Tag Archives: classical

Milwaukee Musaik reinvents the notion of a chamber orchestra

In late 2014, the Milwaukee Chamber Orchestra board was looking at its numbers and not liking what it was seeing. Years of financial hardships had reduced the chamber ensemble’s season and it looked like the company would have to shut its doors.

Then three of the company’s musicians came to the board with a seemingly radical idea that would save the company: Give them the proverbial baton.

A little more than a year later, the company has been reborn as Milwaukee Musaik, a self-governing organization in which the musicians are in charge, keeping the ensemble small and flexible to suit economic and musical needs.

New board president and violinist Alexander Mandl says the transition really began in November 2014, when members of the MCO board asked him and some other members of the orchestra to take on more prominent roles to keep the organization afloat — a request he says quickly made itself clear as a stopgap measure. “It was only a matter of time before some major changes needed to be made.”

Mandl, violinist Jeanyi Kim and clarinetist William Helmers went to the board with an alternative proposal, formalizing their roles as musician-leaders and reimagining the orchestra to have an adjustable size based on the needs of particular concerts. Supporting them would be an advisory council of local and national musicians.

“This model is one that is seen more in Europe but less in the United States,” says Mandl.

The MCO board voted, approved the changes and passed the reins to the trio. They renamed the company Milwaukee Musaik, coined from a combination of the German word “musik” and English word “mosaic.” “Our name is representative of our musicians,” Mandl says. “We have a group of musicians representing various groups and organizations in Milwaukee like pieces in a mosaic.”

Milwaukee Musaik will retain the chamber music focus of its predecessor, which was formed in 1973 by oboist and conductor Stephen Colburn as the Milwaukee Chamber Music Society. Colburn led the organization for three decades, before stepping down and transferring the leadership to Bel Canto Chorus’ music director Richard Hynson. Hynson led the company until its 2015 restructuring, overseeing a number of successful collaborations with organizations including Milwaukee Opera Theatre and Danceworks.

But the new organization’s flexibility will enhance the opportunities for musicians in the area. “Since the organization is managed by the musicians, we can tailor our needs to various offers,” explains Mandl. “For instance, if we get an offer for a concert in Kenosha, we can create the ensemble to fill their needs from our existing pool of musicians if we don’t already have it in place.”

Mandl says the company also can feature individual musicians who might not otherwise have the opportunity to be in the spotlight, giving them solos and otherwise configuring concerts to emphasize them.

He adds that the company’s musicians are happy with the changes he and the board made. “Many of our musicians are chamber music specialists by trade. This is where they have strength — we want to share that in our concerts,” Mandl says. 

The company has held one well-received concert, at Wisconsin Lutheran College, and will be presenting two more concerts this spring at Mount Mary University. One performance, scheduled for March 1, is a European Tour, with works by Danish composer Carl Neilsen, Irish composer Charles Wood and German composer Ludwig von Beethoven. 

To learn more about Milwaukee Musaik and upcoming events, Mandl says to visit milwaukeemusaik.com. He adds that patrons can make a donation there to help support the organization.

ON STAGE

Milwaukee Musaik’s European Tour concert will take place at 7:30 p.m. March 1 at Mount Mary University, 2900 Menomonee River Pkwy., Milwaukee. Tickets are $25, $15 for students, and can be ordered at
milwaukeemusaik.com. 

Bel Canto mounts the Midwest premiere of Carson Cooman’s ‘Revelations of Divine Love’

Bel Canto Chorus has never strayed from taking on the challenge of a new work for performance. March’s concert will be no exception. On March 6, Bel Canto will present The Revelations of Divine Love (Metaphors from Sea and Sky) by Carson Cooman, a Midwest premiere.

Composed in 2009, this work has only been performed a handful of times. “Apart from the recording, the premiere performance at University of London, and an East coast performance, I am not familiar with any other performances,” said music director Richard Hynson in a recent phone interview. “We’re excited to be presenting one of the earlier performances of this work.”

The Chorus’s preparation for the work began in January after their Tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. concert. The oratorio, which is roughly 65 minutes in length, focuses heavily on the writings of the female Christian mystic Julian of Norwich (c. 1342-1416.) “That length of time is pretty standard for the chorus. We have roughly fourteen rehearsals to get the work prepared for performance,” says Hynson. Soprano Alisa Jordheim and baritone Christopher Burchett will perform as the two soloists on the work.

This particular work is distinct as it has two dominant “settings.” The first is a sequence taken from Julian’s religious visions. Julian lived a life of recluse as an anchoress for the Church for St. Julian in Norwich, England. She is credited with being the first woman to write an English-language book. During her life, she was regarded as a spiritual authority, a distinction that continues to be contributed to her several hundred years after her death.

The second setting of this work is the “sonic geography” of Nantucket Island just off the coast of Massachusetts. The chamber orchestra provides the imagery of the landscape while the chorus and soloists present the words, intermingling the two and creating a landscape for the listeners. Cooman planned much of the music at the actual locations in Nantucket, drawing from the inspiration in the sights around him.

Eighteen movements comprise the work in total. The first movement, a simphonia, is set at Brant Point, one of Nantucket’s three lighthouses, that appears while entering into the harbor.

Each movement intermingles with two goals. The first is to convey the fundamentals of Julian’s visions and the second is to present a “visual” representation of Nantucket through the orchestration. Texts from three additional sources (an excerpt from Book of Margery Kempe translated by Christopher M. Brunelle, two poems by 17th-century writer Robert Herrick and a poem by 20th-century American writer Elizabeth Kirschner) supplement the texts by Julian.

This concert will feature another piece that takes the listener on a “sonic geographic journey.” Prairie Spring, by Christian Ellenwood, will take the audience to the rolling Nebraska landscape. “It’s a really excellent contrast to the Cooman piece,” says Hynson. “It’s gentle and will resonate with listeners, taking them far away from the city to someplace simpler.”

 Like The Revelations of Divine Love, Prairie Spring was composed recently. It received its premiere in 2015 with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra.

Hynson says audience members will have the opportunity to meet with and speak to both composers, who will address patrons briefly before their individual pieces. “It’s exciting to have them both at the concert,” says Hynson. “It will enhance the experience, having the two tell a little bit more about the pieces in their own words.”

Bel Canto Chorus will perform its Revelations of Divine Love concert at 3 p.m. March 6, at St. Dominic Catholic Parish, Brookfield. Tickets are $37 or $32, with a $3 senior/student discount. Visit belcanto.org to order.

Milwaukee Symphony plays Bartók and Tchaikovsky’s final works

At the end of January, the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra will present a meeting of titans. The final major works by Béla Bartók and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, both expressions of the composers’ maturation and realizations of their mortality, will define this early 2016 program.

Bartók’s Piano Concerto No. 3 will be featured in the first half of the concert (after Witold Lutosławski’s Musique funèbre), performed by renowned American pianist Orli Shaham. This isn’t Shaham’s first time with the work, but it is her first time with the MSO — a debut she’s excited about. “I’ve been here before as part of a recital but never to perform with the symphony, so this will be a very special visit,” she says.

This concerto was composed in 1945, in the last months of Bartók’s life, and was a gift for his wife. Much like the rest of his work, it is inspired by folk music in its structure and harmonies. Bartók spent most of his early career exploring central European regions like Hungary and Romania for folk tunes, and while those journeys were halted by World War I, the influence remained for the rest of his life.

What separates his Third Concerto and other contemporaneous works is a move toward simplification. In the last decade or so of his life, Bartók began to reduce the amount of notation in his pieces, his final exploration of tonality. “It’s ironic that this piece actually has the fewest notes (but) it speaks the most,” Shaham says. “At this stage in his career, Bartok’s style had become so refined that he didn’t need the extra harmonies anymore.”

Bartók didn’t finish the piece before his death of leukemia in 1945, and the last 17 measures were completely by a colleague, Tibor Serly, before the premiere in 1946. It’s remained popular ever since, which is no surprise to Shaham.

“Bartok’s work stands the test of time because he went to the elements. He went to the human source for music making, which was folk music,” explained Shaham. “The melodies are something that everyone relates to because they tell a story of people regardless of where they live.”

The second half of the concert will feature Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony, which premiered only nine days before the composer’s death in October 1893. Its title, “Pathétique,” means “passionate,” an appropriate title for the work.

How much the work serves as a meditation on Tchaikovsky’s pending mortality depends on whom you speak to in the musicological world. There are possible allusions to the Orthodox requiem liturgy in the first movement, and a “cross” motif early in the first movement in which four consecutive notes make a sign of the cross when connected.

One suggestion made by Tchaikovsky specialists is that the work deals specifically with the power of Fate, referenced in other Tchaikovsky symphonies, and how it controls one’s life and death.

The finale adds additional evidence to these themes of mortality. It’s the only Tchaikovsky work to end in a minor key and its tempo is marked at an extremely slow “adagio lamentoso,” adding to the mournful underlay of the entire work. In addition, the end of the piece is marked “morendo,” meaning “dying away.”

ON STAGE

The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra will present a program including works by Bartók and Tchaikovsky at 8 p.m. Jan. 30 and 2:30 p.m. Jan. 31 at the Marcus Center, 929 N. Water St. Tickets range from $17 to $107 and can be purchased at 414-291-7605 or mso.org.

UW-Madison to break ground on new Music Center

A long-awaited home for music performance at UW-Madison will soon be a reality, thanks to a recent $25 million gift from the Mead Witter Foundation.

The Hamel Music Center will be on the eastern edge of campus at the corner of University Avenue and Lake Street. It will feature two concert halls, with capacities of 350 and 800 people. The UW School of Music provides more than 350 free public concerts a year.

“Right now our current estimated timeline for the Hamel Music Center is to start construction in late 2016 and open the building in late 2018,” says Gary A. Brown, director of campus planning and landscape architecture. More specific dates won’t be known “until we bid the project and get a contractor on board in the fall of 2016.”

No state funds were forthcoming. Every dollar of the estimated $55.8 million cost had to be raised privately, through donations. Until the Mead Witter Foundation provided incentive to build the entire music center at once, it was to have been built in phases.

The music performance center had its beginnings in 2007, when $15 million was pledged toward Phase I of the project by the Hamel family of Sonoma, California. Three generations of Hamels attended UW-Madison. In 2014 the university announced it would name the new building for them. Fundraising appeared to have essentially stalled out during the recession. 

Rebecca Blank, named chancellor in 2013, made it a priority. The recent gift completes that effort. In appreciation, UW-Madison will name the department the Mead Witter School of Music and its larger concert hall will be known as the Mead Witter Foundation Concert Hall.

The combined Mead Witter family has a long history in Wisconsin and with the university. J.D. Witter came to the state in 1850 and made a fortune in banking, timber, manufacturing and hydropower. His children, Isaac and Ruth, attended UW-Madison. Isaac met George W. Mead there, introduced him to his sister, and they married.

Mead took over the family’s interests and served on the UW Board of Regents from 1928 to 1939. In 1950, the university awarded him an honorary doctorate. “Though none of our family studied music at the UW, a fondness for music unites us,” according to his son, foundation chair George W. Mead II, in a prepared statement. “Everyone needs music. It is an inspiration point for all areas of creativity and learning.”

The music center is being designed by Holzman Moss Bottino Architecture of New York in partnership with Strang Inc. of Madison. It will be designed to complement Madison’s civic performance spaces at nearby Overture Center for the Arts on State Street. 

In fact, the facilities’ personnel overlap. Overture’s architect, Cesar Pelli, was consulted by the university during the music center’s early design stages. Malcolm Holzman, one of the principals of the current architectural team, was earlier a principal at Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates, which designed Overture’s predecessor, the Madison Civic Center. 

Holzman Moss Bottino has designed a range of performance venues, including those at the American Ballet Theater in New York City, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the Georgetown University Performing Arts Center in Washington, D.C., and the University of Southern California Music School and concert hall.

Past projects of Strang Inc. include renovation of the Mineral Point Opera House and the Touchstone Theater at American Players Theatre in Spring Green.

The School of Music is currently housed in the Mosse Humanities Building, which is shared with the departments of history and art. The seven-story example of Brutalist architecture was completed in 1969. It’s slated for eventual demolition.

Milwaukee Symphony connects with Nordic nature in Grieg, Sibelius program

The MSO will put a Milwaukee twist on Scandinavia Nov. 20 and Nov. 21, with the help of guest pianist Jon Kimura Parker and guest conductor Lawrence Renes.

Renes, a Dutch conductor currently leading the Royal Swedish Opera in Stockholm, will present with Parker composer Edvard Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor, a Nordic-themed work that introduces a program of Romantic-era symphonic works.

Renes, who has previously worked with MSO music director Edo de Waart as an assistant conductor for the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic, says the program also will include Finnish composer Jean Sibelius’ Seventh Symphony and Franz Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony. He believes the three together share a focus on connecting to nature, and particularly identifies with the two Nordic works.

“I spend about half of my time being music director in Stockholm in Sweden,” says Renes. “To the west is Norway, with Grieg being one of the giants, and to the east is Finland, with Sibelius being one of the giants, and so through my being here and working so much here in Scandinavia I feel that it has opened me up. I have always loved the music by both Grieg and Sibelius.”

Renes says Grieg’s concerto evokes the imagery of the Norwegian fjords and the indescribable expansiveness of the landscape.

“There’s no other concerto like the Grieg,” he says. “For me there’s no real storyline but it is more about feelings, big feelings that you get when you are in nature. I actually enjoy leaving the city behind for two days and disappearing in nature here in Sweden. When you wake up next to a lake, in the fjord in the mist, it brings these huge feelings inside me and it is hard to explain in words.”

For Parker, it’s his knowledge of the Grieg concerto’s historical significance that helps him bring out the imagery of the concerto. “This is the famous Norwegian piano concerto,” Parker says. “There’s a certain harmonic language that Grieg uses — minor 7th chords superimposed over dominant harmonies. I feel like that helps to create a picturesque element of the music.”

Like Grieg, Sibelius was proud of his cultural heritage. Both composers incorporated the unique qualities of folk music — dance forms, melodies and more — into their compositions. 

It’s this synthesis of nature and culture that Renes believes makes these Nordic works so resonant. He also thinks it’s what makes them feel so different every time he conducts them.

“When you walk in nature, if you go to the same place it will look differently every time you go — whether it’s the light, whether it’s the weather, the smell, which birds are there,” Renes says. “Something like the Sibelius symphony will always be different. …With Schubert and with Sibelius, it’s much more imaginative and in the moment.”

Having worked with the MSO before, Renes knows they will be more than ready for this style of work. “I hope what the audience picks up from our concerts is a kind of chamber music feel … something spontaneous and alive.”

ON STAGE

The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra will perform a program featuring works by Grieg, Sibelius and Schubert at 11:15 a.m. Nov. 20 and 8 p.m. Nov. 21. Tickets range from $17 to $107 and can be ordered at 414-291-7605 or mso.org.

Third annual Composer Institute brings artists of the future to Milwaukee

For the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra’s latest concert, every piece on the program will be brand-new — and from some brand-new composers. 

Nov. 4 marks the symphony’s third annual MSO Composer Institute concert, the culmination of a multi-day workshop for young and emerging composers. The five composers selected for this year’s event will arrive on Nov. 2, where they will work with MSO staff and musicians for two days on their world premieres, which will be presented on Nov. 4.

This year’s institute marks the first appearance of Patrick Castillo, a composer who became the administrator of the program in January. He said he’s excited to be a part of it.

“I’m in the position right now of overseeing the continuing development of the program,” explained Castillo in a recent phone interview, adding that he’s learning the ropes after replacing the previous administrator. “It’s pretty amazing to be part of the process to make all of this happen.”

Castillo was on the selection committee for this year’s event and said narrowing it down to five was tricky.

“There were so many talented composers that could have been selected,” he said. “We had a great, diverse crowd this year. In the end, we picked the pieces that could make the compelling program.” 

One of the composers, Gity Razaz, said she’s excited and humbled to be part of the institute. “This is my first really big scale orchestral event, which is an honor,” said Razaz in a recent phone interview. “I’m excited to work with the MSO and visit Milwaukee for the first time.”

The Julliard graduate counts teachers Samuel Adler, John Corigliano and Robert Beaser among her composition influences. The piece that will premiere with the MSO, “In the Midst of Flux …”, is a tone poem influenced by Middle Eastern music.

“This piece is really about transformation,” explained Razaz, “I wrote this piece in 2008 and, at that time, I was thinking a lot about the idea of life and death. For instance, the phoenix legend is that the phoenix catches fire, dies and then rises from the ashes. It’s such an interesting and beautiful concept about rising out of darkness. I wanted to capture that.” 

Other composers with this year’s institute include Daniel Allas, Saad Haddad, Youngwoo Yoo and Patrick O’Malley.

While the institute offers a great opportunity for a handful of composers, Castillo acknowledged there are many more talented composers who did not get selected.

“I encourage those who applied and didn’t get selected to re-apply. It’s so important to get your music out there,” said Castillo. “There was so much talent in the submissions — many of those who applied need to keep doing so. They have great potential.” 

Razaz echoed the sentiment: “I tell students to keep getting out there and not to get discouraged. I also remind them why they do this — because they love the craft. Composition is such a truly special art form, which is what I remind students and even myself when disappointment happens.”

ON STAGE 

The five works featured at this year’s MSO Composer Institute will be performed at 7:30 p.m. on Nov. 4, at the Helene Zelazo Center, 2419 E. Kenwood Blvd., Milwaukee. Admission is free, but tickets need to be reserved at 414-291-7605 or mso.org.

Fiery, passionate ‘Tosca’ to open Skylight’s season

Fiery. Explosive. Passionate. 

That, in a nutshell, is Tosca, the opera opening Skylight Music Theatre’s 2015–16 season. Cassandra Black (last seen as the titular character in the company’s world premiere opera The Snow Dragon last year) will lead a powerful cast in this riveting Giacomo Puccini opera.

Tosca’s story is dramatic on stage and off. In December of 1899, the opera was in rehearsals in Rome. However, due to ongoing political and civil unrest, the premiere was moved to January 1900. When the opera did finally open, audiences packed the houses, and that set the stage for several other large company premieres in short succession, including La Scala in Milan and the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. 

In just a few years, the opera became part of the standard repertoire around the world. And it remains so today — although the Skylight has never before attempted it.

A three-act opera, Tosca follows the opera singer Tosca, her lover the painter Mario Cavaradossi (Chaz’men Williams-Ali), and the chief of police, Baron Scarpia (David Kravitz), who seeks to foil their relationship and take Tosca for himself. Of course, fate has other plans for all three.

To mount a work of this size can be difficult, but Skylight is ready for the challenge. Leading the cast and crew are stage director Jill Anna Ponasik and music director (and Skylight artistic director) Viswa Subbaraman. “It’s intimidating,” explained Ponasik in a recent phone interview, “Much of my previous experience involves developing new works, and so directing one that is so well known already is pretty daunting.”

To make the best use of the Cabot’s space, the set has been designed to be “visually stunning and sweeping.” Layered lighting will cast shadows large and small on the singers and across the stage. “The character’s state of being is represented in these shadows,” explained Ponasik.

The set further develops the psychology of the opera. Its design is elegant and streamlined while being deeply rooted in the time period of the piece. The color palate is that of marble in large European cathedrals. “We chose the colors and the set to really allow the audience to draw into the singers. Everything is elegant, but also subtle in a way that allows for the singers to be telling the story,” says Ponasik.

One of the more original aspects of this production — in multiple meanings of the adjective — is indeed the lyrics. Tosca makes a departure from recent years in which the operas were performed entirely in English. This year, selections that Tosca and Cavaradossi sing will be performed in the original Italian while the rest of the opera will be sung in English. “The decision to perform some of the arias and more drama filled moments was artistic. We didn’t want to take away from the integrity of the music,” Ponasik says. “Skylight is one of two major companies in the United States that perform works in English translation regularly, but the company has a history of performing in original language as well.”

Tosca provides several milestones for Skylight. In addition to being the season opener, the opera is new territory for nearly all involved. “This is the first Tosca for the entire cast, music director, and stage director as well as for the Skylight,” said Ponasik. “The energy is great. We have an extraordinary group of individuals in this cast, and it’s going to be a great show.”

ON STAGE

Tosca runs Sept. 24-Oct. 11 at the Broadway Theatre Center, 158 N. Broadway, Milwaukee. Tickets are $32 to $77 and can be purchased at 414-291-7800.

Skylight’s new season

Tosca is only the first installment of a season the Skylight has targeted around women, with five female directors leading the way on five very different projects, all in the Cabot Theatre.

After this first show, Skylight will take on Lerner and Loewe’s classic My Fair Lady, an adaptation of Pygmalion in which the distinguished professor Henry Higgins transforms Cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle into a proper lady. The musical runs Nov. 20 to Dec. 27.

Next, the Skylight takes on the Thomas Adès opera Powder Her Face, an intimate look into the woman at the heart of an infamous scandal — British duchess Margaret Campbell, a socialite whose 1963 divorce was marked by the release of scandalous photos and gossip relating to her extramarital sexual affairs. This marks Subbaraman’s second time producing the opera; he first presented it at his former Houston company, Opera Vista. The show runs Jan. 29 to Feb. 14.

In the spring, Milwaukeean Sheri Williams Pannell directs Crowns, a gospel musical set on a single day in the life of a Chicago woman, Yolanda, who goes south after her brother’s death and finds strength in the wise women of the congregation there. The musical runs March 4-26.

The season concludes with the Skylight’s first return to the works of Gilbert and Sullivan since Subbaraman began his tenure with the company in 2013: The Pirates of Penzance. This romp along the coast of Cornwall runs May 20 to June 12.

Orchestras welcome a month of ‘May-thoven’

Something classical must be in the Wisconsin water supply. This May, Beethoven-lovers practically can’t walk out of the house on a given weekend without stumbling on an orchestra performing one of the composer’s epic, groundbreaking symphonies.

The Madison Symphony Orchestra and Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra will take up programs featuring Beethoven symphonies in the weeks to come. Madison’s single concert series, running May 8-10, will highlight his Ninth Symphony, and serve simultaneously as a tribute to the 10th anniversary season of their performance venue, Overture Center (see sidebar).

Milwaukee’s orchestra, on the other hand, will be performing in a distinctly different location than usual. In two concert series running May 14-17 and May 21-24 (featuring Beethoven’s Eighth and Fifth symphonies, respectively), the company will leave their home at the Marcus Center’s Uihlein Hall and perform down the street at the historic Pabst Theatre.

It’s a venue audiences have seen the MSO traveling to more frequently of late and associate conductor Francesco Lecce-Chong says it’s perfect for programs like these two.

“The Pabst is this unique space, and these concerts are a chance to really try it out,” he says. “Every hall has its quirks and every hall brings out things in the music. One of the things we knew right away was that any smaller-scale, Classical-era stuff would sound great in the Pabst.”

Each of the two symphonies has its own character. Beethoven’s Eighth is short and simple, with a buoyancy to its four movements. The Fifth, on the other hand, is known for its powerful, forceful energy. 

While both concerts will culminate with the Beethoven works, Lecce-Chong says it was equally important to precede them with works by modern composers who share Beethoven’s progressive spirit and flare for innovation. He says the Pabst’s intimate atmosphere is arguably one of the most ideal locations to experience contemporary works like these.

“Acoustically you feel very close to the performance,” says Lecce-Chong, “and I think that is a great way to experience newer music. It helps bring the audience closer to the music.”

Newer compositions by the composers sharing the bill with Beethoven will include Vivian Fung’s Violin Concerto (May 14-17); “These Particular Circumstances,” a set of seven small pieces by Sean Shepard; Nico Muhly’s “So Far So Good” and the short work “Madame Press Died Last Week” by Morton Feldmen, written in memory of one of his earliest and most influential teachers (all for May 21-24). 

“Vivian Fung, Sean Shepard, Nico Muhly, Morten Feldmen … they are really the composers of today,” says Lecce-Chong. “If you come over these two weeks you’re going to hear how the sounds of the orchestra are being dealt with today.” 

In many ways, despite hundreds of years of historical displacement, the composers whose works will be performed across these weekends represent the fearlessness of creators who push the limits of sound design and find success in their willingness to go where others might not.

“Beethoven stood out because he was always pushing the boundaries of what people thought he was going to do,” explains Lecce-Chong. “Every time they tried to pin him down to something, he was off to the races, onto the next idea. You’re hearing music that was incredibly edgy when it first came out, paired with music now that we probably consider very edgy.”

Featured soloist Kristin Lee, who will appear over the first concert weekend, will perform Vivian Fung’s Violin Concerto. Fung’s concerto is heavily influenced by Balinese Gamelan music, which she incorporated into the concerto while on tour in Indonesia. Throughout this insanely virtuosic work, Fung combines the percussive presence of the Gamelan tradition with all of the virtuosity available to the violinist, resulting in a highly colorful showpiece for the violin. 

Kristin Lee will not be the only guest on the stage. The MSO will be led each weekend by a different guest conductor. Daniel Cohen will be on the podium for concerts featuring Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony, followed by Edwin Outwater at the baton for the program featuring Beethoven’s Fifth.

“My great hope is that over these two weeks that this very adventurous programming around the Beethovens will heighten the senses because you’re going to be so close to the colors, the sounds of these contemporary composers,” says Lecce-Chong. “It will be a way to experience them up close, there’s an extra chance to really connect with this music.”

ON STAGE

The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra will perform Beethoven’s Eighth May 14 to 17 and Beethoven’s Fifth May 21-24 at the Pabst Theater, 144 E. Wells St. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2:30 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $25-$90 and can be ordered at either pabsttheater.org or mso.org.

ANd MEANWHILE IN MADISON…

Milwaukee isn’t the only city getting in on the Beethoven action. The Madison Symphony Orchestra will conclude its season with Beethoven’s own concluding masterpiece, his Ninth Symphony.

The “Ode to Joy” concert, conducted by John DeMain, will feature a full performance of the choral symphony, with four guest artists singing alongside the Madison Symphony Chorus. Also on tap is Leonard Bernstein’s “Serenade,” considered one of Bernstein’s own best works. Concertmaster Naha Greenholtz will perform the violin solos of the latter.

Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is considered one of the greatest works ever to come out of Western culture, but it took a bit of time to be recognized as such. As program annotator J. Michael Allsen writes, several reviewers who attended the 1824 premiere openly questioned whether Beethoven was too old and deaf to produce quality work, and the musicians were under-rehearsed on the day of the event. 

History has proven those early critiques off-target. In addition to being a dynamic, captivating work in its own right, Beethoven’s introduction of choral elements to the symphony form (as he does in the fourth movement, with the poem “Ode to Joy” made famous by its inclusion) and its dynamic evolution over the course of the four movements served as an inspiration to artists of the subsequent Romantic period and beyond.

In this case, its selection is as much a tribute to the venue as it is the composer. In 2004, the Madison Symphony Orchestra ended its first season in Overture Hall with a performance of the work, which it hasn’t touched since. This time around, the symphony will conclude the MSO’s tenth season at Overture Center.

The program will be performed three times, at 7:30 p.m. May 8, 8 p.m. May 9 and 2:30 p.m. May 10. Tickets are $16-$84 and can be purchased at 608-258-4141.

— Matthew Reddin

MSO performs Leonard Bernstein’s ‘Age of Anxiety’

Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra veteran guest William Wolfram returns to Milwaukee on Feb. 6 and Feb. 7 to perform one of the best Leonard Bernstein pieces you may have never heard.

Completed in 1949, The Age of Anxiety (Bernstein’s Symphony No. 2) drew inspiration from Anglo-American poet W.H. Auden’s poem of the same name. Bernstein said the Pulitzer Prize-winning poem left him “breathless” when he first read it. Almost immediately, Bernstein said, he put pen to paper hoping to compose a work that captured the brilliant quality of the poem. 

Age of Anxiety consists of two parts, each containing six movements. The movements have names that reflect the moods and events of the poem.

The symphony opens with four individuals in a bar, alone but aware of one another. The characters tell the story of their lives through a set of variations.

American pianist Wolfram is no stranger to the work, having performed it in several different venues over the last few years. In a recent phone interview, Wolfram explained why he keeps returning to the symphony.

“It’s an amazing piece,” he said. “So many people don’t know this work. The centerpiece (the second part) especially is very heart wrenching.”

The second part of the symphony begins with a solo piano section, based on a 12-tone row and then moves into a middle section that evokes Romantic composer Johannes Brahms. 

The four nameless individuals share a cab to an apartment. Determined to have a party, the four quickly change their minds and retire to bed. The journey of the characters is revisited during a section simply titled “The Epilogue.” 

The piece is a rare gem, one that has not quite found the popularity that other Bernstein works have. Wolfram said that’s not due to the quality of the work, which he considers brilliant. The pianist said the way Bernstein assimilated the poem into the piece is particularly impressive.

“It seems that he was able to do this in an enormous way,” he said. “Bernstein’s Age of Anxiety further displays the composer’s gift to assimilate musical content and present it in an approachable, simpler way that does not insult the audience. The effect created is brilliance.”

Wolfram hopes the MSO audience will find the symphony’s magic by letting “the sound bathe over them.”

On the program

Guest pianist William Wolfram performs Leonard Bernstein’s Age of Anxiety with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra on Feb. 6 and Feb. 7 as part of a program that includes works by Samuel Barber and Sergei Prokofiev. For more information or tickets, call 414-291-7605 or go to mso.org. 

A birthday party fit for a Stradivarius, at Frankly Music

From roughly 1700 until his death in 1737, Italian luthier and crafter Antonio Stradivari produced more than 1,000 instruments, considered to be “bold and innovative” even in his lifetime. To call a Stradivarius bold and innovative today is an understatement. The nearly 450 violins that have survived are considered some of the finest ever produced, and many of them are considered museum-quality pieces, on display at major cultural institutions across the world.

Other, luckier violins find themselves in the hands of talented violinists like Frank Almond, the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra concertmaster who performs with a loaned Stradivarius called the “Lipiński” Strad.

Produced in 1715, the Lipiński, named for its most famous owner, Polish virtuoso Karol Lipiński, comes from one of Stradivari’s greatest periods of work, according to Almond. The violin is designed with arching on the front and back sides to create an optimal sound, and is meant to be played in large concert halls.

It gets that opportunity often when Almond plays at the Marcus Center’s Uihlein Hall, but it’s equally at home at the Wisconsin Lutheran College. Almond’s Frankly Music project will hold a concert there on Feb. 10 — a 300th birthday concert for the fabled violin.

Almond said in a recent interview that the concert will feature works that place the Lipiński in its best light, by artists like Giuseppe Tartini, Amanda Röntgen-Maier and Robert Schumann.

“(This concert) will provide audiences a chance to get to hear rarely heard music on one of the world’s greatest violins,” Almond says. 

Each piece earned its place on the program for different reasons. The Tartini piece, a Trio Sonata in D, has never been performed in Milwaukee, according to Almond. But another work by Tartini, the famous “Devil’s Trill” sonata, is the classical work most commonly associated with the Lipiński Stradivarius, because Tartini was one of the first owners. Premiering the Trio Sonata gives Frankly Music the exciting opportunity for improvisation, Almond says, because it was originally written for piano and violin only, and the cello part will be added in.

The Schumann piece, a piano quartet, also has close ties to the violin. Schumann was a close friend of Lipiński, and even dedicated another piece to him, a solo piano work called Carnaval. 

But Almond’s simplest explanation is left for the Röntgen-Maier piece. He says it’s just “a fantastic sonata that’s worth hearing.”

Almond says the concert is special in one extramusical way as well: as a thank you to the many police officers and detectives who helped recover the Lipinski Strad when it was stolen after a Frankly Music concert last January.

 “We’ve never been able to properly thank them for all of the work that they put into this case and making sure the violin was returned safely. It was wonderful how much went into solving the case, so this concert is dedicated to them,” Almond says. 

ON STAGE

Frankly Music’s Happy 300th, “Lipiński” Strad concert will be performed at 7 p.m. on Feb. 10, at Wisconsin Lutheran College’s Schwan Concert Hall, 8815 W. Wisconsin Ave., Wauwatosa. Special guests include pianist William Wolfram, cellist Robert deMaine and violist Mara Gearman. Tickets range from $10 to $35, and can be ordered at franklymusic.org.