The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The reviews are in! This afternoon is your last chance to hear the critically acclaimed violin virtuoso Gil Shaham and the Madison Symphony Orchestra in Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev and Rachmaninoff

January 21, 2018

By Jacob Stockinger

It has been 17 years since the internationally renowned, award-winning American violin virtuoso Gil Shaham (below) performed in Madison, and that was a recital with his pianist-sister Orli Shaham at the Wisconsin Union Theater.

This weekend he was back for three performances with the Madison Symphony Orchestra under John DeMain in an all-Russian program that featured one of the greatest violin concertos: the Violin Concerto in D major by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky. (You can hear Gil Shaham performing an excerpt from the finale of the Tchaikovsky concerto in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Both the critics and audiences loved him.

This afternoon at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall of the Overture Center, 201 State Street is your last chance to hear Gil Shaham in the Tchaikovsky, along with the “Love for Three Oranges” Suite by Sergei Prokofiev and the Symphony No. 3 by Sergei Rachmaninoff.

Tickets are $18-$90.

For more information about tickets, the performers and the program, go to the website:

Here are two reviews that you can read as a preview if you haven’t yet gone or as a chance to measure your own impressions against the critics’ if you went to the performances on Friday and Saturday nights.

Here is the review that John W. Barker, a frequent guest critic for this blog, wrote for Isthmus:

And here is the review that Jessica Courtier wrote for The Capital Times:

What did you think of Gil Shaham’s performance?

Of the playing by the Madison Symphony Orchestra?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Acclaimed violinist Gil Shaham debuts here this weekend in an all-Russian program with the Madison Symphony Orchestra

January 16, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

This weekend, the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below) performs three concerts that include the long-awaited Madison debut of violin virtuoso Gil Shaham. MSO music director John DeMain will conduct.

The all-Russian program features works by three of the most popular and beloved Russian composers of all time: the Suite from The Love for Three Oranges” by Sergei Prokofiev; the Symphony No. 3 in A minor by Sergei Rachmaninoff; and the Violin Concerto in D Major by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky.

The concerts are in Overture Hall at the Overture Center, 201 State Street, on this Friday, Jan. 19, at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, Jan. 20, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Jan. 21, at 2:30 p.m.

(See below for ticket information.).

“Our January concerts feature a number of significant firsts,” says MSO music director John DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad).

“Most important is the Madison Symphony Orchestra debut of one of the world’s premier violinists, Gil Shaham. We have sought out Mr. Shaham for many seasons, and we are thrilled his international schedule aligned with ours this year. His offer to play the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto led me into creating another one of my all-Russian programs.

From Prokofiev, we open the concert with MSO’s first performance in nearly 40 years of his Suite from his opera, The Love of Three Oranges. This will also be our first-ever performance of Rachmaninoff’s Third Symphony.”

“The Love for Three Oranges” Suite by Sergei Prokofiev (below) is based on a satirical opera commissioned during the composer’s first visit to the United States in 1918.

“The suite is composed in six parts and follows the story of a prince that is cursed to love three oranges, roaming the Earth searching for them. When he finds the oranges and peels them, each discloses a beautiful princess inside. The first two princesses to emerge die, but the third and most beautiful is saved, and she and the Prince live happily ever after.

“The Violin Concerto by Peter Ilych Tchaikovsky (below) is one of the best-known violin concertos in the repertoire and is considered one of the most technically difficult works ever written for the violin. The concerto was written in 1878 as Tchaikovsky ended his marriage to Antonina Milyukova, a marriage that lasted only three months.”

Declared “the outstanding American violinist of his generation” by Time magazine, Gil Shaham is one of the foremost violinists of our time: his flawless technique combined with his inimitable warmth and generosity of spirit has solidified his renown as an American master.

Grammy Award-winner Shaham (below), also named Musical America’s “Instrumentalist of the Year,” is sought after throughout the world for concerto appearances with leading orchestras and conductors, and regularly gives recitals and appears with ensembles on the world’s great concert stages and at the most prestigious festivals. (You can hear Gil Shaham rehearsing the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto last month in Paris in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

In his Symphony No. 3, Sergei Rachmaninoff’s melodic outline and rhythm characterize what is believed to be his most expressively Russian symphony, particularly in the dance rhythms of the finale.

Composed between 1935 and 1936, this was the last symphony Rachmaninoff (below) would create, with an orchestration more transparent than that of his previous symphonies.

One hour before each performance, Randal Swiggum (below), artistic director of the Elgin Youth Symphony Orchestra and interim 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 read the Program Notes by MSO trombonist and UW-Whitewater professor J. Michael Allsen (below, in photo by Katrin Talbot) at:

NOTE: The MSO 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, which is free for all ticket-holders.


Single Tickets are $18-$90 each and are on sale, 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:

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:

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 January concerts is provided by the Irving and Dorothy Levy Family Foundation, Inc., Kenneth A. Lattman Foundation, Inc., Marilyn and Jim Ebben, Dr. Stanley and Shirley Inhorn, Kato L. Perlman, and Cyrena and Lee Pondrom. Additional funding provided by James and Joan Johnston, von Briesen & Roper, S.C., and the Wisconsin Arts Board with funds from the State of Wisconsin and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Classical music: The Middleton Community Orchestra draws its largest crowd yet as it rings in the New Year with Viennese waltzes, ethnic dances and violin showpieces

December 22, 2017
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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. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison. He also took the performance photos.

By John W. Barker

On Wednesday night, the mostly amateur Middleton Community Orchestra (below)  had the last word of the December holiday season with a distinctly non-Christmas program.

To be sure, it was not a typical concert devoted to a tiny handful of major works. Rather, conductor Kyle Knox (below) devised something a cut above simplistic “pops” programming, with a clutch of nearly a dozen short works, each one of charm and substance—more like what Sir Thomas Beecham used to call “lollipops.”

The opener was a group of three selections from Tchaikovsky’s score for the ballet Swan Lake. There followed three of the Hungarian Dances by Brahms intermingled with two of the Slavonic Dances by Dvorak, in their orchestral versions.

The first half then closed with the first of two pieces featuring the conductor’s wife, violinist Naha Greenholtz (below), who is also the concertmaster of the Madison Symphony Orchestra. This was a kind of mini-concerto tidbit by Tchaikovsky, his Danse Russe.

The high point of the program’s second half was the second violin solo for Greenholz. Ravel’s Tzigane is a contemplation of Gypsy style. It begins with a wild unaccompanied solo for the violin, to which the orchestra then joins in a colorful set of variations. Here the playing by Greenholz was simply dazzling.

(You can hear Ravel’s virtuosic “Tzigane” — played by superstar violinist Itzhak Perlman with the New York Philharmonic conducted by Zubin Mehta —  in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Otherwise, the second half of the program was a bit of old Vienna, via Johann Strauss II, perhaps hinting at that city’s famous New Year’s Concert.

Setting the scene was the overture to Die Fledermaus. Knox’s direction throughout showed a lot of hard work to bring off all the selections with precision, but I often felt that he strove mainly for exuberance at the cost of subtleties. Notably in this overture, it seemed to me that the strings, especially the violins, sounded a bit coarse, certainly below their best ensemble polish.

But doubts were certainly dispelled with one Strauss miniature, the Persian March, followed by that noblest of the composer’s achievements, the Kaiserwalzer or Emperor Waltz.

All in all, this worked as a responsible seasonal treat. It seemed to me that it drew the largest audience that the Middleton Community Orchestra has yet had, and this audience simply loved everything.

So, if you will, Happy New Year!

Classical music: Today is the winter solstice. What music best captures or celebrates winter?

December 21, 2017

By Jacob Stockinger

Today is the Winter Solstice.

Winter arrives at 10:28 a.m. Central Standard Time.

That means we are turning the corner. Starting today, nights will get shorter and days will get longer.

But there is still plenty of the year’s most blustery and bone-chilling weather ahead of us.

Lots of classical music celebrates winter.

Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” is a popular choice.

So is the “Winter Dreams” symphony by Tchaikovsky.

Here are links to two compilations of winter music, lasting for a total of more than two hours, on YouTube:

But no music is more wintry than the celebrated song cycle “Winterreise” or “Winter Journey” by Franz Schubert (below).

Every year, The Ear uses the solstice and the coming of winter to listen once again to this deeply moving and surprisingly modern song cycle.

Many excellent recordings exist. Famed German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (below left, with pianist Gerald Moore) made multiple recordings over many years.

In recent years Matthias Goerner, Thomas Quasthoff, Mark Padmore, Jonas Kaufmann and many others have already made acclaimed recordings, always with distinguished pianists including Gerald Moore, Alfred Brendel, Murray Perahia, Daniel Barenboim and Paul Lewis.

Yet I always find the most satisfying version to be the one made by English tenor Ian Bostridge with Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andnes.

Bostridge’s tenor voice lends a lightness that has a certain clarity and almost speech-like quality to it.

And Bostridge, who wrote the excellent book “Schubert Winter Journey: Anatomy of an Obsession” – a song-by-song analysis of the cycle — knows the texts and contexts of the songs inside and out. His are well-informed and thoroughly thought-out interpretations.

The whole cycle takes about 70 minutes to listen to.

This year The Ear might do one of the 24 songs in the cycle each day and then the entire cycle in one sitting at the end.

The different approach might yield some new insights and new pleasure.

Anyway, choose your own artists and your own way of listening.

But it is a great and timely choice.

Here is “Good Night,” the first song of “Winterreise”:

And here is “The Organ Grinder,” the last song and a favorite of writer Samuel Beckett who found a shared sensibility in the lean austerity of the music of the music and the text:

What winter music would you listen to or recommend to mark the solstice and the coming of winter?

The Ear wants to hear.

Classical music: Do you know the influence of classical music in the “Star Wars” movies?

December 18, 2017

By Jacob Stockinger

This past weekend, the seventh and latest episode of the “Star Wars” movie franchise premiered and beat expectations.

Last The Ear heard, at the box office “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” (below) grossed more than $220 million in the U.S. and more than $230 million internationally. That would make it the second most profitable movie opening ever.

So chances are good that many readers of this blog saw it.

But did they hear the influence to classical music in this and other “Star Wars” films?

If not, here is a link to a 2015 story, posted by radio station WQXR-FM in New York City, in which the film score composer John Williams (below) explains the connections he used.

Here are two hints: Tchaikovsky and Chopin.

Hope you enjoy it:

Of course, “Star Wars” is hardly alone.

The Ear thinks of the Piano Concerto No. 21 by Mozart in the film “Elvira Madigan.”

He also liked the way the used the Symphony No. 7 by Beethoven in “The King’s Speech.”

Do you have other favorite uses of classical music in films?

Use the COMMENT section to let us know the film, the piece and the composer with a link to a YouTube sample if possible.

The Ear wants to hear.

Classical music: The Middleton Community Orchestra offers a head start on celebrating the New Year this coming Wednesday night

December 15, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following information to post:

“Dear friends,

“The mostly amateur and critically acclaimed Middleton Community Orchestra (below) has a fun and entertaining evening planned for this coming Wednesday night, Dec. 20.

“Think of it as an early New Year’s Eve concert.

“The concert starts at 7:30 p.m. in the Middleton Performing Arts Center that is attached to Middleton High School, 2100 Bristol Street.

“The program features:

Johann Strauss            Overture to Die Fledermaus (The Bat)

Johannes Brahms            Hungarian Dances 5, 6, 7 

Antonin Dvorak         Slavonic Dances Op. 46, Nos. 6, 7

Peter Tchaikovsky (below)   Selections from the Swan Lake               Suite; Opening Scene, Little Swans, Czardas, Dance Russe with Naha Greenholtz, violin

Johann Strauss            Persian March

Maurice Ravel             Tzigane, Naha Greenholtz, violin

Johann Strauss        Emperor Waltz (see the YouTube video below)

“The MCO is having a great time preparing this concert with our regular guest conductor Kyle Knox (below top) and our violin soloist, Naha Greenholtz (below bottom), who many of you know as the concertmaster of the Madison Symphony Orchestra. The two musicians are also married.

“Tickets are $15 and are available at the door or in advance at the Willy Street Coop West. Students are FREE.

“The box office opens at 6:30 p.m. Doors open at 7p.m.

“A meet-and-greet reception (below) follows the concert.

“For information, call (608) 212-8690.

Hope to see you there.”

Mindy Taranto and Larry Bevic, co-founders of the Middleton Community Orchestra

Classical music: Music Makers for young children gives its FREE debut concert as a WYSO group this Sunday afternoon. Plus, you can hear violin sonatas by Mozart and Brahms FREE on Friday at noon

November 16, 2017
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ALERT: This Friday’s FREE Noon Musicale at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, features violinist Tyrone Greive, retired UW-Madison Professor and former Madison Symphony Orchestra concertmaster, with pianist Michael Keller in the Sonata in E Minor by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and the Sonata in G Major by Johannes Brahms. The concert runs from 12:15 to 1 p.m.

By Jacob Stockinger

Want to see where music and social justice meet?

WYSO Music Makers (below) will give its inaugural concert as a part of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras on this Sunday, Nov. 19, at UW-Madison Music Hall, 925 Bascom Mall on Bascom Hill, at 4 p.m.

The program includes pieces by Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Harold Arlen and more. (No specific titles were provided.)

Admission is FREE.

Free parking is available on Sundays in the nearby Grainger Hall garage.

The Madison Music Makers program was acquired by WYSO in July of 2017. Currently directed by accomplished violinist Paran Amirinazari (below), WYSO Music Makers aims to enrich and develop the music skills of children from all backgrounds in an inclusive, non-competitive environment. (You can hear more background about Music Makers in the YouTube videos below and at the bottom)

“We are proud of each of our students’ progress, their positive attitudes, the kindness they bring to class and show each other, and their openness to the changes this year,” said Amirinazari (below), a UW-Madison graduate who plays with the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Willy Street Chamber Players and is the concertmaster of the Middleton Community Orchestra. “We are so proud they have chosen music as part of their voice.”

For more information about the program, call the WYSO office at (608) 263-3320, or e-mail Paran Amirinazari at

WYSO Music Makers is supported by the Pleasant T. Rowland Foundation

Classical music: Russian pianist Ilya Yakushev returns to Madison to give a master class and to perform a solo recital of Haydn, Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky and Gershwin at Farley’s House of Pianos this Sunday afternoon

November 8, 2017

By Jacob Stockinger

If you recall the name of Ilya Yakushev (below), it is no doubt from the two impressive concerto appearances by the Russian virtuoso with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and conductor Andrew Sewell.

Madison audiences will finally have a chance to hear Yakushev, who directs the International Keyboard Institute and Festival at Mannes College of Music in Manhattan, in a solo recital.

It will be held this coming Sunday afternoon, Nov. 12, at 4 p.m. at Farley’s House of Pianos, 6522 Seybold Road, on the city’s far west side near the West Towne Mall. The concert is part of the Salon Concert Series, and a reception will follow the performance.

Tickets are $45, $10 for students. You can call (608) 271-2626 or go online (see below).

The program includes: Sonata in D Major by Franz Joseph Haydn; the Sentimental Waltz by Peter Tchaikovsky; “Pictures at an Exhibition,” in the original solo piano version, by Modest Mussorgsky; and a solo piano version of “Rhapsody in Blue” by George Gershwin.  (You can hear Yakushev play the opening part of the Mussorgsky in the YouTube video at the bottom)

On this Saturday, Nov. 11, at 4 p.m. Ilya Yakushev will also teach a master class at Farley’s House of Pianos. Yakushev will instruct three pianists, all of whom are on the piano faculty at Farley’s House of Pianos. This is a FREE event that the public is invited to observe.

The Master Class program includes: Stravinsky’s Piano Sonata (1924) – First movement, performed by Jason Kutz; Beethoven’s Sonata in E Major, Op. 109 “Andante molto cantabile ed espressivo,” performed by Kangwoo Jin; and Ravel’s “Miroirs” (Mirrors) – Third movement “Une barque sur l’ocean” (A Boat on the Ocean) performed by Jonathan Thornton.

For more information about the artist, the program, the master class. other concerts and tickets, go to:

Classical music: Should the Madison Symphony Orchestra return to a traditional Opening Gala concert with a guest soloist and big pieces, and move the all-orchestra concert to a later date?

October 28, 2017

By Jacob Stockinger

You can’t blame longtime music director and conductor John DeMain (below, in a photo by Peter Rodgers) for wanting to put the spotlight on the players of the Madison Symphony Orchestra that he has built up over nearly 25 years.

After all, the orchestra members play well and respond superbly to DeMain’s direction, no matter what you might think of his programming and interpretations. He is proud of them with good reason.

So The Ear can easily understand why for the past few years DeMain has chosen to use an all-orchestra concert, with its principals taking the place of guest soloists, to open the season.

Yet DeMain also likes to emphasize the challenges he faces in selling tickets, filling seats and keeping the MSO a commercially successful orchestra.

The Ear noticed that this year, the all-orchestra opening concert of works by Bach-Stokowski, Mendelssohn and Berlioz, with principal violist Christopher Dozoryst as soloist, seemed to draw a smaller and less enthusiastic audience than the second concert did last weekend.

That second concert included the “Mother Goose” Suite by Ravel, the surefire “New World” Symphony by Dvorak and the Piano Concerto by Samuel Barber with guest pianist Olga Kern (below). The audience wildly cheered her and her flashy, virtuosic playing until it received an encore (the Prokofiev etude heard in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

So the question came to The Ear:

Should the MSO return to a traditional Gala Opening, with a surefire program and a high-profile guest soloist, and leave the all-orchestra concert until the second concert of the season?

The Ear checked out what other orchestras do.

This year, The Chicago Symphony Orchestra opened with violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter in the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto. The Los Angeles Philharmonic opened with a gala program that featured pianists Yuja Wang and Jean-Yves Thibaudet teaming up in an all-Mozart program. The San Francisco Orchestra featured superstar cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

The Philadelphia Orchestra programmed pianist Emanuel Ax and the music of Beethoven, Brahms and Leonard Bernstein, whose centennial is being celebrated this season. The Boston Symphony Orchestra opened with Frederica von Stade, plus other singers, in an all-Bernstein program.

True, the Sheboygan Symphony also used the all-orchestra opener, and The Ear is sure there are many other orchestras, including some prominent ones, that do the same.

But it got The Ear to wondering. So he asked some other loyal MSO fans what they thought about returning to a traditional Gala Opening – one that announces to potential subscribers that great soloists will be featured during the season – and then moving the all-orchestra concert to a different date.

All the people he spoke to agreed that such a move would probably draw bigger audiences and capture the public’s attention better. One loyal patron even said that by going to the all-orchestra opening, the MSO (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson) was “just being cheap.”

Plans are probably already being made for next season, so it is likely too late to make any changes that soon.

But what about the 2018-19 season?

What do you think?

Should the Madison Symphony Orchestra return to a traditional Gala Opening that features big-name soloists and well-known pieces?

Should it move the all-orchestra concert with principal soloists to, say, the second concert of the season?

Or should things stay the way they are?

Which way do you think would be more commercially successful and sell more seats for that concert and for the rest of the season?

And which way would be more artistically satisfying?

The Ear wants to hear.

Classical music: Piano sensation Daniil Trifonov plays the “Fantaisie-Impromptu” by Chopin and makes it his own

October 27, 2017

By Jacob Stockinger

Take a world-class young pianist who is a global sensation and on his way to being a superstar who specializes in Chopin – Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov (below).

Add in one of the best-known, most popular works by Frederic Chopin – his “Fantaisie-Impromptu.”

Blend in a warehouse loft and a ghostly, pop-like video with a dance-like narrative, all designed to promote Trifonov’s new CD – a budget double-disc set called “Chopin Evocations” (below).

The recording also features both piano concertos with some new orchestral touches by Russian pianist and conductor Mikhail Pletnev as well as Chopin-influenced solo pieces by Robert Schumann, Edvard Grieg, Samuel Barber, Peter Tchaikovsky and Federico Mompou.

The result may well be the most original, individual and persuasive versions of the famous piece you have ever heard of the almost clichéd piece.

Here is a link to the performance with the video, along with some fine background material from Tom Huizenga who writes the “Deceptive Cadence” blog for NPR (National Public Radio):

What do you think of Trifonov’s playing in this and other works?

And what do you think about the video, which The Ear finds a bit over-the-top, both precious and schmaltzy, not at all in keeping with Chopin’s more austere and classical kind of Romanticism.

The Ear wants to hear.

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