The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: This weekend, the Madison Symphony Orchestra spotlights three of its principal players in music by Prokofiev, Debussy and Vaughan Williams along with works by Schubert and Gershwin

March 7, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

This coming weekend, the Madison Symphony Orchestra (MSO, below in a photo by Peter Rodgers) will once again perform a program that highlights its principal artists as soloists.

 The program for “Orchestral Brilliance: Three Virtuosi” begins with Franz Schubert’s Symphony No. 8, “Unfinished.

Then the featured artists appear: concertmaster Naha Greenholtz performs Sergei Prokofiev’s Concerto No. 2 for Violin; principal clarinetist JJ Koh follows with Claude Debussy’s Rhapsody for Clarinet and Orchestra; and principal tubist Joshua Biere concludes with Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Concerto for Tuba and Orchestra. For more biographical information about the soloists, see below.

The program finishes with George Gershwin’s “An American in Paris.”

Performances will be held in Overture Hall, 201 State Street, on Friday, March 8, at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, March 9, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, March 10, at 2:30 p.m.

Details about tickets ($18-$93) are below.

“Our March concerts shine the spotlight on our own brilliant musicians that make up the Madison Symphony Orchestra,” says music director and conductor John DeMain (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson). “It is important to me on the occasion of my 25th anniversary with the symphony to share this celebration in a special way with these artists, who make my musical life such a pleasure.”

Franz Schubert (below) began composing his “Unfinished Symphony” in 1822, but left the piece with only two movements despite living for six more years. For reasons that remain unclear, the score was shelved until 1860 when the owner finally realized he possessed a gem. He approached conductor Johann von Herbeck with assurances of a “treasure” on par “with any of Beethoven’s,” and Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony had its premiere in 1865.

The Violin Concerto No. 2 in G Minor, Op. 63, by Sergei Prokofiev (below) is more conventional than the composer’s early bold compositions. It starts off with a simple violin melody and recalls traditional Russian folk music. The graceful violin melody flows throughout the entire second movement, and the third movement’s theme has a taste of Spain, complete with the clacking of castanets. (You can hear David Oistrakh play the gorgeous and entrancing slow second movement in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Composed between December 1909 and January 1910, the Rhapsody for Clarinet and Orchestra by Claude Debussy (below) was written as one of two test pieces for the clarinet examinations at the Paris Conservatory. The piece is described as dreamily slow at the start, followed by a duple meter section that moves the music along until the joyous final section.

The Concerto for Tuba and Orchestra by Ralph Vaughan Williams (below)
was written in 1953-54 to mark the 50th anniversary of the London Symphony Orchestra.

“An American in Paris” by George Gershwin (below) is one of the popular composer’s most well-known and most beloved compositions. Written in 1928, it evokes the sights and energy of the French capital in the 1920s. As Gershwin explains, the work’s purpose is to “portray the impressions of an American visitor in Paris as he strolls about the city, listens to the various street noises, and absorbs the French atmosphere.”

ABOUT THE SOLOISTS

Naha Greenholtz (below, in a photo by Chris Hynes) is concertmaster of both the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Quad City Symphony Orchestra. Additional performance highlights include guest concertmaster appearances with the Oregon Symphony, Calgary Philharmonic, National Ballet of Canada, Omaha Symphony and Memphis Symphony, among many others. Additionally, she performs frequently with the Cleveland Orchestra both domestically and abroad. Greenholtz has also held positions with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra and the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra, joining the latter as Associate Concertmaster at age 21.

JJ Koh (below) joined the Madison Symphony Orchestra as principal clarinetist in 2016. In addition, he holds a position with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, and Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra. Prior to joining the MSO, Koh was a member of the Civic Orchestra of Chicago. He is a founding member of the Arundo Donax Reed Quintet, and a winner of the Fischoff National Chamber Music Competition. As principal clarinetist of KammerMahler, Koh participated in a world premiere recording project, which featured chamber versions of Gustav Mahler’s Fourth and Ninth Symphonies.

Joshua Biere (below, in a photo by Peter Rodgers) joined the Madison Symphony Orchestra as principal tubist in 2013. He also holds the principal tuba chair with the Kenosha Symphony and regularly performs with the new Chicago Composers Orchestra. Biere has also performed at the Grant Park Music Festival (Chicago), and with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. An established chamber musician, Biere is also a highly sought-after clinician and teacher, maintaining a studio of well over 35 tuba and euphonium students.

CONCERT AND TICKET DETAILS

The lobby opens 90 minutes prior to each concert. One hour before each performance, maestro John DeMain will lead a 30-minute Prelude Discussion in Overture Hall to enhance concertgoers’ understanding and listening experience. It is free to ticketholders.

The MSO recommends 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 Prelude Discussion.

Program notes for the concerts are available online: http://bit.ly/mar2019programnotes

  • Single Tickets are $18-$93 each and are on sale now at: http://madisonsymphony.org/orchestral
through the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street, or by calling the Box Office at (608) 258-4141. Fees apply to online/phone sales.
  • Groups of 10 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 $15 or $20 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.
  • Flex-ticket booklets of 10 vouchers for 18-19 symphony subscription concerts are available. Learn more at: https://madisonsymphony.org/flex

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

Presenting sponsorship provided by the Kelly Family Foundation. Major funding provided by Madison Magazine, Louise and Ernest Borden, Scott and Janet Cabot, and Elaine and Nicholas Mischler. Additional funding provided by von Briesen & Roper, S.C., and the Wisconsin Arts Board with funds from the State of Wisconsin and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).


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Classical music: The St. Lawrence String Quartet will perform works by Haydn and the Midwest premiere of the String Quartet No. 2 by John Adams this Friday night at the Wisconsin Union Theater. Plus, this Tuesday night UW-Madison alumnus and violist Elias Goldstein will perform a FREE concert of the famous Caprices by Paganini

February 1, 2016
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ALERT: University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music 2011 alumnus and violist Elias Goldstein is on his way to Carnegie Hall in New York City to perform all the virtuosic 24 Caprices originally for solo violin by Niccolo Paganini. But first he will perform them here in a FREE concert that also includes other works with pianist Thomas Kasdorf, another UW-Madison alumnus, on Tuesday night at 7 p.m. in Morphy Recital Hall. (Sorry, no word on the rest of the program.) Goldstein will also give a FREE and PUBLIC master class on Wednesday at 2:25 p.m. in Morphy Hall.

For more information, go to:

http://www.music.wisc.edu/event/goldstein_paganini/

By Jacob Stockinger

How does a contemporary American composer channel classic composers from more than 200 years ago?

You can find out by going to hear the St. Lawrence String Quartet (SLSQ, below). The critically acclaimed string quartet will perform this Friday night at 8 pm, in Shannon Hall at the Wisconsin Union Theater.

St.Lawrence String Quartet 2016 2 BIG USE

Tickets are $27.50 to $42.50.

For more information, including reviews and video samplings, visit:

http://uniontheater.wisc.edu/Season15-16/st-lawrence-string-quartet.html

The program features two quartets by Franz Joseph Haydn, including the popular and famed “Emperor” Quartet and the earlier “Joke” Quartet as well as the Midwest premiere of John Adams; String Quartet No. 2.

NPR, or National Public Radio, recently featured an interview with Adams discussing Beethoven:

http://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2015/11/10/450560466/john-adams-mines-beethovens-mind

But Christopher Costanza, the cellist of the St. Lawrence String Quartet, recently gave an enlightening Q&A from the quartet’s point of view to The Ear:

christopher costanza playing cello

Can you briefly bring the public up to date since your last appearance in Madison, when you performed “The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind” by Osvaldo Golijov? Major residencies and tours? Major commissions? Major performing and recording projects?

The St. Lawrence String Quartet has been busy with a wide range of projects in the years since our last appearance in Madison.

We’ve had a personnel change – our newest quartet member is Owen Dalby, our second violinist, who joined us in the spring of last year.

We happily continue as Artists-in Residence at Stanford University, where we are involved in a great number of activities, including teaching, performing, and collaborations with a wide range of schools and departments on campus.

And our international touring schedule remains very active, with concerts throughout North America and Europe; our most recent European tour, in late summer of 2015, included concerts in Scotland, Germany, Romania, Hungary and Switzerland, and we will tour Europe twice in 2016.

We’ve performed several pieces commissioned for us, including works by such composers as Osvaldo Golijov, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, Samuel Adams, Jonathan Berger, James Matheson and George Tsontakis.

Of particular significance, John Adams has composed three works for us, two string quartets and a quartet concerto, “Absolute Jest,” which was written for the SLSQ, the San Francisco Symphony and the SF Symphony’s music director Michael Tilson Thomas.

We’ve performed “Absolute Jest” on several national and international tours with the San Francisco Symphony, as well as with the London Symphony, the Toronto Symphony, and the New World Symphony. Our recording of the work with the San Francisco Symphony and Michael Tilson Thomas was released this past summer.

We’ve recently embarked on a recording project of the Opus 20 quartets of Haydn, and other recording projects are in development.

john adams absolute jest

Why did you choose to perform two Haydn string quartets to open and close the program, instead of a work by Beethoven, given the Beethoven influences in the String Quartet No. 2 by John Adams?

We often perform programs that begin and end with a Haydn quartet, with a contemporary work (or works) in between. This showcases the great variety and brilliance of Haydn’s gigantic contribution to the quartet repertoire.

It also provides an interesting contrast between the earliest works for quartet and current compositional offerings, stressing the fact that Haydn (below) essentially invented the string quartet and paving the way for other composers to explore creativity in their compositions for quartet.

In truth, we do often program Beethoven (below) with the Second String Quartet by Adams. For this program, I think the Adams/Haydn juxtaposition will be a meaningful comment on the evolution of quartet writing, from the early years to works of the present.

Beethoven big

As an exercise in compare and contrast programming, what would you like the public to know about the “Joke” and “Emperor” Quartets by Haydn? About Haydn’s music in general?

Haydn’s “Joke” Quartet, from his Op. 33 set, is, as you might guess, filled with humor and wit. The quartet is actually quite straightforward structurally, filled with robust and positive energy and simple, appealing melodies. It’s a compact work, inviting and charming.

The “Emperor” Quartet, from the Op. 76 set, comes from a later period of Haydn’s compositions, and it is a work of considerable length and weight. This quartet shows a natural link to Beethoven in its duration, dynamic contrast, emotional range, and overall musical substance. (You can hear Haydn’s “Emperor” Quartet performed, analyzed and discussed by the St. Lawrence Quartet in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

Of significant note, the “Emperor” is named thusly for the second movement, a theme and variations based on the tune Haydn (below) originally wrote for the Emperor Francis of Austria as a sort of national anthem.

Haydn

What should readers know about the String Quartet No. 2 by John Adams (below)? How is it similar to or different from his other works that the public knows such as “Nixon in China,” “The Death of Klinghoffer,” “Doctor Atomic” “Harmonielehre” and “On the Transmigration of Souls”? Will this performance be the Midwest premiere? Will you record the quartet?

John Adams’s Second String Quartet is very strongly based on two motivic ideas from Beethoven’s Op. 110 piano sonata, as well as a variation from Beethoven’s “Diabelli” Variations.

The Beethoven elements are clearly presented in clever and skilled ways, and I think many of them will be evident to the astute listener. Most importantly, John is brilliant in his transformation of the Beethoven quotes, and the piece is very clearly an Adams piece, characterized by driving rhythms, great energy, and a true sense of musical intent and balance.

To get a sense of the piece prior to hearing it, I suggest listening to “Absolute Jest” (our recent recording) – another of John’s pieces inspired by Beethoven and filled with late Beethoven quotes – and the Op. 110 Piano Sonata by Beethoven.

We’ve performed the Second Quartet on several occasions since we premiered it at Stanford University about a year ago, but I do think our Madison performance will be a Midwest premiere. We are currently considering the possibility of recording the work, but specific plans have not yet been made.

john adams with pencil

What else would you like to say?

We’re thrilled to be returning to Madison after a gap of several years. It’s very exciting to be bringing a program of music by two of our favorite composers, Joseph Haydn and John Adams, and we think contrasting the two will be interesting and enlightening to all.


Classical music: The Middleton Community Orchestra closes its fifth season with a lively concert that featured fiery Marquez, subtle Brahms, lyrical Bruch and thrilling Tchaikovsky.

June 5, 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

Spring is officially over now, for the Middleton Community Orchestra (below, in a photo by Margaret Barker) has given the fourth and last concert of its fifth season — as usual, on a Wednesday night and before a sizable crowd at the Middleton Performing Arts Center.

Middleton Community Orchestra Margaret Barker

The opening work was a rarity from the little-known Mexican composer Arturo Marquez (b.1950, below), called Danzon 2. It is a piece that starts with promise of melodic expression, but soon slips into a piling up of the usual hard-driven Latin dance rhythms, for a large orchestra, playing very loudly. A kind of musical refried beans.

arturo marquez 3 USE

More substantial was the early orchestral masterpiece, the “Variations on a Theme by Haydn” by Johannes Brahms (below).

This is a very thickly scored piece, placing particular emphasis on the winds. I found myself, as I listened, appreciating more than ever how cunningly Brahms designed the seams and sutures among the instruments, taxing the skills of the players for subtlety. Fortunately, the Middleton musicians faced the challenges bravely and brought off a very sturdy and convincing performance.

brahms3

After the intermission, it was concerto time.

First, as MCO maestro Steve Kurr (below top) has regularly done, the young concertmaster was given a chance to tackle a solo assignment. Valerie Sanders (below bottom), a new graduate from the UW-Madison School of Music, took on the Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor by Max Bruch, though only its slow movement. She played this lovely music quite sweetly, and one was tempted to wonder how she would have fared in taking on the two bolder wing movements, in the full concerto.

Steve Kurr conducting

MCO Valerie Sanders plays Bruch

The Big Event was, of course, local pianist Thomas Kasdorf playing the Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky. This is a very warhorse of the warhorses, a work that some will be surprised to learn that predates Van Cliburn, whose recording of it was the first classical album to sell one million copies. (Vladimir Horowitz was once the exponent automatically brought to mind.)

It is a colossally demanding piece, technically, and a summit of virtuosic display — as you can see and hear in the popular YouTube video at the bottom.

Kasdorf (below), a locally born, raised and educated pianist and a well-established young Madison fixture of enormous talent and virtuosity, made this his latest entry into the warhorse corral.

MCO Thomas Kasdorf plays Tchaikovsky

Yes, he had the chops to bring it off, in an undeniably exciting performance. But I had the sense that his heart was really in the quieter passages, where he had some ideas of his own.

In the prevailingly bravura writing, by contrast, he was battling for survival. He certainly won the battle, on technical points alone. But this is not a work he has fully made his own—he played from score, rather than memory. It is an interpretation in progress, rather than one securely controlled.

And I hope this is not a career effort in progress. He is too fine a musician to be just a barn-storming, roof-raising virtuoso. He should pursue rather the great variety of roles he as developed, in which he has so much more that is personal and nuanced to offer.

The orchestra, with fewer perils to face than in the Brahms, sounded confident and full-voiced.

All in all, it was a lively and stimulating concert, as we have come to expect from Steve Kurr and his remarkable Middletonians.

 


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