Tag Archives: MSO

Tchaikovsky and pianist Joyce Yang help bring the MSO to a roaring season finale

In his life, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was a trailblazing Russian composer. The first to make an impression on the international stage, Tchaikovsky was lauded both in Russia and abroad, leading to an appointment from Emperor Alexander III. His pieces, full of the lush rhythms and harmonies of the late Romantic era, continue to resound in concert halls across the world.

So there’s no better way to say goodbye to the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra for the summer than with a concert comprising some of the master’s greatest hits, including his iconic 1812 Overture. The concert series runs June 24 to 26.

The concert opens with the Polonaise from Tchaikovsky’s 1879 opera, Eugene Onegin. The robust Polish dance comes from Act III, which takes place during a ball in Moscow for the character Tatiana’s nameday. This popular piece is often extracted from the opera as a standalone symphonic work.

Following the Polonaise is pianist Joyce Yang, who will join the MSO to perform Piano Concerto No.1 in B flat minor. An internationally renowned pianist, Yang rose to fame in 2005 after being awarded the silver medal at the 12th annual Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. Yang, who was 19 at the time, has blossomed since her initial debut. “This concerto is one that I have performed several times,” says Yang. “It’s like coming back to an old friend every time I re-visit it.”

Composed between 1874 and 1875, Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto received heavy criticism from pianist Nikolai Rubinstein when it debuted. The pianist reversed these criticisms several years later after Tchaikovsky’s revisions, and Rubinstein eventually became one of Tchaikovsky’s strongest supporters.

Tchaikovsky composed this concerto using a Ukrainian folk theme as the main melody. He had heard the tune when he was visiting an open-air market in Kamenka, Ukraine. That simple theme is fleshed out through Tchaikovsky’s lush harmonies and sets the stage for the rest of the three-movement, 35-minute work.

Fortunately, Yang says, this concerto gets easier each time she performs it. “In the last few years, I’ve averaged a performance of this concerto about once every six months,” says Yang. “The prep time needed to get the piece ready for performance gets shorter each time I perform it.” She says getting to revisit the concerto over and over adds to the fun of performing it. “I discover new aspects of the piece each time, which shapes my performance,” added Yang.

For Yang, the piece also provides an opportunity for a catharsis of emotions. “Even though this piece is fairly standard repertoire, it falls in a rare category in which the pianist can truly let go emotionally and throw oneself into the piece,” says Yang. “That is not always the case in standard piano concertos, as many require a fair amount of structure and some restriction. This piece feels exposed at times, but I think that adds to the overall collaborative experience of the work.”

Yang is excited to return to the MSO. “I’m honored every time I get asked to come back,” she added. “This orchestra is one that I performed with several times in my career. I was fortunate to perform all of the Rachmaninoff piano concertos here. I haven’t done that anywhere else. I love coming back here. Much like this piece, returning to perform with the MSO is like visiting an old friend. It is a special experience that I really enjoy.”

The second half of the concert will continue with other popular Tchaikovsky works, including Symphony No.1 in G minor. The final piece of the concert will be undoubtedly one of Tchaikovsky’s most famous works, the 1812 Overture.

The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra will perform its “All-Tchaikovsky” concert June 24 to 26 at the Marcus Center, 929 N. Water St. Tickets range from $17 to $107. Visit mso.org or call 414-291-7605 to order.

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.

‘The Artistry of Jennifer Koh’

Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra director Edo de Waart returns for the first time in 2016, and he’s bringing Jennifer Koh along with him. The “risk-taking, high-octane” violinist is one of the world’s top instrumentalists, and she’ll bring that fiery talent to Bartók’s Second Violin Concerto. Also on the program are Anna Clyne’s elegiac Within Her Arms and Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony.

At the Marcus Center, 929 N. Water St. Tickets range from $17 to $107 and can be ordered at 414-291-7605 or mso.org.

8 p.m. Feb. 5 and 6

‘French Connection’

MSO concertmaster Frank Almond ties together the work of four French composers for Frankly Music’s latest program. Cellist Julian Schwartz and pianist Brian Zeger will join Almond for works by Emmanuel Chabrier, Maurice Ravel, Philip Lasser and Gabriél Fauré, all performed at the gorgeous St. Paul’s Episcopal Church for the final time this season — Frankly Music moves to Wisconsin Lutheran College for the remaining two shows.

At 914 E. Knapp St., Milwaukee. Tickets are $30 online, $35 at the door, $10 for students. Visit franklymusic.org to order.

7 p.m. Nov. 9

‘An American in Paris’

Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra music director Edo de Waart conducts this all-American program, featuring a variety of works from our national canon. The highlight is Gershwin’s jazzy symphonic poem An American in Paris, but the program also will feature John Adams’ foxtrot The Chairman Dances, William Schuman’s Sixth Symphony and Aaron Copland’s Clarinet Concerto, performed with principal clarinet Todd Levy. 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.

11:15 a.m. Sept. 25 and 8 p.m. Sept. 26


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‘Bach & Brahms’

Frankly Music comes back with Bach — and Brahms too. The two legendary composers will be thrust into the spotlight by MSO concertmaster Frank Almond at this show, which features work created when they were at their respective peaks as artists. Don’t think that these composers’ age and distance from the present moment makes them any less than rockstars: Frankly Music’s last season opening show sold out and there’s no reason to suspect any different this time around.

At St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, 914 E. Knapp St., Milwaukee. Tickets are $30 online, $35 at the door and $10 for students. Visit franklymusic.org for more details.

7 p.m. Sept. 14 

Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral’


If they wanted to return with fanfare, the MSO and its conductor Edo de Waart could easily accommodate. Instead, their first program of 2015 promises something better: Beethoven’s peaceful, contemplative Sixth “Pastoral” Symphony, a five-movement work that calls to mind the Austrian countryside. They’ll also present film music pioneer Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s brilliant Violin Concerto with guest artist Daniel Hope as well as Garages of the Valley, a new microtonal work by Mason Bates co-commissioned by the MSO.

At the Marcus Center, 929 N. Water St. Tickets range from $22 to $102 and can be ordered at mso.org or 414-291-7605.

8 p.m. Jan. 16 and 17

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.

‘The Wizard of Oz’

The Wizard of Oz is among the most beloved films of all time, largely thanks to the iconic Judy Garland’s vocals and the resplendent orchestration of the score. Milwaukee can’t resurrect Judy Garland, but it’s got the orchestra. The MSO is tuning up to perform the music of Oz live, simultaneous with a screening of the film at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts, 929 N. Water St., under the direction of conductor Sarah Hicks. The vocals will be left intact, including Judy’s. Tickets range from $22 to $102.

Call 414-291-7605 or go to mso.org. The performance on Sat., April 12, will be followed with by an “Emerald City Soiree.” Visit the website for details.

7 p.m. on Sat., April 12, and 2:30 p.m. on Sun., April 13