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Tuesday, September 2, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 74.0° F  A Few Clouds
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Madison's classical groups celebrate New World composers in 2013-14
American spirit
Dead Man Walking explores the bond between a nun and a death-row inmate.
Credit:Cliff Coles

America's musical heritage shines bright in Madison's 2013-14 classical season. The American orientation is due, in part, to John DeMain's 20th anniversary as Madison Symphony Orchestra's music director and conductor, and Madison Opera's artistic director. DeMain is known for his insightful interpretations of American music, in particular American opera, so celebrating homegrown compositions honors his legacy.

Madison Symphony Orchestra

Madison Symphony Orchestra will present nine concerts in Overture Hall during the upcoming season. One is a special, one-day-only event examining Antonín Dvorák's Symphony No. 9 (From the New World), composed in the United States in 1893. Jeannette Thurber, an American patron of classical music, invited him from Bohemia (now part of the Czech Republic) to New York to head the National Conservatory of Music from 1892 to 1895, and to help fulfill her dream of creating a distinctively American repertoire of concert music and operas. Dvorák concluded that an American repertoire wouldn't be complete without the influence of African American and Native American music. With this in mind, he infused his symphony with the essence of plantation songs and Longfellow's Song of Hiawatha.

Dvorák's ideas were controversial, but he nonetheless captured the American spirit in new ways. He also inspired other composers to write songs, symphonies and operas that echoed the voice of America. An American music legacy was born.

This season the MSO surveys this legacy through the music of Dvorák and American composers George Gershwin, Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, Marc Blitzstein, Stephen Sondheim, John Adams and Aaron Jay Kernis.

"Bernstein, Blitzstein, Sondheim, Adams and [Jake] Heggie all go back to Gershwin," DeMain says. And Gershwin and Copland go back to Dvorák through their teacher, Rubin Goldmark, who studied with the Bohemian maestro.

During its season opener on Sept. 27-29, the MSO will perform three challenging and contrasting works: Copland's all-American Appalachian Spring Suite, Wagner's lush Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde, and Rimsky-Korsakov's enchanting Scheherazade. These pieces require the graceful power that the MSO does so well.

On Oct. 18-20, the orchestra contrasts Benjamin Britten's pristine Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell (The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra), Debussy's rippling seascape, La Mer, and Brahms' Romantic Piano Concerto No. 2 during a performance featuring Madison favorite Philippe Bianconi.

Too Hot Toccata, a jazzy piece by American Pulitzer Prize winner Aaron Jay Kernis, will open the Nov. 15-17 performances. Violinist Augustin Hadelich will display his prodigious technique in Ãdouard Lalo's Symphonie Espagnole. Rachmaninoff's lyrical Symphony No. 2 concludes this high-octane concert.

No instrument celebrates Christmas like the human voice, so on Dec. 6-8 the Madison Symphony Chorus, Madison Youth Choirs and Mt. Zion Gospel Choir will join the MSO to welcome the holiday season. Soprano Melody Moore and bass Nathan Stark will join the festivities as well.

On Jan. 26, the story behind the creation of Dvorák's Symphony No. 9 will take center stage in a "Beyond the Score" presentation. Then the MSO will perform the poignant work itself.

Norwegian trumpeter Tine Thing Helseth makes her MSO debut on Feb. 14-16 with concertos by Joseph Haydn and Armenian composer Alexander Arutiunian. Also featured are John Adams' potent Doctor Atomic Symphony, Sibelius' Finlandia and Strauss' whimsical Suite from Der Rosenkavalier.

An all-Beethoven program on March 7-9 features Symphony No. 1, Piano Concerto No. 2, the overture to The Creatures of Prometheus, and Piano Concerto No. 5 (Emperor). Pianist Yefim Bronfman is a master Beethoven interpreter. Two Beethoven concertos in one day? Awesome.

Dvorák's Slavonic Dance No. 1 opens the show on April 4-6, followed by Joseph Jongen's Symphonie Concertante, which features organist Nathan Laube. Vocalists Emily Birsan, Daniela Mack, Wesley Rogers and Liam Moran will join the MSO and Madison Symphony Chorus for Mozart's magnificent Requiem. Baroque specialist Julian Wachner will conduct this concert.

At the season closer on May 2-4, the orchestra will give its regards to Broadway with a homage to George Gershwin. Leonard Bernstein, Marc Blitzstein, Stephen Sondheim and Kurt Weill will share the limelight. Birsan will return with fellow vocalists Karen Ziemba, Ron Raines and talented local pianist Garrick Olsen, who is bound to light up the stage. DeMain ought to be in his element, having known and worked with Bernstein. And in 1976, at the Houston Grand Opera, he transformed Gershwin's Porgy and Bess from light musical theater to serious American opera.

Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra

Besides showcasing a host of young American guest artists during the 2013-14 season, Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra will present Bruckner's Symphony No. 2 in C Minor. The orchestra gave a solid performance of his Symphony No. 0 last season, and I'm glad to see that it's continuing to explore Bruckner's complex, futuristic symphonies.

Tackling a big Bruckner symphony is a balancing act for a chamber orchestra because of the mighty brass forces required. The WCO will also present Beethoven's titanic Third and Fifth Symphonies, which are likewise associated with the bigger sound of a symphony orchestra. But the WCO is changing the notion that big works must be played by big orchestras.

"I think there is a misconception that these pieces have to be performed with full-bodied string sections of 12 to 14 first violins, etc.," says WCO conductor Andrew Sewell. "In Beethoven's day, the orchestra size would have been smaller."

On Oct. 11, the WCO opens its Masterworks series in Overture Center's Capitol Theater with Benjamin Britten's Young Apollo and Saint-Saëns' Piano Concerto No. 5 (Egyptian) featuring American virtuoso Bryan Wallick. The concert ends in triumph with Beethoven's Symphony No. 5.

In two Nov. 30 performances, the WCO and Canadian Brass will kick off winter in style at Middleton's Performing Arts Center. The Middleton High School Choir will also perform. Then holiday spirit will flourish on Dec. 13 when the WCO, WCO Chorus, UW Madrigal Singers, Festival Choir of Madison and a host of guest soloists give their annual performance of Handel's Messiah at Blackhawk Church.

The Masterworks series continues in Capitol Theater on Jan. 17 with Mozart's sprightly Impresario Overture and Castelnuovo-Tedesco's Guitar Concerto No. 1 in D featuring Croatian guitarist Ana Vidovic. Bruckner's Symphony No. 2 in C Minor ends this concert with unusual harmonies, equestrian rhythms and a Schubertian lilt.

If you like counterpoint, you'll want to check out the Feb. 21 concert, which includes Vittorio Giannini's Concerto Grosso and Mozart's Symphony No. 41 (Jupiter). American cello master Joshua Roman will star in Haydn's ultra-classical Cello Concerto No. 2 in D Major.

WCO's March 14 concert is geared toward violin lovers, with Michael McLean's ethereal Elements and Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto in E featuring American soloist Karina Canellakis. Haydn's Symphony No. 101 (Clock) provides a futuristic finale for the performance. If you speed up the clock-like slow movement a few notches, you get modern-day minimalism.

The season finale on April 11 joins the WCO Chorus, Festival Choir of Madison, and UW Madrigal Singers for Beethoven's Choral Fantasy. Then pianist Stewart Goodyear performs his very own Piano Concerto (2010), a rhythmic fanfare that reflects his Trinidadian heritage. Finally, Beethoven's cosmic Symphony No. 3 (Eroica) will shake you to the core.

Madison Opera

Madison Opera begins its season with Puccini's Tosca in Overture Hall on Nov. 1 and 3. This tragic thriller centers on the rivalry between evil Baron Scarpia (Nmon Ford) and young artist Mario Cavaradossi (Scott Piper), who are competing for the love of Floria Tosca (Melody Moore), a diva with a lethal kiss. Tosca is set in Rome in 1800, and its subtext is Napoleon's victory at the Battle of Marengo. The music is taut, passionate and dark.

On Feb. 7 and 9, Donizetti's The Daughter of the Regiment plays in Overture Center's Capitol Theater. This delightful opera comique stars Caitlin Cisler as Marie, a young orphan raised by a regiment of soldiers. When it's time to marry, she must choose someone from its ranks, but her true love is a local civilian, Tonio (Javier Abreu), and you can imagine the problems this causes for her dads. The action is set in the Swiss Tyrol in the early 1800s, and the music has a rhythmic rata-tat-tat, plus some blistering high C's for Tonio.

When Dead Man Walking premiered in San Francisco in 2000, it was the first opera for composer Jake Heggie and librettist Terrence McNally. The story is based on the novel by Sister Helen Prejean, a leading advocate for the abolition of the death penalty, who ministered to inmates on death row in Louisiana State Penitentiary. The opera plays in Overture Hall on April 25 and 27 and stars Daniela Mack as Prejean and Michael Mayes as death-row inmate Joseph De Rocher.

"I think there is occasionally the perception that American opera, or any opera written after 1920, is difficult to sit through -- not musical, not dramatic, not what we think of as 'opera,'" says Kathryn Smith, Madison Opera's general director. "That is far from the truth, and when opera and theater lovers see Dead Man Walking, they will not only be profoundly moved but also realize that opera is every bit as vital and relevant as it was when Tosca was written."

DeMain will pace the opera through hymns and arias that converge with blues, pop, minimalism and lush sonorities.

"A good conductor does the pacing for everything and everyone, including the audience," Heggie says. "John understands theatrical pacing and gets to the hot emotional core of it."

As a bonus, both Heggie and Sister Helen Prejean will visit Madison for the performances.

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