The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: This weekend pianist Emanuel Ax helps conductor John DeMain celebrate his 25th anniversary season with the Madison Symphony Orchestra

September 26, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

This weekend the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below top, in a photo by Peter Rodgers) will open its season by celebrating the 25th anniversary of its music director and conductor John DeMain, who will collaborate with renowned pianist Emanuel Ax (below bottom, in a photo by Lisa-Marie Mazzucco).

The program opens with the “Fanfare Ritmico” by Jennifer Higdon, the contemporary American composer and Pulitzer Prize winner. Then comes a special suite of favorite movements, cobbled together by DeMain, from the ballet score for “Romeo and Juliet” by Sergei Prokofiev. The grand finale is the monumental Piano Concerto No. 2 by Johannes Brahms.

Performances will be held in Overture Hall, 201 State Street, on Friday night, Sept. 28, at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday night, Sept. 29, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday afternoon, Sept. 30, at 2:30 p.m.

Jennifer Higdon’s “Fanfare Ritmico” celebrates the rhythm and speed of life. Written on the eve of the new millennium, the work reflects on the quickening pace of life as time progresses.

Higdon (below) herself notes, “Our lives now move at speeds much greater than what I believe anyone would have imagined in years past. As we move along day-to-day, rhythm plays an integral part of our lives — from the individual heartbeat to the lightning speed of our computers. This fanfare celebrates that rhythmic motion, of man and machine, and the energy which permeates every moment of our being in the new century.”

Soviet composer Sergei Prokofiev (below) originally wrote the Romeo and Juliet Suite in 1935 for the titular ballet produced by the Kirov (now Mariinsky) Theatre. In addition to the somewhat standard instrumentation, the ballet orchestration also requires the use of tenor saxophone, a voice that adds a unique sound and contributes to the sense of drama prevalent in Shakespeare’s original tragedy.

For this performance, John DeMain (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson) has hand-picked the best excerpts from across the work to create one orchestra piece.

The epic Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-Flat Major, Op. 83, is separated by 22 years from Johannes Brahms’ first piano concerto and is dedicated to Brahms’ teacher Eduard Marxsen. It was premiered in 1881 in Budapest, Hungary, with Brahms (below) playing the piano solo.

The work was an immediate success and demonstrates Brahms’ ability to blend beauty with fire, tenderness with drama. (You can hear the unusual and fiery Scherzo movement, played by Krystian Zimmerman and Leonard Bernstein with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Emanuel Ax (below) is considered one of the best-known concert pianists of the 21st century. As the Seattle Times reports, “[Ax’s] touch is amazing. The keys are not so much struck as sighed upon — moved as if by breath. There is no sense of fingers or hammers or material mechanisms…[it] simply materializes and floats in the air.”

Ax captured public attention in 1974 when he won the first Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Competition in Tel Aviv. In 1975 he won the Michaels Award of Young Concert Artists, followed by the coveted Avery Fisher Prize four years later. In 1975, he made his Madison solo recital debut at the Wisconsin Union Theater and he has frequently performed here since then.

Ax is a particular supporter of contemporary composers and new music, and he has given three world premieres in the last few seasons: “Century Rolls” by John Adams; “Seeing” by Christopher Rouse; and “Red Silk Dance” by Bright Sheng. He has also received Grammy awards for the second and third volumes of his cycle of Haydn’s piano sonatas and has made a series of Grammy-winning recordings with cellist Yo-Yo Ma of the Beethoven and Brahms sonatas for cello and piano.

Emanuel Ax (below, in a photo by Lisa-Marie Mazzucco) is currently a faculty member of the Juilliard School of Music, a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a recipient of Yale University’s Sanford Medal.

One hour before each performance, MSO retired trombonist and longtime program annotator J. Michael Allsen will lead a 30-minute Prelude Discussion in Overture Hall to enhance concertgoers’ understanding and listening experience. It is free to ticketholders.

Allsen’s program notes for the concerts are available online at this address: http://www.allsenmusic.com/NOTES/1819/1.Sep18.html

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 Prelude Discussion.

The lobby opens 90 minutes prior to each concert.

Tickets can be purchased in the following ways:

  • Single Tickets are $18-$93 each and are on sale now at: https://madisonsymphony.org/axthrough the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street, or by calling the Box Office at (608) 258-4141.
  • 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.
  • Subscribers to 5 or more symphony subscription concerts can save up to 50% off single ticket prices. More information is available about the season at: https://madisonsymphony.org/18-19
  • Flex-ticket booklets of 10 vouchers for 18-19 symphony subscription concerts are available. Learn more at: https://madisonsymphony.org/flex

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

The Madison Symphony Orchestra is celebrating its 93rd season in 2018–2019 and its 25th season under the leadership of Music Director John DeMain. Find more information about the rest of the MSO season at madisonsymphony.org

The Presenting Sponsors for the September concerts are: Joel and Kathryn Belaire. Major funding is provided by: The Wisconsin State Journal and Madison.com; the Irving and Dorothy Levy Family Foundation, Inc.; the Kenneth A. Lattman Foundation, Inc.; Rosemarie and Fred Blancke; and David and Kato Perlman. Additional funding is provided by Jeffrey and Angela Bartell, Martin L. Conney and the Wisconsin Arts Board, with funds from the State of Wisconsin and the National Endowment for the Arts.

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Classical music: The talented new director of the Isthmus Vocal Ensemble sets the acclaimed and still impressive group on a new path with mixed results and hopeful expectations

August 9, 2018
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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 FM. 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

The Isthmus Vocal Ensemble (IVE, below) is a well-established part of Madison’s musical summers. It offers dedicated choral singers a chance for intensive rehearsal preparation of highly accomplished choral music, and has delivered some truly memorable events over the years.

Of its concerts this year, I caught the second performance on Sunday afternoon. The choir itself doesn’t need to be shown off by now, but it was the choir’s chance to show off its new conductor in his first appearance here.

Michael McGaghie (below) is that new conductor. He is very plainly a brilliant choral technician who knows how to make a choir sound wonderful. (For more about McGaghie, who is the Director of Choral Activities at Macalester Collge in St. Paul and who leads the Harvard Glee Club Alumni Chorus in Cambridge, Mass., go to: https://www.isthmusvocalensemble.org/artisticdirector/)

That he did throughout the program. The IVE — 69 singers strong — certainly responded with an infectious enthusiasm that was also communicated to the large audience that filled the Christ Presbyterian Church.  The concert was certainly a feast of great choral singing.

But what about the music?

To begin with, the actual music amounted to no more than about an hour’s worth. McGaghie planned the program as a progress of emotional moods, and he introduced each piece himself.

But what were the contents? McGaghie largely turned his back on the centuries of great choral music, the kind that his predecessor Scott MacPherson explored so ambitiously.

There were, at the beginning, two examples of that, motets by Thomas Tallis of the 16th century and Heinrich Schütz of the 17th century.

There was also an interesting nugget from the Russian composer and conductor Nikolai Golovanov (below), an early work of his (1917), setting the Lord’s Prayer (Otche naš) In a style departing from the previous two centuries of great Russian Orthodox choral writing.

Beyond those, however, the remaining nine items in the program — and the encore — were entirely by recent composers, mostly living and mostly American. These were his introductory calling cards, and so they invite scrutiny.

Ours is not an age of great, idiomatic choral writing, and composers go their own ways variously. Many of them rely upon a kind of chordal declamation with little sense of line or full-bodied texture.

Some pieces I don’t think I would want to hear again, and a couple I would not have wanted to hear even the first time.

An example of the latter is a piece about sirens and sailors by Chinese-American Chen Yi (below top), a collage of weird choral sounds but no musical content recognizable to any but Chinese ears.

Another was a loudly trashy adaptation of a Civil Rights “freedom song” by Jeffrey Douma (below bottom), plus the gesture to multicultural triviality in a Philippine folksong arrangement.

Three of the items came with piano accompaniment. In The Whole Sea in Motion by Dale Trumbore (below top) — which uses a text from Anne Brontë — the piano gave an underlying ripple to support declamatory, non-linear writing.

In Eternity by Donald Martino (below), the pleasantly lyrical choral writing really didn’t need the piano at all.  And that part was much too prominent against Morten Lauridsen’s nicely polyphonic, and quite self-sufficient, choral texture in “Sure on This Shining Night” that treated James Agee’s famous poem. (You can hear the Lauridsen work in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

There were certainly some among these contemporary items that I found quite enjoyable.

In Ophelia, a setting the account of that woman’s death in Hamlet, Jocelyn Hagen (below top) was overly concerned with story-telling, but the work certainly contained some lovely writing. O Radiant Dawn by Scottish master James MacMillan (below bottom) was a beautifully sonorous tribute to Catholic liturgical tradition.

What does this conducting debut point to for the future?

McGaghie can create the most splendid choral beauty — though often at the sacrifice of clear diction. On the basis of this program, it looks like he could now focus the IVE on lots of short contemporary pieces, rather than on the vast traditional literature.

We will have to see.


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Classical music: What should — and shouldn’t — the #MeToo movement mean for women in the opera world?

June 16, 2018
11 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

It is clear now that just about all aspects of life and culture in the United States are being affected more and more by the #MeToo movement that seeks to expose, punish, correct and prevent sexual harassment, sexual misconduct, sexual assault, sexual abuse and gender inequality in general.

But what does that mean specifically for the notoriously patriarchal and misogynistic opera world – meaning for the operas themselves and their themes, plots, characters and composers as well as for the people who put them on?

How, for example, should one now think of “Don Giovanni” by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart? (The womanizing Don Juan is seen below in a production of “Don Giovanni” by the Metropolitan Opera.)

A recent discussion on National Public Radio (NPR) covered many dimensions of the problem, and The Ear found what was said fascinating although he didn’t agree with everything.

One Italian production went so far as to change the ending of a famous and popular opera – Bizet’s “Carmen” — in order to redeem the doomed heroine.

That seems excessive to The Ear, something that recalls the 17th-century writer Nahum Tate who rewrote the tragedy “King Lear” by Shakespeare to give it a happy ending. (You can hear the original ending of “Carmen” in the YouTube video at the bottom. The 2009 production by the Metropolitan Opera features Roberto Alagna and Elina Garanca.)

It brings up the question: How far should one go in imposing contemporary values on the past? And does rejecting an artist also mean rejecting that artist’s work?

Read the edited transcript or listen to the entire 8-minute discussion for yourself. Besides the female host (Lulu Garcia-Navarro), three women – two singers (Aleks Romano and Leah Hawkins) and one administrator (Kim Witman) – ask questions and give their opinions and thoughts.

Here is a link to the story that was posted on the NPR blog “Deceptive Cadence”:

https://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2018/05/27/614470629/my-voice-should-be-heard-metoo-and-the-women-of-opera

Then decide what you think you would like to see done to address the concerns of the #MeToo movement in the opera world, and what is allowed and not allowed to you.

And let us know in the COMMENT section.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Here are the Final Forte results. Plus, new and modern music is in the spotlight at two FREE concerts and a master class today and Friday at the UW-Madison

March 15, 2018
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ALERT: If you missed seeing the “Final Forte” concert broadcast live last night on Wisconsin Public Television and Wisconsin Public Radio, the results of the Madison Symphony Orchestra‘s concerto competition for high school students are: First Prize and a $2,000 scholarship to violinist Hannah White; Second Prize and a $2,000 scholarship to pianist Jessica Jiang; and Honorable Mentions ($1,000 scholarship for each) to violinist Isabelle Krier and violinist Arianna Brusubardis.

By Jacob Stockinger

If you are a fan of modern and new music, you may want to attend one or more of the three FREE events that are happening TONIGHT and Friday at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music.

The first concert is TONIGHT at 7 p.m. in Mills Hall. It features UW bassoonist Marc Vallon and friends. Vallon is a versatile musician who is also a specialist in period performances of Baroque music.

But Vallon (below in a photo by James Gill) also worked with and performed with the pioneering French avant-garde 20th-century composer Pierre Boulez. And that genre of music will be featured on the concert tonight, which is titled “The Musical Domain.”

Unfortunately, The Ear has received no information about composers or pieces on the program. But Vallon is known for his adventurous taste and compelling performances.

On Friday night at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall, the guest artists are the new music ensemble Duo Cortona (below), which will perform a varied program of works by contemporary composers.

Those composers and works include “Love Sonnets” – based on texts by William Shakespeare — by UW composer Laura Schwendinger (below). You can sample the Duo Cortona performing Schwendinger’s work in the YouTube video at the bottom.

The unusual makeup of the DUO is string and voice – specifically, violin and mezzo-soprano. The husband-and-wife duo of Ari Streisfeld and Rachel Calloway will give a FREE and PUBLIC master class on contemporary composition before the concert from 4 to 5 p.m. in Mills Hall.

For more background information about Duo Cortona and a link to the complete program, go to:

https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/guest-artists-cortona-duo/


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