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Thursday, December 25, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 34.0° F  Overcast
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Madison's 2014-15 classical music season focuses on legendary composers
From Bach to Beethoven, with a side of Bernstein
In Fidelio, Alexandra LoBianco (right) plays a woman who poses as a man when engineering a prison break.
Credit:James Gill

As long summer days make way for crisp autumn nights, the Madison Symphony Orchestra, Madison Opera and Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra prepare for the first shows of the 2014-15 season. After giving us many American works last season, they'll now explore European music in greater detail, including the cool, earthy aesthetic of Scandinavia and the vibrant orchestral colors of Russia.

Madison Symphony Orchestra

This year marks the MSO's 10th anniversary in Overture Hall. To celebrate, the ensemble will perform several works from concerts past. It will also tackle many challenging works for the first time. Longtime conductor and music director John DeMain says the orchestra plans to "explore and expand its repertoire and stretch its talents in every direction."

The season's first weekend of concerts, Sept. 19-21, showcases the MSO musicians and their distinctively plush sound, which is perfect for late Romantic repertoire. This program features Richard Strauss' futuristic Also sprach Zarathustra, Frank Martin's Concerto for Seven Winds and Saint-Saëns' Symphony No. 3 (Organ Symphony), which was performed during the MSO's inaugural concert in Overture Hall.

The Oct. 17-19 program, titled "The Russian Spirit," includes Tchaikovsky's Suite from Swan Lake, Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 1 with guest pianist Olga Kern and Shostakovich's Sixth Symphony.

"The Suite from Swan Lake is the best of ballet scores," DeMain says, "and the Shostakovich Sixth is pastoral, youthful and exuberant. It's a first for us."

Sibelius' anguished Concerto for Violin featuring guest soloist Sarah Chang, Grieg's Lyric Suite and Carl Nielsen's Symphony No. 4 (The Inextinguishable) fill the Nov. 7-9 program with Scandinavian splendor.

"Nielsen's Fourth Symphony is also a first for the MSO," DeMain says. "It expresses outrage with the outbreak of the First World War, but the end of the symphony is transformative and attests to the indomitable spirit of man."

The Madison Symphony Christmas program is a time-honored tradition. This year the audience gets to sing along with the Madison Symphony Chorus, Madison Youth Choirs, Mt. Zion Gospel Choir and soloists Alyson Cambridge and Harold Meers to celebrate the winter holidays. So save the dates (Dec. 5-7) and wear your Santa hat.

Argentine pianist Ingrid Fliter performs Chopin's Piano Concerto No. 2 Feb. 13-15. Her sensitive playing casts light on the composer's dark side. The concert's opener is Benjamin Britten's Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, a homage to Britten's revered teacher. Ending the program is Schumann's mighty Symphony No. 4.

In the 1930s and '40s, Jewish composers Franz Waxman, MiklÃs RÃzsa and Erich Korngold fled Nazi persecution and emigrated to the U.S. from Eastern Europe. They proceeded to compose vibrant scores for Hollywood. For the March 6-8 program, the MSO will perform their film scores, as well as selections from their classical compositions. Violinist Daniel Hope makes his MSO debut with Korngold's Concerto for Violin. The London Observer hailed Hope as "the most exciting British string player since Jacqueline du Pré." He also champions works by composers silenced by Hitler.

We usually don't hear the MSO perform Bach in Overture Hall, but that will change April 10-12, when UW piano genius Christopher Taylor plays Concerto No. 4 for Clavier. Taylor's fingers are made for Bach. He'll also perform Franz Liszt's blistering Piano Concerto No. 1. The concert's finale is Bruckner's transcendent Symphony No. 7.

The final program of the season, May 8-10, is an ode to joy with Beethoven's Ninth Symphony (Choral) and Leonard Bernstein's Serenade (after Plato's Symposium). Featured artists include soloists Melody Moore, Gwendolyn Brown, Eric Barry and Morris Robinson; MSO concertmaster Naha Greenholtz; and the Madison Symphony Chorus.

Madison Opera

Kathryn Smith, general director of the Madison Opera, aims for a balanced repertoire each season, offering something for just about everyone and including at least one premiere for the ensemble. The 2014-15 season includes a premiere of Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd in Capitol Theater Feb. 6- 8. The season's familiar favorite is Rossini's The Barber of Seville, which plays in Overture Hall on April 24 and 26.

The season opens with Fidelio Beethoven's only opera, on Nov. 21 and 23. The work premiered in Vienna in 1805 during the French occupation.

"This is an incredible piece of music drama and an exciting way to launch our 10th season in Overture Hall," Smith says. "The Madison Opera performed it in concert in 1986."

Fidelio celebrates the love between noblewoman Leonore (Alexandra LoBianco) and her husband, Florestan (Clay Hilley), a political prisoner. The action centers on her attempts to free him by disguising herself as a man and getting a job as a guard where he is imprisoned.

Though Sweeney Todd wasn't composed by a European, Smith notes that it has become a part of the opera tradition both here and abroad.

"Although it premiered on Broadway, it is mostly performed by opera companies, as it has very little dialogue," she says. "It's a true American masterpiece, with a brilliant score and darkly witty story."

Sweeney Todd tells the story of a barber (Corey Crider) who slits the throats of his enemies as he shaves them. He then sends their bodies down a chute to the bakeshop below, where his landlady, Mrs. Lovett (Meredith Arwady), grinds them up and bakes them into meat pies. The pie business is booming, but things unravel when someone finds a hair and a fingernail in a pie. Yuck!

Figaro (Will Liverman), the barber in The Barber of Seville, is much more likable. This opera is a delightful comedy set in sunny Seville, Spain, in the 18th century. Figaro helps Count Almaviva (Juan José de León) marry his true love, Rosina (Emily Fons). The marriage plans get discombobulated, but everything works out...eventually.

Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra

This year marks the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra's 15th anniversary with music director and conductor Andrew Sewell, who has honed the ensemble's crystalline sound. To celebrate, Sewell has invited some of his favorite artists from over the years to return to Madison. The roster includes violinist Rachel Barton Pine, cellist Amit Peled, and pianists Ilya Yakushev, Shai Wosner and Bryan Wallick. All concerts for the upcoming Masterworks season take place in the Overture Center's Capitol Theater.

Masterworks begins on Oct. 10 with Mozart's Marriage of Figaro Overture. Then Rachel Barton Pine shows the full range of her artistry with Vieuxtemps' Violin Concerto No. 5, Saint-Saëns' Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso and Britten's Concerto for Violin and Viola. Violist Matthew Lipman joins Barton Pine for the Britten. The concert ends with Haydn's Symphony No. 96, appropriately nicknamed "The Miracle."

"I relish the opportunity of showcasing more than one piece for a soloist on a program, in particular Rachel Barton Pine, as she is always game to try new repertoire," Sewell says.

On Nov. 29 the WCO kicks off the winter holiday season with a holiday pops concert featuring Cleveland performer Tommy More Scott at the Middleton Performing Arts Center. The program will showcase seasonal classics with a jazz twist.

Handel's Messiah is a WCO holiday event that always draws a full house. The performance takes place on Dec. 12 at Blackhawk Church in Middleton. Soloists Sarah Lawrence, Emily Lodine, James Doing and Peter Van de Graaff will join the WCO Chorus, UW Madrigal Singers and Festival Choir of Madison to bring us Handel's uplifting oratorio.

The Masterworks season continues on Jan. 23 with Arnold Schoenberg's Chamber Symphony No. 2, begun in 1906, set aside, and completed in 1939.

"His two Chamber Symphonies are milestones in the repertoire," Sewell says. "Both are very different and dense in their composition, but I think the second is more approachable on first hearing."

Pianist Ilya Yakushev returns to Madison with two powerhouses for this performance: Bach's Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor and Mendelssohn's Piano Concerto No. 1 in G minor. The brawny concert begins lightly with Paul Lewis' charming English Suite.

The next concert, on Feb. 20, is a classical music lover's delight with two Haydn piano concertos, No. 4 in G major and No. 11 in D major, plus Schubert's Symphony No. 2 in B-flat major. Guest pianist Shai Wosner is a sensitive, articulate player, especially when it comes to Haydn's rhythmic nuances. Vittorio Giannini's Prelude and Fugue opens the concert with romantic warmth.

Peled plays Schumann's Cello Concerto in A minor and Schubert's Arpeggione Sonata on March 20.

"I am excited to have Amit Peled perform the Schumann, a work less often played, and a new arrangement of the Arpeggione Sonata for cello and strings," Sewell notes.

Bookending this concert are Frank Bridge's lovely Suite for String Orchestra and Mozart's elegant Symphony No. 40 in G minor.

On May 1, pianist Bryan Wallick stars in an all-Beethoven bash with the triumphant Piano Concerto No. 5 (Emperor). The concert opens with Leonore Overture No. 1, one of four overtures to Fidelio. The season ends with the impassioned Seventh Symphony. Beethoven was partially deaf when he wrote this symphony, but he managed to conduct its premiere for the benefit of soldiers who fought for Austria's freedom during the Napoleonic Wars. This deep commitment to independence should resonate with Americans as well.

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