, dramatic and revolutionary.

Little wonder, then, that he is known especially for “The Ring of the Nibelung,” that 16–hour, four-opera mythological cycle that challenges the most resourceful singers, actors, stage directors, orchestras, conductors and opera companies. It took many complications and until the 1960s for conductor Sir Georg Solti to make the first complete recording of “The Ring” for Decca — and it still holds up to the best complete recordings since then.

Richard Wagner

Stop and think and consider this: In the time it usually takes to hear “The Ring” you could listen to all the symphonies and concertos of Beethoven, or all his string quartets and most of his piano trios.

True, some of Wagner’s vocal music is quite stirring and enthralling.

But only some of it — at least to my ears.

I share some of the sentiments of his detractors, who included some pretty good artists and discriminating musicians.

Take the composer Gioachino Rossini, who quipped “Wagner’s music has great moments but dull quarter hours.”

The American writer and humorist Mark Twain observed that “Wagner’s music is better than it sounds.”

The comedian and filmmaker Woody Allen remarked: “Every time I listen Wagner, I get the urge to invade Poland.”

If you like those, here is a link to some more quips about Wagner, including some by French poet and critic Charles Baudelaire and French composer Claude Debussy:

http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Talk:Richard_Wagner

I am probably a dissenter, but I think Wagner generally wrote better for instruments than he did for the voice. At least I generally find his orchestral music tighter and more enjoyable to listen to.

Indeed, I would like to hear the Madison Symphony Orchestra or the University of Wisconsin-Madison Symphony Orchestra do one of the various versions of “The Ring Without Words,” perhaps the orchestral anthology of highlights from “The Ring” and other operas that famed conductor George Szell (below) arranged and conducted with the Cleveland Orchestra (in a YouTube video at the bottom).

George Szell wide BW

I love the overtures and preludes, and I don’t think they get programmed often enough these days. Same for the charming “Siegfried Idyll.”

I remember an old vinyl LP recording with Eugene Ormandy conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra. How I loved, and found endlessly thrilling the Overture to “Tannhauser,” the “Prelude and Liebestod” to “Tristan und Isolde,” the Overture to “Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg,” preludes from “Lohengrin,” and the magically static and haunting Prelude to “Parsifal.” They are terrific curtain-raisers.

So I was happy to see orchestral recordings by Herbert von Karajan and Otto Klemperer included on the list in The New York Times.

I also love “best moment” anthologies so it is also good to see choices like the new recording by the German tenor Jonas Kaufmann – a great choice since Kaufmann (below) seems a perfect Wagner singer who has a huge but subtle voice, stamina and the handsome good looks for the parts.

Kaufmann Wagner CD

Anyway, here is a link to the Wagner discography in The New York Times:

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/23/arts/music/critics-name-their-favorite-wagner-recordings.html?pagewanted=all

What is your favorite Wagner recording? What piece and what performer?

And do you favor his vocal or instrumental music?

The Ear wants to hear.


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