By Jacob Stockinger
A friend and reviewer for this blog – his specialty is opera but he also is very experienced with the symphonic repertoire — sent in the following opinion piece.
It is being posted in the wake of the announcement by the Madison Symphony Orchestra of its 2017-18 season.
For reference, here is a link to the lineup of the next season’s concerts that was posted yesterday:
By Larry Wells
I received my subscription renewal package for the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson) a couple of weeks ago, and I was struck then by how conservative and prosaic most of the offerings are.
I’ve mentioned my feelings to acquaintances, and one of the prevailing arguments is that they have to fill the seats.
The assumption seems to be that the patrons will only tolerate music written before 1850.
I’m 70 and I grew up with Stravinsky. I can recall the world premieres of Shostakovich’s final three symphonies. I once eagerly awaited recordings of Britten’s latest works. And I heard the first performances of several works by John Adams (below) while living in San Francisco in the 1980s.
If the assumption is that most reliable patrons are in their 70s and 80s, this seems like a dead-end (pardon the pun). There will be no audience in 20 years.
I believe that audiences can tolerate music of the 20th century — look at the glowing reviews of and enthusiastic ovations for last week’s performances of Witold Lutoslawski’s “Concerto for Orchestra’’ — and attracting younger patrons with bolder musical choices seems an economic necessity.
How can the MSO not be commemorating the centenary of Leonard Bernstein (below, in a photo by Jack Mitchell)? The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra is performing several of his pieces in its upcoming season.
On a positive note, I was heartened to see that Benjamin Britten’s “Sinfonia da Requiem” is scheduled next season since that has been on my wish list for years. Likewise, Leos Janacek’s “Glagolitic Mass” is a nice surprise.
However, when will we hear Britten’s “War Requiem,” Bernstein’s “Mass” or “‘Songfest,” a symphony by Walter Piston (below top) or William Schuman (below middle) or Alan Hovhannes (below bottom)?
I’m really tired of going to concerts where only one of the works is of interest to me and the others are historic artifacts. I’d like to see a reversal wherein Brahms, Mozart and Beethoven are brought out occasionally, but the bulk of the music performed comes from the rich source of the 20th century.
What do you think?
Leave word in the COMMENT section.
By Jacob Stockinger
This coming weekend, the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below) offers one of the best must-hear programs of the season – or so thinks The Ear.
Pianist Stephen Hough (below, in a photo by Sim Canetty-Clarke) returns for his fourth appearance with the Madison Symphony Orchestra (MSO), led by music director and conductor John DeMain.
The concert will open with Samuel Barber’s Second Essay, a dramatic piece written in the midst of World War II, followed by a performance of the exotic Saint-Saëns Piano Concerto No. 5 (“Egyptian”) featuring soloist Stephen Hough, who won major awards for his recordings of the complete works for piano and orchestra by Saint-Saëns. The concert will close with a performance of Tchaikovsky’s emotional Symphony No. 6 (“Pathétique”).
The concerts are Friday, Feb. 17, at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, Feb. 18, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Feb. 19, at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall of the Overture Center, 201 State Street. (Ticket information is below.)
Samuel Barber (below) was one of the new generation of mid-20th century American composers with contemporaries Howard Hanson, Aaron Copland, David Diamond and, later, Leonard Bernstein.
His Second Essay was written in 1942, in the middle of the Second World War. Barber once wrote: “Although it has no program, one perhaps hears that it was written in a war-time.” This will be the first time this piece is performed by the Madison Symphony Orchestra.
The Piano Concerto No. 5 (“Egyptian”) by Camille Saint-Saëns (below) was composed while he was on a winter vacation in the Egyptian temple city of Luxor, in 1895-96. The location of this piece is important because it helped give the piece its nickname, and also influenced the sound of the score. This will be the first time this piece is performed by the Madison Symphony Orchestra.
Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (below) wrote his final piece between February and August 1893. The Symphony No. 6 (Pathétique) was then performed in Oct. 1893 and was conducted by Tchaikovsky himself. Nine days later he was dead.
Tchaikovsky’s late symphonies are autobiographical, and the sixth being “the best, and certainly the most open-hearted,” according to Tchaikovsky himself. Seeing that he was a troubled man, dealing with a dark depression, Symphony No. 6 (Pathétique) is filled with poignancy and deep sorrow, as you can hear in the finale in the YouTube video at the bottom.
One hour before each performance, Randal Swiggum (below), artistic director of the Elgin Youth Symphony Orchestra Artistic Director and the newly appointed Interim Music Director of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras, will lead a 30-minute Prelude Discussion in Overture Hall to enhance concertgoers’ understanding and listening experience.
For more background on the music, read 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/1617/5.Feb17.html
Single Tickets are $16 to $87 each, and are available at madisonsymphony.org/hough and through the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street or by calling the Box Office at (608) 258-4141.
Groups of 15 or more can save 25% by calling the MSO office at (608) 257-3734. For more information visit, 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 $15 tickets. More information is at: madisonsymphony.org/studentrush. Students can receive 20% savings on seats in select areas of the hall on advance ticket purchases.
Seniors age 62 and up receive 20% 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.
Find more information at madisonsymphony.org
Major funding for the February concerts is provided by: Irving and Dorothy Levy Family Foundation, Inc., Stephen Morton, and BMO Wealth Management. Additional funding is provided by: Boardman & Clark LLP, Forte Research Systems & Nimblify, James and Joan Johnston, and the Wisconsin Arts Board with funds from the State of Wisconsin and the National Endowment for the Arts.
By Jacob Stockinger
The end of the first semester is at hand. And this weekend two very appealing concerts will help finish off the first half of the new concert season at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music.
The orchestra and the campus-community chorus will be conducted by Beverly Taylor (below), the director of choral activities at the UW-Madison.
The program of works that are relatively rare on programs includes the Mass in C Major by Ludwig van Beethoven, “Nänie: Song of Lamentation” by Johannes Brahms (heard conducted by Claudio Abbado in the YouTube video below) and the “Chichester Psalms” by Leonard Bernstein.
Admission is $15 for adults; $8 for students.
Here are some notes about the works written by conductor Beverly Taylor:
“The Choral Union will present a 3 B’s concert, which includes masterpieces of three different types.
“The Bernstein “Chichester Psalms,” written in the 1960’s for a cathedral in Britain, is a setting of three psalms in Hebrew. The piece is for strings, brass and percussion, and lasts about 20 minutes. It features a flamboyant, joyful and somewhat dissonant opening full of exciting percussion writing.
“The second movement features a wonderful boy soloist, Simon Johnson, from the Madison Youth Choirs, with harp and strings. He is like the shepherd King David, who is peacefully in the fields with his sheep; contrasting that are the warring peoples, sung by the tenors and basses. The boy and women’s voices return singing peacefully above the warring mobs.
“The third movement starts in dissonant pain, but it dissolves into a beautiful, quiet psalm of praise and trust.
“The Brahms Nänie is a 15-minute setting of a poem by Friedrich Schiller on the topic of beauty and its inability to last; even beauty must die, and the gods weep too, but the beauty itself is worth all! The style is Romantic with the long arching melodic lines for which Brahms is well-known.
“The Beethoven Mass in C is one of just two masses that Beethoven wrote; in contrast to the long, loud, high, grand and overpowering “Missa Solemnis,” the Mass in C is more charming, Mozartean and approachable. It still has some Beethovenian touches of sudden dynamic changes, sforzandi (which are emphases or accents), and slow, elegiac quartets. Our solo quartet will be Anna Polum, Jessica Krasinki, Jiabao Zhang and John Loud.”
For more background and information about how to get tickets, go to:
On this Saturday night at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall, the UW-Madison Symphony Orchestra (below top), under the baton of James Smith (below bottom, in a photo by Jack Burns), will give a FREE concert.
The program features three works: the late “King Stephan” Overture by Ludwig van Beethoven (heard below in a YouTube video as conducted by Leonard Bernstein with the Vienna Philharmonic) the “Billy the Kid” Suite by Aaron Copland; and the Symphony No. 4 “Inextinguishable” by Danish composer Carl Nielsen.
The Ear has heard both groups often and highly recommends both concerts.
He was quite amazed at how good the last UW Symphony Orchestra program he heard was. It offered two Fifth Symphonies — by Sergei Prokofiev and Jean Sibelius – only about three weeks into the semester.
It was nothing short of amazing how well the orchestra had come together in such a short time. It was a tight and impassioned performance. The Ear expects the same for this concert, which has had a lot more rehearsal time.
ALERT: This week’s FREE Friday Noon Musicale at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, features Shannon Farley, viola, with Chris Allen, guitar; Leah King and Jason Kutz, piano; Elspeth Stalter Clouse and Ela Mowinski, violin; Leslie Damaso, mezzo-soprano; and Morgan Walsh, cello. They will perform the Piano Quintet in A Major, Op. 81, by Antonin Dvorak; Three Songs for Mezzo-soprano, viola and piano by Frank Bridge; “Beau Soir” (Beautiful Evening) for guitar and viola by Claude Debussy; and a Romance for violin by Amy Beach as arranged for viola and piano. The concert runs from 12:15 to 1 p.m.
By Jacob Stockinger
Can the past help us understand and weather the present time with its conflicts and chaos?
In fact her latest album, for the Erato-Warner label, of arias from Baroque operas from the 17th and 18th centuries is dedicated to that proposition. The album’s title is “In War and Peace: Harmony Through Music” (below).
It includes arias from opera by George Frideric Handel (one of which you can hear in the YouTube video at the bottom), Henry Purcell, Niccolo Jommelli, Leonardo Leo and Claudio Monteverdi, and it features two world premiere recordings as well as familiar works.
She boils much of her viewpoint down to one question: In the widest of chaos, how can you find peace?
Sure seems timely, given foreign wars and domestic political strife.
Here is a link with the interview and some fetching music:
Listen to it.
See what you think.
Then let the rest of us know what you think, and whether you agree or disagree, and whether you have other works that come to mind.
The Ear wants to hear.
By Jacob Stockinger
Several years ago, artistic director and conductor John DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad) decided to use the season-opening concerts of the Madison Symphony Orchestra to spotlight the symphony and its first-chair players as soloists.
No big-name imported guest soloists were to be booked.
Such multimedia events increasingly seem to work as a way to build audiences and boost attendance by new people and young people. After all, a music director has to sell tickets and fill seats as well as wave a baton.
And it seems that, on both counts, DeMain’s strategy proved spectacularly successful.
All sections of the orchestra (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson) — strings, brass, winds, percussion — played with energy, precision and subtlety. The MSO proved a very tight ensemble. Each year, you can hear how the MSO improves and grows increasingly impressive after 23 years of DeMain’s direction.
The public seemed to agree. It came very close to filling the 2,200-seat Overture Hall for all three performances with more than 6,100 audience members, according to Peter Rodgers, the new marketing director for the MSO. Especially noteworthy, he said, was the number of children, students and young people who attended.
In fact, so many students showed up for student rush tickets on Friday night that the performance was delayed by around 10 minutes – because of long lines at the box office, NOT because of the new security measures at the Overture Center, which Rodgers said worked smoothly and quickly.
But not everything was ideal, at least not for The Ear.
On the first half, the playing largely outweighed the music.
True, the Romanian Rhapsody No. 1 by a very young George Enescu (below) received a sizzling and infectious performance. With its catchy folk tunes, dance rhythms and Gypsy harmonies, the fun work proved an irresistible opener – much like a starting with an encore, which is rather like eating a rich and tasty dessert before tackling the more nutritious but less snazzy main course.
The music itself is captivating and frequently played – although this was its surprising premiere performance by the MSO. Little wonder the Enescu got a rousing standing ovation. Still, it is hardly great music.
Then came the Chaconne for violin and orchestra by the American composer John Corigliano (below), who based the work on his Oscar-winning film score for “The Red Violin.”
Concertmaster Naha Greenholtz (below) impressed The Ear and most others with her mastery of what appeared to be a very difficult score. The ovation was for her, not for the music.
That music also has some fine moments. But overall it seems a dull and tedious work, an exercise in virtuosity with some of the same flaws you find in certain overblown piano etudes by Franz Liszt. Once again the playing trumped the music.
Then came The Big Event: Gustav Holst’s “The Planets” coupled with clear, high-definition photos of the planets taken by NASA that were projected on a huge screen above the orchestra. Saturn’s rings, Jupiter’s and Venus’ clouds and Mars’ landscape (below) have never looked so impressive.
The orchestra again struck one with its exotic and “spacey” sound effects and with what must have been the difficulty of timing simultaneously the music and the images.
Yet ultimately Holst’s work became a sound track — music accompanying images rather than images accompanying the music. The Ear heard several listeners compare the admittedly impressive result to the movies “Fantasia” and “2001: A Space Odyssey.” That says something.
At some moments the sound and images really matched and reinforced each other, especially in the dramatic opening section, “Mars, the Bringer of War.” Holst’s score also succeeds nicely with “Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity” and to a lesser degree with “Venus, the Bringer of Peace.”
But overall “The Planets” reminds The Ear of colorful and dramatic programmatic showpieces such as Ottorino Respighi‘s “The Pines of Rome” and “The Fountains of Rome.” (Earth, curiously, is not included in “The Planets.” Makes you wonder: What would Earth bring?) Enjoyable music, to be sure, but not profound fare.
The Ear’s extensive library of CDs has none of the three works on the program. And it will probably remain that way.
While Holst’s work does have great moments, it grows long, repetitive and finally uninteresting as it ends not with a bang but with an underwhelming whimper – which was beautifully enhanced by the atmospheric singing of the MSO Women’s Chorus. There are just too many planets!
Listen to the YouTube video at the bottom, played by James Levine conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and you will see: Mars rules!
Add it all up and despite three standing ovations, in the end The Ear found the concert less than fully satisfying. The music, however likable and appealing, was not, for the most part, great music. Moreover, it was mostly trumped first by the performances and then by the visuals.
So on a personal note, here is The Ear’s request to the MSO, which scored an undeniably brilliant success with this program: Keep the same all-orchestra and first-chair format for season-openers and use multimedia shows whenever appropriate. But please also include at least one really first-rate piece of music with more substance.
Is that asking for too much?
Is The Ear alone and unfair in his assessment?
Other critics had their own takes and some strongly disagree with The Ear.
Here is a link to three other reviews:
By John W. Barker (below) for Isthmus:
By Jessica Courtier for The Capital Times:
And by Greg Hettmansberger (below), who writes for WISC-TV Channel 3 and his Classically Speaking blog for Madison Magazine, and on his own blog, What Greg Says:
What did you think of the music, the performances and the visual show?
How well did they mix?
What did you like most and least?
The Ear wants to hear.
ALERT: This afternoon at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall is your last chance to hear the Madison Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in “Carmina Burana” in the MSO’s spectacular season-closing program. Read three rave reviews by local critics:
Here is what John W. Barker wrote for Isthmus:
Here is what Greg Hettmansberger wrote for Madison Magazine and his blog WhatGregSays:
And here is what Jessica Courtier wrote for The Capital Times:
By Jacob Stockinger
Who says you can’t mix art and current events?
Especially if the current events also count as history, which has often been an inspiration for fiction and art.
But not all of the news has to do with politics, suicide bombings, increased troop commitments and fierce fighting in a civil war.
It also has to do with art.
Specifically, opera — that potent combination of theater and music.
The Long Beach Opera commissioned and recently premiered a new chamber opera based on the Iraq War and PTSD (Posttraumatic Stress Disorder), and us based on the life and work of U.S. Marine Christian Ellis . It is called “Fallujah” and it is the first such opera to be written. (A photo below is by Keith Ian Polakoff for the Long Beach Opera.)
It makes The Ear wonder if it might find its way into an upcoming season of the Madison Opera, which tends to use its smaller winter productions to stage works that are newer, smaller, more adventurous and more exploratory.
Or maybe the University Opera at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music might find it a good choice for a student production?
ALERT: One more subscriber and The Ear breaks 1,000. Who wants to be the one?
By Jacob Stockinger
The Ear has received the following word about a very timely performance of a very timely work:
On this Sunday, March 20, at 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. the Society Choir of First Unitarian Society of Madison will present the powerful anti-war cantata, “Dona Nobis Pacem” or Grant Us Peace, by English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams (below). Vaughan Williams used texts from the Bible and from the Civil War poems by the American poet Walt Whitman.
You can hear a section of the work in the YouTube video at the bottom.
Guest soloists are soprano Heather Thorpe (below top) and UW-Madison baritone Paul Rowe (below bottom).
Violinist and retired UW-Madison violin professor and Madison Symphony Orchestra concertmaster Tyrone Greive (below top, in a photo by Katherine Esposito) will lead the string section, which will be joined by organ, piano, harp and timpani. First Unitarian Society Music Director Dan Broner (below bottom) will conduct.
The performances will take place in the Society’s modern Atrium Auditorium (below in a photo by Zane Williams), 900 University Bay Drive.
Admission is FREE. Donations will be accepted.
In conjunction with the performance there will be a small exhibit of German art in the Commons. It will feature anti-war artwork from the period after World War I.
Several prints of lithographs, drawings and sculpture by Kathe Kollwitz, Ernst Barlach and Otto Dix from the years 1921-1929 will be included. The images by Kollwitz are from her “Krieg Cycle.” Her son had been killed in the war; Barlach and Dix both had fought in the war. The two sculptures by Barlach were actually commissioned as war memorials, but instead of glorifying war they express his stark protest and grief.
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 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.
By John W. Barker
The University of Wisconsin-Madison Choral Union, conducted by Beverly Taylor, with the UW Symphony Orchestra, gave two performances on Saturday night and Sunday afternoon of a program that deserved even more of an audience than actually turned out.
Only two works were involved, and quite contrasting ones. The first was Felix Mendelssohn’s “Die erste Walpurgisnacht “ (“The First Witches’ Sabbath”), using a poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. The second was the cantata by Ralph Vaughan Williams, “Dona nobis pacem,” using a deliberately ironic mix of texts.
UW student violist and conductor Mikko Utevsky, who sang in the tenor section, has already described these two works in his preview article recently posted on this blog, so there is no need for me to repeat what he has set out.
Here is a link to his preview:
The work by Felix Mendelssohn (below) is a sadly neglected masterpiece, one on which he worked intermittently down to his last years. It pictures Druid devotees, standing up to fierce persecution by intolerant Christians. The Druids’ weapon is traditional pagan rites, and the making of a ghostly hullabaloo in order to frighten off their enemies. (A precedent not for Halloween but rather for the spooky folk celebrations of St. John’s Eve (celebrated by Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain” and the Brocken scene in Gounod’s opera “Faust.”)
One may debate if the text was worth the effort that Mendelssohn put into it, and whether its brief requirement of a large performing force makes it not an economic concert favorite.
Still, its extended overture is, quite simply, one of the composer’s finest piece of orchestral writing, and the vibrant choral segments are the work, after all, of one of the handful of composers who could compose truly idiomatic choral music.
There were a few rocky orchestral moments at the very beginning of the piece, especially in the strings, and occasional touches of weak co-ordination. But the orchestra pulled together some fine sound, worthy of the standards that James Smith’s training has set for it.
Of the three vocal soloists (below, with conductor Beverly Taylor of the far left) tenor Klaus Georg (middle) had a strong voice, but a not very smooth one. Mezzo-soprano Caitlin Ruby Miller (far right) had such smoothness for her one solo, but not much projecting power. Baritone Erik E. Larsen (second from left) brought a bit more character to his solos.
The real star, though, was the chorus: it can always be counted on for robust sound, and its singers really had a ball working up the Druids’ pagan, anti-Christian frenzies.
The cantata by Ralph Vaughan Williams (below) was composed in 1937, reflecting the composer’s disillusioning experience in World War I, and his just apprehensions about what would become World War II.
An admirer of the poetry of Walt Whitman (below) long before American composers began to pay attention to it, Vaughan Williams took three of Whitman’s poems of American Civil War vintage, adding a few other (mostly Scriptural) passages, which he juxtaposed against the Latin text from the Roman Catholic Mass Ordinary, the “Agnus Dei” — especially its repeated words “Dona nobis pacem” or “Give us peace.”
Such a juxtaposition of compassionate poetry against Latin liturgy was made famous by Benjamin Britten, of course, in his acclaimed “War Requiem.” But, in his more compact venture, Vaughan Williams set a bar of expressiveness so high that not even Britten, with all his cleverness and monumentality, could really match.
Indeed, I would place Vaughan Williams’s cantata as one of the supreme examples of anti-war art–matched not by Britten (if by Wilfred Owen’s poetry) but certainly by the crushing Ancient Greek play by Euripides, “The Trojan Women” and perhaps also Pablo Picasso’s painting of mass horror, “Guernica.”
Each of the movements of the cantata carries potent messages of poignancy and protest, while there is even some final (if uncertain) optimism. The score’s centerpiece is the long setting of Whitman’s “Dirge for Two Veterans,” a movement of absolutely shattering anguish amid discredited military posturing. There are few other things like it in the choral literature.
There are two soloists required for this work. Visiting faculty soprano Elizabeth Hagedorn (below right with Beverly Taylor in the center) was beautifully chilling in the reiterations of the “Dona nobis pacem” motto, while baritone Jordan Wilson (below right) captured the poignancy of Whitman’s “Reconciliation” (at bottom in a YouTube video) a more concise and heart-grabbing predecessor to the culminating Wilfred Owen poem that Britten used in his grander work.
But, again, with stout backing from the orchestra, the chorus was a tower of choral strength, equally forceful in parodistic militarism, in piercing anguish, or in hopeful joy.
Say what you will about the acoustics of Mills Hall in the UW’s Humanities Building, but it is the proper home for a powerful chorus confronting an enthusiastic audience with clarity and presence.
Praise, by the way, for the program booklet, which included all the vocal texts, as well as some excellent program notes. It proved an ideal topping for a rich, but nourishing cake of a concert!