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Monday, January 26, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 16.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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Adventures in listening
Classical groups plan challenging new seasons

Credit:Amanda Hanlon

As we enjoy the long days of summer, Madison's classical groups wind down their summer programs and may even get a little vacation, but not without their music. Instruments, metronomes and scores get packed in the car along with road snacks and suitcases because musicians can't afford to go more than a few days without practicing, especially in light of the challenging season ahead.

In Overture Hall, the Madison Symphony Orchestra will tackle some of symphony's most difficult works for our listening dexterity. "We've become lazy with our ears because we listen to the same things over and over like a DJ," says MSO conductor John DeMain. "I like to make our concerts adventures in listening."

The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra will strike a happy medium at the Overture Center's Capitol Theater. "We've planned a balanced season with two Mozart concerts at the beginning and end, two returning artists and two artists who will make their debuts," says WCO conductor Andrew Sewell. But there will be a demanding French program that will require the utmost attention to detail.

The Madison Opera is busy with its new program "Opera Up Close," a collaboration with the Wisconsin Union Theater and a company premiere.

Each group's focus will have a different appeal. The MSO will emphasize early 20th-century works. The WCO goes in for Classical laced with French ambiance, and the Opera will explore tragic love in Renaissance Italy and love triumphant in ancient Sri Lanka.

The Madison Symphony Orchestra will begin its "Majesty of Music" odyssey on Sept. 8-10 with Smetana, Chopin, Strauss and the piano artistry of Horacio Gutiérrez. Chopin wrote two piano concertos in his late teens. While I prefer the darker hues of the second concerto, the first has a spontaneous kick and bright demeanor. The piano writing goes from lyrical yet assertive in the first movement allegro to graceful transparency in the larghetto. The poetic Gutiérrez should have no problem connecting with Chopin's melodies that combine innocence with wisdom.

Smetana's overture to "The Bartered Bride" features top-speed fiddling and punctuated rhythms from act two of his comic opera, composed to spite accusations of being a brooding Wagnerian. It's bright, electric and to-the-point. Richard Strauss' "Also Sprach Zarathustra" begins as soft as rain, then gently rises and brings with it a trumpet that climbs the scale to an orchestral explosion - a magnificent sonic sunrise. The MSO played "Zarathustra" 12 years ago, but now the Overture Concert Organ will make it a complete performance.

On Oct. 13-15, MSO guest Edgar Meyer will show us what the double bass can really do. Meyer can make the bass wail like a violin and then cascade down a blur of arpeggios to the bottom where pitch becomes a growl. Meyer will convey the vigor and lyricism of Giovanni Bottesini's "Double Bass Concerto No. 2," as well as playing his own double bass concerto, which has strains of bluegrass and country heartache. Framing the concertos will be Franz Liszt's tone poem "Les Préludes" and Beethoven's humorous "Symphony No. 8."

The lovely Denyce Graves returns to the MSO on Nov. 3-5 to sing the Triptych from Richard Danielpour's "Margaret Garner," an opera that played to an enthusiastic house in its 2005 premiere. Based on Toni Morrison's libretto, the opera relives the 1856 trial of a Kentucky slave who escaped to Cincinnati. When recaptured, she kills her baby daughter rather than see her experience slavery.

Graves will also explore Ravel's "Shéhérazade," full of Eastern mystery, a hot topic in the European art and music scene when the piece was completed in 1903. Brahms' "Tragic Overture" and Shostakovich's "Symphony No. 5," with its political pain and unpredictable energy, will make this concert a journey into the depths of the human experience.

It's a party and we're all invited when the MSO presents the "Christmas Spectacular" on Dec. 1-3. Joining the MSO in this holiday tradition will be the Madison Symphony Chorus, Madison Youth Choirs and the Mt. Zion Gospel Choir. Talented local artists Jamie-Rose Guarrine, Letrice Stanley and James Doing will ring in the holidays in grand style.

Pinchas Zukerman begins the new year with the sublime splendor of J.S. Bach's first violin concerto on Jan. 26-28. While we often associate Bach with keyboard works, he played violin "cleanly and penetratingly until the approach of old age" according to his son Carl Philipp Emanuel. The concerto's three movements are ideally balanced, with the outer movements in A minor and the middle in the relative major. Bach weaves rhythmic fabrics throughout so the soloist can either soar over them or join them, as in the last movement that propels the performers full-throttle to the end.

Zuckerman is an institution in the annals of string players, with a tone like honey. Tchaikovsky's "Fourth Symphony" and Carl Maria von Weber's Overture from his opera "Der Freischütz" will add romance, fate and triumph. Zukerman also conducts this concert.

The Mahler cycle returns with the epic Ninth symphony on Feb. 9-11. Cycling symphonies is a lost art, but Madison is lucky to have John DeMain, who has surveyed both the Beethoven and Mahler cycles. "Mahler looks at life realistically," says DeMain. "He loves to take populist ideas and street sounds and work them into his symphonies, but he also takes us on a journey from dark corners to blazing glory."

Completed in 1910, the Ninth is Mahler's last complete symphony. Its fugue-like rondo introduces a plaintive six-note theme that, to me, is Mahler's heartbeat. After fragmenting into a frenzied dance, the theme becomes whole again in the adagio, meandering through fugues and tumult until it softens and slows and the Ninth is put to rest quietly.

Also on the program is Victor Herbert's "Cello Concerto No. 2." It's lovely and warm, though the beginning is strong and dark. Cellist Lynn Harrell will bring us the best of both worlds with his vibrant, organic playing.

March 16-18 is nature's concert, with Vivaldi's "The Four Seasons" and Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring," a planned juxtaposition, says DeMain. "Seasons" has been with us since 1725 and is played somewhere in the world every day. The challenge for violinist Robert McDuffie will be to make it as fresh as the day Vivaldi finished it.

"Rite" caused a riot at its premiere in Paris in 1913. Stravinsky's violent rhythms and harmonic clashes, along with Nijinsky's choreography, violated French sensibilities at the time. Today, the music is often played in concert without the ballet. "This is a very difficult work, but it's good for the growth of the orchestra," says DeMain. "It's unique and one of the greatest 20th-century pieces."

It's a concert of family and friends on April 20-22 that begins with Richard Wagner's prelude to his comic opera "Die Meistersinger" and Franz Liszt's "Malédiction" for piano and strings. Wagner was Liszt's son-in-law through marriage to his daughter, Cosima, a marriage that started precariously. Wagner and Cosima had an affair while she was married to Liszt's student Hans von Bülow, who said if it had been anyone other than Wagner, he would have shot him. "Die Meistersinger" premiered just a few years before Wagner and Cosima married. Liszt finished "Malédiction" while living in Italy with Cosima's mother, the beautiful Countess Marie d'Agoult. The piece has pyrotechnics, since Liszt made a living as a touring virtuoso pianist, but it also takes us through episodes of thoughtful silence and romance.

Richard Strauss' "Burleske," composed for none other than von Bülow, and Edward Elgar's "Enigma Variations," written with several of his friends in mind, will close out the evening. Pianist Per Tengstrand is a young, lanky Swede known for his eloquence, technical polish and power. Conducting will be the renowned Edo de Waart.

Pianist Christopher Taylor makes his MSO debut on May 11-13 with George Gershwin's rowdy and sultry "Concerto in F." Taylor is associate professor of piano at UW-Madison and has gained a national following for his brainy, evocative interpretations. The concerto is jazzy, classy and bluesy with a little Charleston and rumba, too. It premiered in New York in December 1925 with Gershwin at the piano. Sergei Prokofiev's March and Scherzo from "Love for Three Oranges" and Carl Orff's exotically medieval "Carmina Burana" will conclude the season with conductor Wolfgang Gönnenwein.

If you haven't gotten your fill of Mozart, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra will take care of that with two meaty all-Mozart concerts. "Mozart's entire musical journey is embodied in his piano concertos," says conductor Andrew Sewell.

Pianist Garrick Ohlsson makes his WCO debut on Oct. 6 with piano concertos 17 and 22. No. 17 in G major (1784) is lovely, atmospheric and lush, yet keeps the crystalline esthetic of the Classical period. No. 22 in E-flat (1785) is the epitome of elegance and balance. It has understated grandeur, but ends with a catchy hunting tune that you might end up humming on your way home. Mozart's "Symphony No. 31" in D ("Paris") moves through majestic drama, graceful dances and thoughtful fugues via artful modulations.

Next are the WCO concerts that make the holidays worth waiting for, "Halloween!" (Oct. 20) and "Middleton Holiday Pops" (Nov. 25-26).

Saxophonist Claude Delangle makes his WCO debut with a French program on Jan. 19. At Musical Acoustic Laboratories of the University of Paris, Delangle researches the acoustics of the saxophone, sharing the French fascination with the physicality of sound. Gabriel Fauré's "Dolly Suite" is a set of six pieces written for the daughter of his friend Emma Bardac, who later married Claude Debussy. Debussy's Prélude à "L'Après-midi d'un faune" is lush, green and "drowsy with tangled slumbers." Jacques Ibert's "Concertino da Camera" for saxophone has his trademark sound - breezy and evocative. It demands clean and fast tonguing for its 16th-note runs and dead-on accuracy for the "everywhere" range of notes. Debussy's "Rhapsody for Alto Saxophone and Strings" and Astor Piazzolla's "Oblivion" and "La Muerte del Angel" will add South American spice and the art of the tango.

The effortless artistry of violinist Rachel Barton Pine is featured on Feb. 23 with Arvo Pärt's "Fratres," a set of variations with minimalist shadows that goes so high that it almost defies hearing. Vaughan Williams' "The Lark Ascending" is a beautiful piece that will relax you as the violin evokes the flight of the lark on the cool mornings of an English countryside. Surrounding these tranquil works will be Haydn's zesty "Symphony No. 95" and Tchaikovsky's "Serenade for Strings."

On March 23 the WCO will feature its own soloists, violinists Suzanne Beia and Leanne League, cellist Karl Lavine and trumpeter Frank Hanson. J.S. Bach's "Suite No. 1 in C Major" is quintessentially French, with dotted rhythms, slow grandeur and delicate busywork, and the expressive slow movement of Arcangelo Corelli's "Concerto Grosso, Op. 6, No. 4" will give plenty of opportunity for the strings to shine. Henry Purcell's music from "The Fairy Queen" and the "The Gordian Knot Untied" has a rich array of emotions. Guiseppe Tartini discovered the "difference tone," a tone heard by some listeners when two tones of widely differing frequencies are sounded simultaneously. His "Trumpet Concerto in D Major" shows his quick wit, and you might listen for those difference tones.

The Mozart finale on April 27 brings pianist Adam Neiman, a young American with a glistening tone. "Piano Concerto No. 8" is clean, simple and in the most straightforward key of C major. "Piano Concerto No. 9" is expansive, starting with a conversation between the piano and orchestra before the strings embark on the first theme. The second movement andantino is reflective, but the rondeau shakes off these ponderings with an athletic presto. The andante of "Symphony No. 38" is grounded with ostinato strings, while the presto finale is a collage of colors where themes discover their true potential.

The Madison Opera presents Giuseppe Verdi's "Rigoletto" on Nov. 17 and 19 in Overture Hall. When "Rigoletto" premiered in Venice in 1851, Verdi was Italian opera's superstar. Rigoletto (baritone Guido LeBron) is a hunchback hero and court jester to the Duke of Mantua, a rogue and womanizer. Cursed by Count Monterone for his insulting jokes, Rigoletto begins a downhill spiral. His daughter Gilda (soprano Megan Monaghan), whom the Duke has been wooing on the sly, is kidnapped and taken to the Duke's quarters while Rigoletto hires an assassin to kill him for seducing Gilda. All goes awry and Gilda is mistakenly killed, and Rigoletto holds his dying daughter singing "Ah, La maledizione!" ("The old man's curse is on me!") Opera favorites such as the Duke's "la donna é mobile" and Gilda's "Caro nome" have sprung from this visceral drama.

On April 13 and 15, we will travel to faraway places in the Madison Opera's premiere of Georges Bizet's "The Pearl Fishers," also in Overture Hall. On the shores of Sri Lanka the pearl fishers have chosen Zurga as their king (baritone Robert Gardner). His childhood friend Nadir (tenor Eric Fennell) happens upon the scene and rekindles his friendship with Zurga. They recall their affection for the same woman, Leila, and vow that if they see her again, neither will attempt to woo her so they can preserve their friendship. But all of that changes when the pearl fishers choose Leila as the priestess whose purity and singing will protect them. The duet between Zurga and Nadir, "Au fond du temple saint," will work its way into heart and memory, as will Nadir's solo "Je crois entendre encore."

"Opera Up Close" presents previews of "Rigoletto" on Nov. 12, "The Pearl Fishers" on April 1 and "An Afternoon with Fred Plotkin," author and Met commentator, on Jan. 21, all in the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art Lecture Hall. The company will also collaborate with the Wisconsin Union Theater to present American baritone Nathan Gunn in recital on March 24.

No matter what your musical tastes, the 2006-07 season offers something for everyone. Opera is a perfect break from the daily grind. For pondering the mysteries of the universe, Mahler or Strauss is just right. Edgar Meyer is your answer if you prefer crossover, and for atmosphere Arvo Pärt and Vaughan Williams are hard to beat. Stravinsky will challenge any civilized notions you have about rhythm, but the biggest challenge of all will be the choices, the choices, and the choices.

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