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.”
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