Madison's classical groups are revving up for a season of novelty and change.
For the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, there will be a new level of virtuosity among the players, allowing the ensemble to tackle pieces that have been out of reach in the past. The Madison Opera will add another opera during the season, making it a threesome. And the Madison Symphony goes high-tech with a podcast series available on the MSO website, a commissioned work, and a first-ever audience-choice concert.
Here's my take on the restive, radiant, passionate, charming, hot, cool, soulful, electric, mind-expanding music that the groups will perform for us at the Overture Center.
Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra
The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra's music director, Andrew Sewell, has balanced the five programs of the Masterworks Series to perfection, with each concert having an anchor piece, a concerto and a piece for strings.
The opening concert on Oct. 5 highlights Ravel's radiant "Piano Concerto in G Major." Canadian pianist Janina Fialkowska is a soulful player who should maneuver the concerto's unpredictable turns with grace and humor.
Anton Arensky's deep respect for his role model shines through in "Variations on a Theme by Tchaikovsky." "'Variations' is one of those one-piece wonders, and you don't come across those very often," says Sewell.
Mozart's "Symphony No. 39 in E-flat Major," one of the last symphonies by the composer, adds the finishing classical touch.
The Jan. 18 concert has one of my favorite pieces, Mahler's arrangement of Schubert's "String Quartet No. 14 in D Minor" ("Death and the Maiden"). The music comes from a dark place, but sunshine emanates through tantalizing transitions from minor to major. Schubert composed it for an intimate setting, but Mahler put eternity in it and propelled it into the universe.
Violinist Judith Ingolfsson and cellist Mark Kosower join their talents in Brahms' "Double Concerto for Violin and Cello in A Minor." The allegro is muscular but charming, the andante is gossamer, and the vivace spins variations from a capricious march theme.
Rodion Konstantinovich Shchedrin. Now there's a name that can make you stumble, but his music will put you back on an even keel. "Shchedrin writes fantastic melodies that expand your mind," says Sewell. And "Chamber Suite" for strings is one of those mind-expanding works. It's spiky in the middle but begins and ends serenely.
If you keep Schubert's "Death and the Maiden" quartet in your ears until the next WCO concert on Feb. 22, you will be surprised at how similar the quartet's second movement is to the opening of Haydn's "Symphony No. 49 in F Minor." Haydn's symphony harks back to the 17th-century Italian church sonata with its graceful, somber first movement.
Vivaldi's "Guitar Concerto in D Major" features Cuban guitarist Manuel Barrueco, a musician who demands perfection in every note he plays. The concerto is neatly placed in fast-slow-fast movements with a lovely largo.
This concert's lesser-known work is "Cantabile" for strings by Latvian composer Peteris Vasks. It rises from simplicity, thickens with energy and recedes back to its origin. Roberto Sierra's "Danzas Concertantes" for guitar will add romance to the evening's montage.
Violinist Chee-Yun makes her WCO debut on March 14 with Prokofiev's "Violin Concerto No. 2 in G Minor." The concerto is radiant with minimalist shadows. You will particularly enjoy the second movement as the violin's tranquil cantilena soars over pizzicato triplets.
Shostakovich's "Prelude and Scherzo" will test stamina. Sewell calls it a virtuoso piece, a wild ride. But Beethoven's "Symphony No. 4 in B-flat Major" will calm things. It's a modest symphony, a stretch of simplicity between his monumental Third and the dramatic Fifth.
For the season finale on April 18, jazz motifs will spark from Milhaud's "La Création du Monde." It's Gershwinesque, but daintier. Bright-eyed American pianist Anne-Marie McDermott should make the most of Shostakovich's "Piano Concerto No.1 in C Minor." The concerto's timbre is electric as the piano shares the stage with the trumpet, and violins chatter like castanets. A mesmerizing lento will lull you before the allegro careens you to a startling end.
Bizet's "Symphony No. 1 in C Major" is a jewel that isn't performed enough these days. He wrote it at 17 while roaming the streets of Italy imagining he had the world in his pocket.
The WCO will present its Halloween concert on Oct. 19, Middleton Holiday Pops on Nov. 24-25.
The Madison Opera is excited about presenting its first season with three operas. The newcomer is the company's premiere of Aaron Copland's The Tender Land on Feb. 27-March 2 in the Overture Center's Promenade Hall.
"We will be doing the chamber version of the opera with a reduced orchestra that will fit nicely in Promenade Hall, which seats about 170," says general manager Allan Naplan.
Set in the American Midwest of the 1930s, Tender Land tells of the joys and tragedies of a lower-middle-class farm family. The inspiration for the opera was James Agee's 1941 book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, about the families of poor tenant farmers in Alabama. Copland uses a few American folk songs in the score, and the music conjures images of barnyard dances and wind blowing gently across the plains.
The company's season opener is Puccini's ever-popular lyric opera La Bohème (Nov. 9 and 11 in Overture Hall). It takes place on Christmas Eve in 1831 Paris, where the painter Marcello and the poet Rodolfo are looking for ways to stay warm. Should we burn one of my paintings? No, paint stinks when it burns. Aha! Let's burn that novel that your publishers rejected. And away it burns chapter by chapter before they're off to party at Café Momus. You will love these hard-up artists from beginning to end, but not all is levity. Bohème is also a tragedy about doomed love between Rodolfo and his gravely ill girlfriend, Mimi.
In celebration of the season's opening weekend, Madison Opera invites us to "A Night at Café Momus" on Nov. 10 on the Overture Hall Stage. There will be can-can dancers and a very special singer.
Donizetti's opera Lucia di Lammermoor (May 9 and 11 in Overture Hall) was composed in 1835, a period when opera was an exhibition of vocal technique. And no one does technique better than Lucia in her mad scene in Act III. Knife in hand after she has killed her husband on their wedding day, she hallucinates that she is about to marry her lover. She sings a very demanding aria from the depths of her madness. Lucia, a story of feuding families and a forced marriage, takes place in Lammermoor Castle, Scotland, around 1700. This will be the Madison Opera's premiere performance.
Madison Symphony Orchestra
The Madison Symphony Orchestra's kickoff in Overture Hall (Sept. 28-30) begins in a festive way with Samuel Barber's "Toccata Festiva" for organ and orchestra. Thomas Trotter, Madison's favorite British organist, will give his fingers a workout, but his feet must be in top form as well to keep pace with the demanding pedal cadenza.
Trotter will also play Félix Guilmant's "Symphony No. 2 for Organ and Orchestra." "Guilmant's symphony is delightful," says MSO music director John DeMain. "It's romantic and a contrast to the Sibelius 'Seventh Symphony' that we'll do on the same program. The 'Seventh' was Sibelius' last symphony, and you can hear echoing off the fjords in it."
Debussy's "Nocturnes" is a study in light, and all its varying shades, from dappled dawn to shimmering sunset, will sparkle from the stage.
On Oct. 6, the legendary Joshua Bell performs a one-night-only program of Max Bruch's "Violin Concerto No. 1," Manuel Ponce's "Estrellita" and Corigliano's "Pope's Concert" from the movie The Red Violin. Bell's playing turns everything to gold, even a C scale. The addition of Rossini's overture to "La gazza ladra" and Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition" (orchestrated by Ravel) will make this evening unforgettable.
British cellist Steven Isserlis makes his long-awaited MSO debut on Oct. 19-21 with Robert Schumann's "Cello Concerto." Isserlis is a Schumann scholar and should shed new light on this introspective concerto.
Hector Berlioz's overture to his opera Benvenuto Cellini is snappy and extroverted, but the last piece on this concert's program is a surprise.
"Around 2,000 subscribers weighed in on the audience choice," says DeMain. "They were passionate about it." Beethoven's "Symphony No. 1," Schubert's "Symphony No. 9," Brahms' "Symphony No. 1" and Corigliano's "Symphony No. 1" were the choices, and the winning concerto will be announced by the start of the season.
Soprano Dawn Upshaw has a girl-next-door charm and a rainbow voice, and she will bring it all to Madison in her MSO debut on Nov. 16-18. Upshaw got her start with her family singing Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan songs in Nashville. She will perform the MSO premieres of Osvaldo Golijov's "Three Songs for Soprano and Orchestra" and Joseph Canteloube's "Songs of the Auvergne." "Three Songs," written especially for Upshaw, is based on poems by Federico García Lorca and Emily Dickinson, weaving Yiddish lullabies with arias. "Auvergne" is a nostalgic journey into the volcanic landscape of Massif Central in France.
On the same program will be Richard Strauss' tone-poem "Don Juan" and Ravel's hypnotic "Bolero." Carl St. Clair returns to the MSO podium to conduct.
By now you've probably donned your winter attire, but don't forget your Yuletide red for the MSO Christmas Spectacular on Dec. 7-9. The Madison Symphony Chorus, Madison Youth Choirs, Mount Zion Gospel Choir and the clear-as-a-bell voice of Met tenor Carl Tanner will ring in the holidays with fanfare, family and friends.
The Jan. 25-27 concerts feature Edvard Grieg's "Peer Gynt Suite," based on Henrik Ibsen's 1876 drama. Violinist Jennifer Frautschi returns to the MSO for Alexander Glazunov's "Violin Concerto in A Minor." Frautschi, cousin to Madison philanthropist Jerome Frautschi, has a rare talent for playing 20th- and 21st-century music, but this concert will highlight her lyrical gifts in Glazunov's romantic concerto.
The dark harmonies and electric rhythms of Dvorak's "Symphony No. 7" whirl this program to a close. Norway's Arild Remmereit will conduct.
Beethoven's "Violin Concerto" takes center stage on Feb. 15-17 under the graceful lilt of Taiwan violinist Cho-Liang Lin. The concerto's themes are utterly simple, but their emotional waters run deep. Sometimes the violin dances high above the orchestra as if liberated from its wooden boundaries.
If Puccini's elegiac "Chrysanthemums" puts us in reverie mode, Mendelssohn's stormy "Overture to Ruy Blas" and Leos Janácek's athletic "Sinfonietta" will give us a shot of caffeine.
The MSO concert on March 7-9 features the most thrilling event that happens on the symphonic stage - the world premiere of a commissioned work. Joel Hoffman's "Concerto for Cello and Oud" will be a mosaic of timbres. Uri Vardi on cello and Taiseer Elias on oud join not only Western and Arabic music traditions, but also Arab and Israeli cultures.
"It's an unusual pairing," says John DeMain. "Uri Vardi, cello professor at UW-Madison who is Israeli, came to me with the idea of commissioning a work for cello with his best friend, Taiseer Elias, a Palestinian, on oud. The result is a piece that's approachable, inventive and beautiful."
Composer Hoffman is professor of composition at the University of Cincinnati. Elias has made a name for himself as a virtuosic interpreter of Arab music. The concerto, coupled with Rossini's dramatic "Stabat Mater," will make this the powerhouse concert of the season.
Emanuel Ax returns on March 28-30 for Chopin's "Piano Concerto No. 2 in F Minor," written when the composer was about 19 and smitten with young singer Konstancia Gladkowska. The concerto is full of longing and the strong Polish spirit that would forever infuse his music.
Manuel de Falla's "Three-Cornered Hat: Suite No. 2" mixes hot Spanish rhythms with atmospheric cool, and Vaughan Williams' "Symphony No. 2" paints colorful portraits of London.
Prokofiev's "Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Major" (April 25-27) begins shrouded in mystery until the orchestra builds to a climax and the piano explodes with energy that keeps going and going. Russian pianist Yefim Bronfman returns to the MSO to do the job and rightly so, since he has been known to burn up the keyboard.
Tchaikovsky's dark but triumphant "Symphony No. 6" ("Pathétique") will add a little heft, while Shostakovich's joyful "Festive Overture" gives cause to celebrate. Vladimir Spivakov returns to conduct this all-Russian program.
Planning seasons this expansive takes months, and the workday can be endless. But whenever I talk with the directors and musicians at the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, the Madison Opera or the Madison Symphony Orchestra, their energy is high, and their attitudes are bright. I'm not sure how they do it.
It must be all that good music they play.