Tag Archives: classical music

Summer highlights: Sewell sees bright future for classics

By his own estimation, Andrew Sewell has conducted the 1812 Overture some 50 times — but he never tires of the famous work.

His most recent performance of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s familiar overture was July 6 as part of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra’s Concerts on the Square series. Sewell, who has served as WCO’s maestro and music director since February 2000, conducted his 17th outdoor performance of the piece before a crowd of some 45,000 people gathered on Madison’s Capitol Square.

By anyone’s estimation, that’s the largest classical music audience in the state. The concert was one of six open-air performances WCO presents free of charge on Wednesdays in the summer.

Wild applause followed the closing cannonade.

“Tchaikovsky is never easy and this is a challenging piece to play,” Sewell says. “It’s bombastic, but in a good sense. I absolutely love it.”

Becoming a maestro

Sewell has never shied away from musical challenges, at least not since he decided on a career as an orchestra conductor at age 14 in his native New Zealand. That decision made his move to the United States almost a forgone conclusion, since New Zealand at the time had only five symphony orchestras — three of which were part-time endeavors. The United States had about 750 orchestras.

Sewell, the second youngest of seven children, grew up in a musical family in a small town. His mother loved music, but her family couldn’t afford a piano when she was growing up, so she made it her mission to make sure all of her children learned to play.

Sewell’s father was a violinist, and Sewell also chose to learn that instrument, as well as the cornet.

“I chose to play the violin because I thought it would more easily get me a job in an orchestra and might better pave the way to becoming a conductor,” he says.

Sewell earned his degree in violin performance from the University of Auckland in 1984. While there, he met his future wife Mary, another concert violinist. They sat next to each in the New Zealand National Youth Orchestra.

Life as a violinist changed dramatically for Sewell toward the end of 1985, when he caught several of his fingers in a lawn mower mechanism. The damage was so severe, he feared he might never play again. Rather than give up music entirely, the 21-year-old moved forward his career plans and remade himself as a conductor, forming a chamber orchestra and touring New Zealand.

“I tell young conductors that they have to make their own opportunities and form their own orchestras,” Sewell says. “I had to create the program, hire the musicians, book the halls, write the program notes and drive the bus, as well as conduct.”

The Dell’Arte Chamber Orchestra, as Sewell dubbed it, lasted three years and gave the young conductor the podium experience he desperately sought.

The work also helped attract the attention of the Australian Guarantee Corporation, sponsor of the Young Achievers Award.

In 1987, Sewell was one of nine winners out of 400 entries to win the award, which in his case included a $9,000 grant to study classical music in either the United States or the United Kingdom. The funding enabled Sewell to make an extended trip to visit U.S. music schools, including the Juilliard School in New York City and the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.

“I also spent a week in Birmingham, England, with Sir Simon Rattle, then conductor of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra,” Sewell says. “He was very inspiring, but I discovered I had to be very deliberate and even a little bit cheeky if I wanted to pick his brain. It was a good life lesson.”

Sewell eventually earned his master’s of music degree with honors in conducting from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor in 1990.

Since graduating, Sewell has carried on a busy and ambitious career as music director with various symphonies. He served in that capacity with overlapping assignments at the Toledo Symphony from 1995 to 2000, the Mansfield (Ohio) Symphony from 1997 to 2002, and the Wichita Symphony from 2000 to 2010.

Wisconsin and beyond

Sewell joined the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra in 2000, beating out 240 other conductor-applicants to succeed the popular David Lewis Crosby, who died of a heart attack while driving to the final Concerts on the Square performance of the 1998 season. Crosby had led the orchestra for 28 years.

Sewell also is in demand as a guest conductor, having led the Toronto, Detroit, Milwaukee, Columbus, Syracuse, Illinois, Monterey, Gulf Coast and Eugene symphony orchestras. He also has conducted the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, Auckland Philharmonia, Christchurch Symphony, National Symphony of Mexico, Kyushu Symphony in Japan, City Chamber Orchestra of Hong Kong, Hong Kong City Opera, and others.

In addition to WCO’s six Masterworks concerts starting in October at the Overture Center’s Capitol Theater, Sewell’s 2016–17 season includes return engagements with the City Chamber Orchestra of Hong Kong and the Illinois Symphony, as well as his debut with the San Luis Obispo (California) Symphony.

Andrew and Mary Sewell, who became U.S. citizens in 2007, reside in Madison, where they raised their children, who are pursuing their own careers in the performing arts.

Andrew Sewell is enthusiastic not only about his children’s interest in the arts, but also about what he sees as a bright future for classical music.

Promoting live music

However, Sewell says, performing companies must work hard to promote the values of live musical performances.

“Smartphones and portable devices have changed the landscape, giving people access to all kinds of music. The challenge is in reminding people that going to a live concert is not the same as hearing it come out of a speaker,” Sewell says. “Live music can make you joyful, make you calm and give you a unique experience. The marketplace has become very diverse and we need to move with that diversity to keep ourselves relevant.”

Some may say that’s not an argument needing to be made when 45,000 people gather on a warm summer evening for a classical music program.

On the square

For more information on the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra’s Concerts on the Square, which end Aug. 3, and the Masterworks series, which begins Oct. 14, visit wcoconcerts.org.

Madison’s classical summer makes lovely warm weather melodies

Ah, summer! The time when concert organs get their pipes cleaned, tympani get their drumheads tarped, and maestros button up their batons until autumn’s first leaves signal the start of the new music season, right?

Nothing could be further from the truth in Madison. Some classical music companies, like warm-weather vampires, only come out in summer. Others simply shed their stuffy tuxes and take their music to the streets for a healthy dose of classics al fresco.

No matter how you look at it, there are a wealth of classical performances only available during the season of maximum daylight. What follows is a guide that helps you make the most of both the sunshine and the serenades.

JUNE

Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society will perform 12 concerts over the course of the summer at multiple locations. Photo: BDDS.
Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society will perform 12 concerts over the course of the summer at multiple locations. Photo: BDDS.

Bach Dancing & Dynamite Society

With a name like Bach Dancing & Dynamite Society and the motto “Chamber Music with a Bang!”, it’s no surprise this moveable feast of 25 classical musicians would present performances most comical and irreverent. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t talented. In fact, BDDS, celebrating its 25th season, is one of the most highly anticipated ensembles of the summer’s classical music scene.

Founded by flutist Stephanie Jutt (UW-Madison School of Music and Madison Symphony Orchestra) and pianist Jeffery Sykes (San Francisco Piano Trio and UC-Berkeley), BDDS offers some the best chamber music ever written, performed in three of the area’s most interesting venues: The Playhouse at Overture Center, the Stoughton Opera House and the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Hillside School Auditorium at Taliesin in Spring Green.

Beginning June 10 and ending June 26, BDDS will perform 12 concerts comprised of six different programs utilizing three different combinations of musicians from across the U.S. and Canada. Works range from compositions by Mozart and Haydn to Ravel and Schoenberg to Pulitzer Prize winner Kevin Puts and Pablo Zinger. One concert is more creative than the next, with no end to the variety for chamber music lovers. And if that isn’t the classics with a bang, then nothing is.

Individual tickets for BDDS performances average $40 for any of the three locations, with series prices ranging from $102 for three concerts to $204 for six performances. For more information and to purchases tickets, call 608-255-9866 or visit bachdancinganddynamite.org.

 

Madison Symphony Orchestra’s Concert on the Green

Madison’s movers and shakers like to gather once every season for a little golf, some light classics, a picnic dinner and a complimentary margarita fountain at the Madison Symphony Orchestra’s annual Concert on the Green at the Bishops Bay Country Club in Middleton. Proceeds from the June 27 daylong event benefit MSO’s education and community engagement programs.

Presented by the Madison Symphony Orchestra League, the day’s events begin with golf at 11 a.m. $1,200 buys each foursome the golf tournament, box lunches, cocktail party, concert and picnic dinner. Non-golfers can still attend the cocktail, party, concert and diner for $120. And, yes, everyone has access to the margarita fountain.

Members of the Madison Symphony Orchestra will perform under the baton of guest maestro and UW School of Music faculty member James Smith, who conducts the UW Symphony Orchestra. The evening will include performances by guest marimbist Robert Rockman, winner of the 2016 Bolz Young Artist Competition. Musical selections for the evening were not available at press time.

Concert on the Green will be held at the Bishops Bay Country Club, 3500 Bishops Drive, Middleton. For more information and to make reservations, visit madisonsymphony.org/cog.

 

Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra's Concerts on the Square are a summer tradition in Madison. Photo: WCO.
Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra’s Concerts on the Square are a summer tradition in Madison. Photo: WCO.

Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra’s Concerts on the Square

Wondering why much of Madison is quiet every Wednesday evening from June 29 through August 3? It’s because residents and visitors alike crowd the Capitol Square for the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra’s annual Concerts on the Square. WCO, under maestro Andrew Sewell, presents a broad array of classics under a different theme each week to upwards of 30,000 people, most of whom bring their blankets, bottles of wine and picnic dinners to the free concerts.

This year’s events begin with The Appian Way June 29, with compositions by Respighi, Turina, Mendelssohn and Copland and featuring guest artist pianist Liam Mayo. Bursts of Joy, July 6, features operatic sopranos Kitt and Alli Foss, compositions by Delibes and Massenet, patriotic music and the annual performance of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture.

The series continues with Nature’s Revelries July 13, with WCO violinist Jerry Loughney performing Dukas, Sibelius, Gade and Dvorak. Reel Sounds, July 20, features movie music from Star Wars, Lord of the Rings and other films. Eastern Elements, July 27, invites Indian musician Chitravina N. Ravikiran to perform two Dikshitar works, with Beethoven also on the program. And the final program Capriccio, August 3, with trombonist Mark Hetzler joining the WCO to perform work by Honegger, Tchaikovsky and Tommy Dorsey.

WCO performs at the corner of King Street at the Square. Admission is free, but picnic blankets may not be put on the Capitol lawn prior to 3 p.m. For more information, visit wcoconcerts.org.

JULY

Madison Early Music Festival

One does not have to be a musicologist to appreciate music’s evolution nor a historian to understand how music has helped advance civilization. At this year’s Madison Early Music Festival, presented by the UW-Madison Arts Institute and the UW School of Music, the pair come together more fortuitously that usual.

Now in its 17th season, this year’s MEMF celebrates the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death with a program of Elizabethan music. In addition to honoring the Bard of Avon’s cultural contributions, the July 9–16 series of workshops and concerts will also celebrate the 45-year reign of Elizabeth I, among the first European monarchs who realized music’s value to her nation’s culture.

The MEMF will feature a host of early music performers, including the New York Polyphony and The Newberry Consort, performing period music on historically accurate instruments. Additionally, the closing concert, The Cryes of London-Town: A Musical Day in the Life of Shakespeare’s London, features a program created especially for this year’s event.

The Madison Early Music Festival offers workshops for musicians as well as seven concerts open to the public July 9 – 16. Workshop classes are held at the UW-Madison School of Music, located in the Mosse Humanities Building, with performances in Mills Concert Hall, 455 N. Park St. Individual concert tickets are $25 ($10 for students) and a week-long festival concert pass is $90. Tickets can be ordered by visiting  artsinstitute.wisc.edu/memf/concerts.htm.

 

Madison Opera’s Opera in the Park

Now in its 15th season, Opera in the Park is one of the summer season’s highlights. On July 23, roughly 15,000 music fans will gather at Garner Park on Madison’s west side to wine and dine picnic-style, while enjoying some of opera’s greatest arias performed by some of the nation’s most accomplished voices.

This year’s guest artists include sopranos Emily Birsan and Angela Brown, tenor Scott Quinn and baritone Sidney Outlaw. Members of the Madison Symphony Orchestra will perform under the baton of guest conductor Gary Thor Wedow.

The full playlist is still to be determined, but it’s a good bet that preview selections from next season’s productions of Gounod’s Romeo & Juliet, Mozart’s The Magic Flute and Daniel Schnyder’s Charlie Parker’s Yardbird will top the list, sung by the singers who will perform them during the regular season.

Four lucky entrants can even win a pair of tickets each to the prelude dinner, which also includes VIP seating for the performance followed by a post-concert reception. Entries are due June 30. For more information and to enter the contest, visit madisonopera.org.

Opera in the Park takes the stage July 23 at 8 p.m. in Garner Park, 333 S. Rosa Rd., Madison. The event is free and open to the public, and picnicking is encouraged. Visit madisonopera.org for more details.

 

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The Madison Savoyards performing “The Mikado” last year. This year’s production is “The Gondoliers.” Photo: Mark Frohna

Madison Savoyards

Those interested in understanding what makes the very model of a modern Major-General and other bits of Gilbert & Sullivan trivia need look no further than The Madison Savoyards, who have been producing the musical pair’s best- and least-known comic operas every summer since 1963.

This year’s production, The Gondoliers, or The King of Barataria written in 1927, was considered Gilbert & Sullivan’s last great success. The narrative includes mixed-up identities, a drunken gondolier, a prince who can’t be found and all sorts of very Gilbert & Sullivanian hijinks.

Directed by UW-Madison Opera’s Bill Farlow with musical direction by Kyle Knox (who last conducted the score to Madison Opera’s 2016 production of Little Women), The Gondoliers runs for five performances July 29 through August 7. Tickets run $30 to $40.

Madison Savoyards’ production of The Gondoliers will appear at Music Hall, located at the foot of Bascom Hill on the UW-Madison campus where Park Street intersects with the State Street Mall. For tickets, call 608-265-2787 or go to the Arts on Campus Box Office.

 

AUGUST

The Token Creek festival brings patrons and musicians to a converted barn for classical performances. Photo: Robert Graebner.
The Token Creek festival brings patrons and musicians to a converted barn for classical performances. Photo: Robert Graebner.

Token Creek Chamber Festival

It’s possible that there’s more than one place in the world where top-notch classical chamber music is performed in a barn. We know of just the one: the Token Creek Music Festival, which occurs annually every Labor Day weekend in DeForest, a community northeast of Madison.

The dairy barn in question is part of the old family farm of Rose Mary Harbison and her husband John Harbison. John is a music professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the composer of the Metropolitan Opera-commissioned adaptation of The Great Gatsby, and winner of a Pulitzer Prize, a MacArthur Fellowship and the Heinz Awards in the Arts and Humanities.

John and Rose Mary spend every summer at the converted dairy farm, capping each season with the weeklong festival. This year’s theme is “Water Music,” with each piece on the program devoted to environmental efforts to reverse the effects of water pollution. The full playlist has yet to be determined.

The concert’s highlight will be the Wisconsin premiere of Harbison’s “The Cross of Snow,” which blends the ethereal lushness of violas da gamba with the haunting clarity of the countertenor voice to explore the emotions of grief, loss and love. Chicago’s Second City Musick, who were commissioned to perform the work by antiques dealer William John Wartmann in memory of his late wife Joyce, will give the piece only its second performance for festivalgoers.

The Token Creek Chamber Festival runs August 27 – September 4 on the festival grounds at 4037 Hwy. 19, DeForest. Single performance tickets are $30 ($10 for students.). For more information visit tokencreekfestival.org or call 608-241-2525.

Milwaukee Symphony devotes two weekends to Johannes Brahms

Categorizing German composer Johannes Brahms can be difficult. From his position at the end of the Romantic era (the late 19th century), the composer was both rooted in the old world of classical music as well as ahead of his time.

Over two weekends, the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra will give audiences the opportunity to decide for themselves Brahms’ place in history. The MSO’s Brahms Festival, taking place at the Marcus Center the weekends of April 29 and May 6, will feature Brahms’ entire symphonic repertory: four impressive, significant pieces.

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Johannes Brahms only published four symphonies in his lifetime, all of which will be presented by the MSO over two weekends.

That may not seem like a large number, but it was for Brahms, a notorious perfectionist who frequently destroyed his own works when they did not measure up to his high standards. Brahms was rumored to have destroyed over 20 string quartets before he finally presented his first public example in 1873. Brahms also destroyed several of his early works, including pieces that he had performed earlier in his career. This extreme perfection and dedication to his craft led to a smaller but exceptional legacy.

The works that did survive Brahms’ composition chopping block, including the four symphonies, are now considered standard repertoire — which provides its own unique set of problems. “The challenge with these pieces comes from their notoriety,” explains MSO principal clarinetist Todd Levy. “There is an expectation with pieces like this since many of the audience members know and love these works. They may already have their own interpretive ideas as they listen to the works.”

On April 30 and May 1, music director and conductor Edo de Waart will begin the festival by conducting Brahms’ Symphony No. 1 in C minor and Symphony No. 2 in D Major. The first symphony runs roughly 45 minutes in its entirety, and, like many of Brahms’ works underwent several drafts over many years. The earliest sketches of the work date back to 1854, but the finished work did not premiere until 1876, almost eighteen years later. The work is considered universally to be a masterpiece, and frequently harkens back to the works of other great German composers, including Beethoven.

In contrast, Brahms composed his Second Symphony over the summer of 1877, during a visit to the Austrian province of Carinthia. This composition period was far briefer than for its predecessor. Like the First Symphony, the Second reflects the work of Beethoven, this time most similar to the pastoral and lush harmonies of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony.

The following weekend, May 6 and 7, will feature Brahms’ other two symphonies, also conducted by de Waart. Symphony No. 3 in F major, composed in 1883, is Brahms’ shortest symphony and is often identified as his most personal, a slight shift away from the more traditional, non-programmatic works he is better known for. It features multiple motifs reminiscent of works by composer Robert Schumann, a close friend of Brahms and husband to the woman Brahms famously pined for: Clara Schumann. Brahms also uses a recurring motif — a rising F, A-flat, F pattern — that is meant to signify Brahms’ half-serious personal motto frei aber froh, or “free but happy.”

Brahms’ final symphony is darker and more complex, a noble work in E minor that premiered in 1885. Its minor key is only the first contrast to its preceding symphony, being more solemn. It concludes, famously, with a passacaglia, a serious-sounding musical form defined by its repeating, stately bass line.

With symphonies needing to cover so many artists in a given season, it’s rare for patrons to have a chance to hear so much work by a single composer in a two-week period, Levy says.

“It’s a great opportunity to hear these symphonies live performed by a great orchestra,” adds Levy. “Though the pieces are standard repertoire, they are not always performed in this short of a time frame.”

The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra’s Brahms Festival will span two weekends: April 30 and May 1, and May 6 and 7. Tickets range from $17 to $107. For concert times and additional information, visit mso.org or call 414-291-7605.

Colossal “Carmina Burana” closes Madison Symphony season

In the world of classical music, sometimes size does matter. When it comes to sheer musical scale, few pieces can compete with Carl Orff’s 24-movement cantata Carmina Burana, which will close the Madison Symphony Orchestra’s 2015–16 season later this month.

“With its driving rhythms and lyrical opulence, Carmina Burana has become one of classical music’s most popular treasures,” writes MSO maestro John DeMain on the orchestra’s website.

What DeMain neglects to mention is the number of musicians required to give this early 20th-century work its due. From its most familiar movement, the opening “O Fortuna,” to its raucous drinking and love songs, the 59-minute composition commands a cadre of players and singers rarely matched in the classical canon.

How big is big? MSO’s 91 musicians under DeMain’s direction will be joined on Madison’s Overture Hall stage by 140 volunteer members of the Madison Symphony Chorus led by Beverly Taylor. Add to that the roughly 80 members from the Madison Youth Choirs’ Boychoir, under Michael Ross’s direction, and soloists soprano Jeni Houser, tenor Thomas Leighton and baritone Keith Phares, and the musician roster blossoms to well over 300 artists, quite a company for what is essentially a musically simple work.

“It’s wonderfully lyrical and sounds great, but I wouldn’t say it’s a walk in the park,” says DeMain, who has closed each of his past 22 MSO seasons with a work of similar scope and magnitude. “In the end, it all comes together nicely.”

DeMain has paired Orff’s work with The Pines of Rome, a more impressionistic work composed in 1923 and 1924 by Ottorino Respighi. In the conductor’s mind, the tone poem both complements and contrasts Orff’s 1935–36 composition, which comes with its own interesting backstory.

Orff based his work on 12th and 13th century poetry written in Church Latin and Medieval German found compiled at the Benedictine monastery in Benediktbeuern, south of the composer’s hometown of Munich. Orff built the composition around 24 of the poems to create a “secular cantata” of raucous drinking songs, courtly and bawdy love poems, and humorous stories to create Carmina Burana, literally “Songs of Beurn.”

The work’s Germanic “volk” roots and bombastic score eventually made Orff a favorite among the Nazi regime rising to power in the 1930s, allowing the composer to continue his career during the war while many of his contemporaries were forced to flee to America.

Orff was never a party member and, in fact, had been friends with academician Kurt Huber, a leading voice in Germany’s White Rose resistance movement. The composer distanced himself for professional reasons from Huber, who the Nazis eventually arrested, tried and executed by guillotine in 1943. After World War II, Orff rehabilitated his reputation by reminding critics of his ties to Huber, dodging criticism for Nazi accommodation.

For all its musical sturm und drang, Orff’s composition is surprisingly fundamental in its construction, according to DeMain. The cantata lacks polyphony (the combination of differing melodies that harmonize with each other), and counterpoint (deliberately playing polyphonous phrases with different rhythms simultaneously). But that very simplicity may account for the work’s enormous popularity.

“The melodic nature of the choral writing and sheer energy that comes out of the work gives it a primitive tonality,” DeMain says. “Orff’s compositional vocabulary is more vertical than horizontal and it’s not a difficult piece for the orchestra to play.”

Vocal performers face a more daunting challenge, according to Taylor. While MSO members may first look at the score the Monday before the performance, DeMain says, the choristers have already been practicing for several months.

“It’s a big enough project, but not as difficult as some of the things we’ve done,” Taylor says. “The songs are very catchy and easy to learn and, while there is a lot of text in dialect German and Latin, there aren’t too many harmonic variations.”

Taylor notes that last season’s production of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony was much more difficult even though the choral section lasted just 20 minutes. She anticipates even greater challenges for her singers in performing Brahms’ “Requiem,” which will serve as next year’s season finale.

Carmina Burana is fun to sing and easy to learn, almost like a musical comedy,” Taylor explains. “It’s raucous, good humored with rhythms that are really dense, and exuberance that draws listeners along with it.”

Orff’s compositional style also makes learning the choral pieces easier for the singers and appreciating the composition itself more fulfilling for the audience, she adds.

“For Orff, fast is good, loud is better and fast and loud are the best of all,” Taylor says. “Each verse gets a little faster and a little louder and the rhythms are very dance-y. In the end, this is a real toe-tapper.”

DeMain agrees, especially when it comes to the work’s simpler musical structure and primitive tonality, both of which make Carmina Burana more accessible to the average listener.

“We’re always reaching out to bring more people to the symphony and this is one of those pieces that does that,” he adds. “This piece has the potential to do big box office for us.”

Madison Symphony Orchestra will perform Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana and Ottorino Respighi’s The Pines of Rome April 29 to May 1 at Overture Center for the Arts, 201 State St. Tickets run $16 to $85 and can be purchased at 608-258-4141 or overturecenter.org/events/carmina-burana.

Come “Out” at MSO Closer

The Madison Symphony Orchestra will celebrate the Capital City’s LGBT community and the close of its 2015–16 season April 30 with its fifth annual “Out at the Symphony” celebration.

In addition to enjoying MSO’s rendition of Respighi’s The Pines of Rome and Orff’s Carmina Burana, attendees are invited to an exclusive afterparty at Overture Center’s Promenade Lounge that will feature food, drink and music.

Combined tickets for the concert and after-party are $40 for mezzanine-level seats and $60 for orchestra seats and can only be purchased through the MSO website at madisonsymphony.org/out. The deadline for purchasing tickets is Thursday, April 28, at midnight.

Prometheus Trio continues a standard of excellence

Beautiful sounds can always be heard wafting through the halls of the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music. Many of those dulcet tones belong to the Prometheus Trio, the conservatory’s resident chamber music ensemble.

Founded in 2000, the Prometheus Trio was established shortly after the Wisconsin Conservatory returned to its Prospect Avenue home, after a period of remodeling. “The conservatory had a long history of having a resident trio, at least dating back to the 1970s, so then-President Joyce Altman and VP of academic affairs Alice Brovan thought it would be great to have a resident trio again,” says Stefanie Jacob, the trio’s pianist.

Jacob says she and her husband, Prometheus cellist Scott Tisdel, were already thinking about forming a trio. “Scott and I have performed as a duo since we met at Indiana University,” says Jacob. “When we moved to Milwaukee, we played with quite a few violinists before we decided to form a more permanent ensemble.”

Originally, their partner was violinist Samantha George, then the associate concertmaster of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. Tisdel met George at an audition, and he and Jacob later asked her to join them for a concert in January 2000. A few events later, the three officially became the Prometheus Trio, which performed its first show as a group in November 2000 shortly after the grand reopening of the Wisconsin Conservatory.

George, now an associate professor of violin at Lawrence University in Appleton, would later leave the group. Tisdel and Jacob have worked with three violinists since: Jeanyi Kim, Timothy Klabunde and, starting this season, Margot Schwartz. Over those 16 years, the performance calendar for the trio has changed as well, growing from a three- to a four-concert series and adding several out-of-town commitments.

As the ensemble-in-residence at the Wisconsin Conservatory, the Prometheus Trio has a unique position as not just performers but also educators. “We work with three Conservatory student groups, which is really great,” says Jacob. “All three of us enjoy coaching chamber music, so it’s really a lot fun.”

For Jacob, this commitment to education includes teaching privately in addition to ensemble coaching. “I always tell students that, if chamber music is what you want to do, start working with others as early as you can — it can only help you!” added Jacobs.

Jacob and Tisdel’s love of music does not end with them — it has been passed to their daughter, Emmy Tisdel. Emmy is primarily a violinist, but also plays viola, and will be joining her parents for the final Prometheus Trio concert of the 2015–16 season.

That concert, also marking the end of Schwartz’s first year with the group, will feature a number of Prometheus Trio favorites: Mozart’s Trio in E Major, Brahms’ Piano Quartet in C minor and a heart-wrenching trio by contemporary composer Alfred Schnittke.

“The concert features some challenging and beautiful (music) as well as includes our own daughter, which we are very excited about!” says Jacob. “It promises to be a truly special event.”

The Prometheus Trio will perform at 7:30 p.m. April 11 and 12 at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music, 1584 N. Prospect Ave., Milwaukee. Tickets are $25, $35 for premium seating, $15 for students and free for WCM students. Visit wcmusic.org or call 414-276-5760 to order.

Dionne Jackson takes on a Nielsen classic with the WCO

Musicians rarely play better than when performing a piece of music they love. Just ask flutist Dionne Jackson.

When the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra tackles Carl Nielsen’s Flute Concerto on Feb. 19 in the Capitol Theatre at Madison’s Overture Center, it will be a labor of love for Jackson, WCO’s guest artist for the evening.

“This is my favorite concerto ever written for the flute and one of the best,” says Jackson. The graduate of Juilliard and the Paris Conservatory serves as associate professor of flute at the University of Connecticut’s School of Fine Arts and assistant principal flute with the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

“Technically, it’s incredibly challenging, with runs that are fast and difficult to play, followed by a gorgeous melody that seems to come out of nowhere,” the Chicago native says. “It changes mood very quickly, and that’s one of the things I like about performing it.”

Nielsen’s 20-minute concerto will be joined on the program by Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 5, on which Jackson will flex her considerable musical muscle. Ottorino Respighi’s Ancient Airs and Dances Suite No. 1 and Haydn’s Symphony No. 79 in F Major round out the evening’s playlist.

The Nielsen piece may have the most interesting backstory, according to WCO music director Andrew Sewell, who will be conducting the evening’s program. It’s also one of the most challenging pieces by the Nielsen, considered one of Scandinavia’s two most important composers along with Finnish composer Jean Sibelius.

“There is a muscularity and power to Nielsen’s musical language and expressive tonality that may take the listener by surprise,” says Sewell, who has conducted several of the composer’s works. “His tonality shifts away from its center and is constantly changing and evolving. By contrast, he is also capable of the most beautiful melodies and effects.”

In the case of the Flute Concerto, Nielsen’s somewhat eclectic approach also encompassed his compositional strategy. After composing his Quintet for Winds and dedicating it to members of the Copenhagen Wind Quintet, Nielsen set out to write concertos for each of the quintet member’s musical “voice,” Sewell says.

Nielsen wrote his Flute Concerto for Holger Gilbert Jespersen, the quintet’s flutist, in 1926, followed by his Clarinet Concerto written for clarinetist Aage Oxenvad in 1928. Nielsen never got around to composing concertos for the quintet’s remaining three instruments.

“The work is in two movements and moves from intimate, folksong-like moments to dramatic full orchestra, or tutti sections, with the barreling timpani and bass trombone adding weight and volume,” Sewell says. “I think listeners should note the pacing of dramatic moments of power versus passive, more thoughtful sequences.”

The concerto also offers duet moments, with just the solo flute and clarinet, following a mini cadenza toward the end of the first movement, Sewell adds. The first movement is written in a traditional sonata form, while the second movement is more rhapsodic and free, with faster and slower sections contrasting each other.

The Nielsen piece stands in marked contrast to the Brandenburg Concerto. But pairing a neo-classical 20th century composition with a Baroque masterpiece is a deliberate effort to expand the evening’s musical palette and showcase Jackson’s skills.

The Bach composition will be performed with a much smaller group of musicians, with two distinct groups among the players both performing in contrast to each other and then blending together in Baroque polyphonic style. Jackson and WCO Concertmaster Suzanne Beia will perform the leading flute and violin parts.

“The Nielsen, on the other hand, uses a larger orchestra with the solo flute as the main protagonist,” Sewell says. “Often it is the flute playing against or in contrast with the orchestra. It poses a challenge to balance the ensemble to not overpower the sound of the flute. In the higher registers, the flute penetrates easily and carries well over the orchestra.”

Jackson might refer to this as the “bird’s voice” of the flute, an aspect that has kept her playing the instrument since the fourth grade. Originally, she had wanted to play the clarinet, but the school music teacher no longer had any clarinets left. Her father, a music teacher, suggested she try the flute.

“It was a lucky mistake,” says Jackson, who has performed with the Chicago Symphony and other orchestras. “I love the flute’s brighter, more upbeat sound.”

She also is looking forward to taking on the Brandenburg Concerto along with the Flute Concerto when she performs with WCO.

“Anything written by Bach is music directly from heaven and you can’t help but feel happy,” she says. “The Nielsen is gorgeous, too, but in a different way.”

ON STAGE 

The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, with guest artist flutist Dionne Jackson, will perform its third Masterworks concert of the season at 8 p.m. Feb. 19 at Overture Center, 201 State St., Madison. Tickets are $15 to $80 and can be ordered at 608-258-4141 or wcoconcerts.org.

Present Music celebrates Mozart’s modern successors

Milwaukee’s Present Music ensemble helps kick off another year of fine arts, with a season-opening concert that will bring together the largest ensemble Present Music has ever hosted. It’ll also be bringing together the company’s love for chamber music’s classical roots and its passion for contemporary works.

Deceptively titled Mozart?!, this concert features only one work by the legendary classical composer. But marketing director Erin Woehlke says that’s intentional, as artistic director Kevin Stalheim is hoping to depict the parallels between Wolfgang Amadeus and 20th-century composers Luciano Berio and John Adams. Woehlke says, “There’s more connections between the three men than it would seem on the initial surface and we plan to showcase those similarities.”

Berio and Adams have explicitly cited Mozart as an influence, with Adams going so far to say that it was learning about the Austrian composer that inspired him to start composing as a young child. One of the two Adams works included on the concert, Grand Pianola Music, bears some notable similarities to the concert’s single Mozart work, his Gran Partita, including the shared initial starting key of E flat major. 

Adams also has commented that his Grand Pianola was “subconscious music,” in which the listener was hearing a blur of sounds. “This is much like what one would hear crossing through a music school with the different styles played simultaneously. Mozart is among those referenced in this sonic blur,” explains Woehlke.

As a composer, Berio sought to encourage the virtuosity of performance, much like Mozart did in his vocal and instrumental works. Berio’s compositions of this sort are evident in a series of pieces, Sequenzas, which he composed as solo, virtuosic works. This particular concert will feature “Sequenza VIII,” a solo piece for violin. 

This concert will be Present Music’s biggest yet, featuring 23 musicians and three vocalists. “Usually we perform with a smaller group, but this is much different,” Woehlke says. “This larger-scale event sets the scene for a season that will indeed be larger than life in many aspects.”

Among the other five Present Music concerts this season are the Oct. 24 Carnival concert, featuring 2015 Grammy winner Cory Smythe, and the March 20 Equinox: Light and Dark, another combination of classical and contemporary works by composers including Antonio Vivaldi, Andrew Normon, Judd Greenstein and Robert Honstein.

Mozart?! brings together three great men — a minimalist, an experimentalist and a master — all for one night only. “Regardless of your music taste, this is the concert for you,” Woehlke says. “This event proves that classical music is not old or outdated, but is alive and thriving in new music. It’s incredibly exciting, and a reminder of the power of music to transcend time.”

ON STAGE

Present Music’s Mozart?! concert will take place at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 5 at the Helene Zelazo Center for the Performing Arts, 2419 E. Kenwood Blvd., Milwaukee. Tickets are $35, $25 or $15, with half-price discounts for students at presentmusic.org.

MSO’s ‘Scheherazade’ merges music and storytelling

This weekend, the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra performed a program of works that not only lived up to the ambitious nature of their season, but even surpassed expectations through evocative, escapist storytelling.

The program, led by Brazilian guest conductor Marcelo Lehninger, included Stravinsky’s Suite No. 2 for Small Orchestra and Saint-Saën’s Piano Concerto No. 2, but the centerpiece was Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade. A staple of standard orchestral repertoire, Scheherazade’s exotic, otherworldly atmosphere has the ability to transport an audience when done well, and the remainder of the MSO’s program took full advantage of that tendency Friday night.

Stravinsky’s suite offers the first hint of the MSO’s intentions, constructing a sense of place and time that is decidedly elsewhere, just beyond the reach of reality. Each movement is short, less than a few minutes duration, and humorously depicts a small queue of Stravinsky’s colleagues (Alfredo Casella, Erik Satie, and Sergei Diaghelev) in miniature form. The orchestra dove headlong into the concert opener, presenting each short but technically challenging movement with pronounced artistry.

More substantive was Saint-Saëns’ Piano Concerto No. 2, performed Friday by guest soloist Sean Chen. The composer never indicated the piece as a programmatic work, but nonetheless the work seems to have stories to tell.

The concerto deviates from the traditional concerti format — fast intro, slow second movement and fast conclusion — by swapping the tempos of the first two and opening with an andante sostenuto that unfolds as if it were reminiscing a lifetime of tales aloud. There’s a Brahmsian character and profundity to the movement, only the first conscious homage to Saint-Saën’s compositional predecessors alluded to throughout the work. Chopin’s legacy is evoked in the second movement, a joyous allegro scherzando filled with horn calls and lively romanticism from the winds and strings.

But Chen was most authoritative and impressive in the final, presto movement. After a thunderous opening, the movement swiftly shifts into a wild and mischievous tarantella of gargantuan, Lisztian proportions, which he executed with masterful conviction.

It’s an energizing finish that served as a brilliant bridge to Scheherzade, a wise programming decision by the MSO.  

Rimsky-Korsakov’s symphonic suite takes the stories of One Thousand and One Nights as its foundation, each movement a new tale told by Scheherazade to keep her distrustful husband, the Sultan Shahriar, from executing her in the morning. Each story begins and ends with the voice of Scheherazade, brought into being by concertmaster Frank Almond and continually accompanied by sweeping harp lines. The solo violin writing of the suite is considered among the most virtuosic in the canon, and Almond suffuses Scheherazade’s “voice” with life.

But the success of the MSO’s performance of Scheherazade cannot be merely attributed to Almond. Each new character or theme in the complex work was introduced by a different solo instrument in the orchestra. Each showed off an individual performer’s musicianship and artistry, as well as an attention to detail that transformed the evening from a mere concert setting to an adventurous journey.

The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra will next perform Friday, Nov. 21, at 11:15 a.m. and Saturday, Nov. 22, at 8 p.m., at the Marcus Center, 929 N. Water St. The program will feature guest singer Michelle DeYoung as well as performances of Richard Strauss’ tone poem “Death and Transfiguration” and Schumann’s Symphony No. 2 in C Major. Tickets range from $22 to $102 and can be purchased at mso.org or 414-291-7605.