If you decided to forgo your road trip this year because of soaring gas prices or bad weather, Madison's classical groups are offering a new season that will help make up for that. The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, for example, will take us to the Arctic Circle in "Cantus Arcticus: Concerto for Birds and Orchestra." For the Madison Opera, it will be Japan in Madama Butterfly. And if you want to leave earth altogether, the Madison Symphony Orchestra will guide you to "The Planets."
Last season, the groups emphasized new repertoire as they presented a world premiere and several company premieres. This season the Madison Opera and the Madison Symphony Orchestra offer mainstream but heftier programming, with three full-bodied operas, weighty concertos and a requiem. The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra continues its adventurous programming with music from all periods with a bent toward the 20th century.
Allan Naplan, general director of the Madison Opera, broadened the company's previous season by adding a third opera, Copland's The Tender Land, and Madison loved it. The Opera continues its expanded offerings this season with Puccini's Madama Butterfly on Nov. 21 and 23, Mozart's Cosi Fan Tutte on March 13 and 15, and Gounod's Faust on May 15 and 17.
Madama Butterfly is set high above Nagasaki and tells of a geisha's love for an American naval officer, Lt. Pinkerton. She lives and breathes for him, but Pinkerton's feelings for her are fleeting. He marries her in a Japanese ceremony, but longs for an American wife. The music combines dense counterpoint with airy pentatonic scales as strains of the "Star Spangled Banner" drift in and out. Puccini favored Butterfly above all of his heroines and wrote moving arias for her that stay in the heart.
Cosi Fan Tutte is a comedy about lovers, their conflicts and the games they play. In the early 1900s, it was considered risqué because of the fiancée-swapping element. The storyline suited librettist Lorenzo da Ponte, a Casanova who stole the hearts of married women until he was run out of Venice. Mozart's music adds depth as the couples realize that love isn't as simple and straightforward as they thought.
Charles Gounod read the French translation of Goethe's Faust when he was 20 years old, then spent the next 15 years formulating and refining the operatic version. The opera features part one of Goethe's epic about an old 16th-century scholar who makes a deal with the devil to regain his youth in exchange for service in the afterlife. Gounod's music is warm and lyrical in the French style, but it's also filled with Gallic dances that will go right to your feet.
Madison Opera's ever-popular Opera in the Park happens on July 26 in Garner Park. Other events include a recital by soprano Danielle De Niese on Feb. 19 and Opera Up Close, a series of lectures that examines each of the season's operas.
Madison Symphony Orchestra
It's a signature season for the Madison Symphony Orchestra as it celebrates the 15th anniversary of music director and conductor John DeMain.
The season opens on Sept. 26-28 with some of the maestro's favorites - Mendelssohn's sunny "Symphony No. 4" (Italian), Respighi's "Pines of Rome" and Rachmaninoff's massive "Piano Concerto No. 3." Both Respighi and Rachmaninoff were influenced by Rimsky-Korsakov's luminous orchestration, so "Pines of Rome" and the "Rach 3" have a similar sparkle from light sources deep inside the music. Pianist Garrick Ohlsson will make the Rachmaninoff look as easy as breathing, but it is loaded with rapid, finger-tangling passagework and tricky slow passages. Rachmaninoff wrote the concerto for his first American tour, and a passionate, bespectacled Gustav Mahler conducted it in New York in 1909.
On Oct. 17-19, Japanese conductor Chosei Komatsu makes his MSO debut with a 20th-century program.
Aaron Copland interrupted his work on Billy the Kid in 1938 to compose "An Outdoor Overture" for the New York High School of Music and Art. Some conductors thought it was kids' stuff, but Leonard Bernstein and Elliott Carter disagreed. The overture is simple, direct and vigorous.
Born on Sept. 21, 1874, Gustav Holst was a Virgo who studied astrology, astronomy and the space-time continuum, and composing "The Planets" was right up his star path. This series of tone poems calls for a huge orchestra and wordless chorus that take us from hot Mars to cool Neptune.
Elgar's "Cello Concerto in E Minor" has a melancholy tone overall, but the cello shines in the anguished adagio and glows with verve in the allegro molto. Cellist Alban Gerhardt returns to the MSO for this personal favorite.
Estonian conductor Anu Tali makes her MSO debut on Nov. 7-9 with an eclectic program of Barber, Brahms, Tormis and Shostakovich. "Anu Tali is breathtakingly beautiful," says DeMain. "It's been awhile since we've had a woman on the podium for one of our concerts."
Samuel Barber's Overture to The School for Scandal is based on a comedy by Richard Sheridan, and it's caffeinated with a plethora of tempo and dynamic shifts. Violinist Sarah Chang returns to the MSO with Brahms' "Violin Concerto." The first movement is massive and moody like Brahms himself, and Chang will have to maneuver challenging leaps and the famous passage in tenths to cross its soundscape successfully.
Estonian composer Veljo Tormis has one goal - to preserve the heritage of his kinsmen through music. His "Overture No. 2" is neoclassical with a combination of folk music and heartrending ostinato. Dmitri Shostakovich's "Symphony No. 9" is capricious and gaudy with brass, but the slow movements shimmer with melodies that float somewhere above the world.
On Dec. 5-7 the MSO will usher in John DeMain's favorite season. "I'm a Christmas junkie," he says. "My family laughs when I have Christmas music blaring in July. For this season we'll have the virtuoso bell-ringing group [Madison Area Concert Handbells] and the Mount Zion Gospel Choir, which continues to amaze. Jamie-Rose Guarrine and Gregory Turay, two audience favorites, will also be joining us." The Madison Symphony Chorus, Madison Youth Choirs and the audience join in to make this sing-along the party of the year.
The MSO and young American conductor Daniel Hege welcome the New Year on Jan. 16-18 with Mozart's cheery "Symphony No. 31" (Paris). The evening's centerpiece is Jean Sibelius' "Violin Concerto in D Minor" composed around 1903. Sibelius was still in his Romantic phase, but the violin writing foreshadows a later period of icy starkness. Norwegian violinist Henning Kraggerud makes his MSO debut with this dramatic essay.
The last selection will be an unusual treat as special guest James DeVita, writer and actor with the American Players Theatre, reads Shakespeare's text to excerpts from Prokofiev's "Romeo and Juliet." Prokofiev's music to the ballet is pungent with Russian folk songs, and DeVita's rich voice should evoke the essence of Old England.
It's all Beethoven on Feb. 6-8. "Beethoven was very significant in my musical upbringing," says DeMain. "When I studied his piano sonatas, I imagined an orchestra playing them. I like his theatricality and the tremendous contrast and surprise in his music."
Starting off is "Leonore Overture No. 3," a passionate work from Beethoven's opera, Fidelio. Then Olga Kern makes her MSO debut with "Piano Concerto No. 3." When Kern performed at the Union Theater in 2006, her playing was radiantly clear and should be suited to the concerto's Mozartian overtones. "Symphony No. 7" is many things - a dance, a fugue, a funeral march. The music strives upward in ascending chords, then rests on peaceful cadences before ascending again.
On March 6-8, Israeli conductor Yoav Talmi leads the MSO in a Russian and Czech program. When Alexander Borodin died in 1887, the score to the opera "Prince Igor" was unfinished. His friends Rimsky-Korsakov and Alexander Glazunov completed the work, including the overture that you will hear in this concert. Stravinsky's "Violin Concerto" shuns emotional jargon. Clean lines border spiky rhythms and dissonances, but the concerto is basically tonal with elements of surprise. Lithuanian violinist Julian Rachlin makes his MSO debut with this intricate work. Dvorak's "Symphony No. 8" will remind you of warm days and butterflies. The music is a pleasure, straightforward and effortless.
The concert on April 3-5 highlights some of DeMain's favorites by Saint-Saëns, Wagner and Brahms, and also a favorite artist, André Watts. "It will be wonderful to have André here to play Saint-Saëns' second piano concerto," he says. "André and I have worked in Orange County together, and our wives know each other well. The Saint-Saëns is glittering and will be a relief work between Wagner's Prelude to Parsifal, which is very special to my wife, and Brahms' 'Second Symphony,' one of the first pieces I conducted as a professional conductor with the Houston Symphony."
Verdi's colossal "Messa da Requiem" ends the season on May 1-3, and soloists Karen Slack, Kristine Jepson, Arturo Chacón-Cruz and Kyle Ketelsen will join the MSO and Madison Symphony Chorus for the grand finale. In Verdi's hands, the Requiem enters a highly charged emotional world where soloists are not ashamed to beg and grovel for mercy on judgment day.
Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra
The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra begins its Masterworks Concert Series on Oct. 3 with the "Good Humored Ladies Suite," a mix of Domenico Scarlatti's scintillating keyboard sonatas arranged for ballet by Vincenzo Tommasini. The evening's star, Kyoko Takezawa, will give us her take on Mendelssohn's hauntingly lovely "Violin Concerto in E Minor." Takezawa was a protégé of Juilliard's Dorothy DeLay and has a sweet, translucent violin voice.
The heftiest number in this concert will be Beethoven's "Symphony No. 2." Beethoven was only 30 years old, but we can already hear the knocks of fate in the first measures of the second symphony that are heard more emphatically in his fifth.
On Jan. 23, the WCO takes flight with Rautavaara's "Cantus Arcticus: Concerto for Birds and Orchestra," a nature-lover's delight that incorporates a tape of bird songs near the Arctic Circle. Respighi's "Gli Uccelli" is a suite of five movements written in Baroque fashion. Haydn's "Cello Concerto No. 1"will flutter us to earth with French grandeur and elegant frugality. Cellist Amit Peled is said to play from the soul, showering Haydn's precision with sweet luster.
Music's dreamiest instruments come together on Feb. 27 in Mozart's "Flute and Harp Concerto in C Major." You will enjoy the music's light-and-shadow effects as harpist Yolanda Kondonassis and flutist Eugenia Zukerman collaborate in this rare gem.
The opening piece, Stravinsky's "Concerto in E-Flat" (Dumbarton Oaks), combines the old and the new. "This is a concerto grosso that has a Baroque link," says Andrew Sewell, WCO's music director. "It was written during Stravinsky's neoclassical phase."
"L'Eventail de Jeanne" (Jeanne's Fan) will add a little French spice to this concert. "Jeanne was a society lady in Paris who commissioned a ballet," Sewell says. "'Jeanne's Fan' is a wonderful suite by French composers like Ravel, Poulenc and Milhaud who collaborated on the dance music."
The beauty of the human voice takes the lead on March 27 with Gerald Finzi's "Dies Natalis" and Schubert's "Mass No. 2 in G Major." Vocalists Robert Bracey, Timothy Jones and Natalie Fagnan will join the Festival Choir. "Finzi had a tragic life," says Sewell. "He lost his father and brothers to the war, so he had a morbid obsession with death and fragility, but this piece celebrates life. It leans toward the Baroque and has beautiful words."
Schubert's "Mass No. 2" premiered when the composer was 18 and opened the floodgates to his composing frenzy. The Mass is an intimate work written for Schubert's local church. The WCO's fine string players get their chance to show off in Vivaldi's delightful "Concerto for Four Violins and Cello in B Minor."
The final concert of the season on April 24 presents a young Rossini, a Romantic Beethoven and a thoughtful Ginastera. Rossini's overture to "Il Signor Bruschino" is a mix of farce and grace that leads into a comic opera about cunning disguises. Beethoven's "Piano Concerto No. 5" (Emperor) was the last concerto he would ever write. He wanted clarity to prevail since the cadenza is written out and not improvised as was common practice. Finnish pianist Paavali Jumppanen has a reputation for powerful playing combined with a singing tone.
Ginastera's "Variaciones Concertantes" is a series of short variations on a sultry theme. While some variations highlight speed, many focus on slow playing that reveals the personality of the performer.
The WCO season also includes a Halloween concert on Oct. 24, Holiday Pops on Nov. 29-30 and a "Blue Jeans Family Concert" on March 28.
And there you have it. With so many selections it's hard to pick favorites, but since I'm a sucker for tearjerkers, Madama Butterfly would be indispensable. For the Madison Symphony Orchestra, there's nothing like the Stravinsky and Sibelius violin concertos to expand your mind. And for atmosphere, I have to give it up for "The Planets." The first concert (Scarlatti) for the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra is the most charming, but the second (birds) is the most intriguing.
One thing I miss is a piece by our neglected composers, like Charles Ives. His "Unanswered Question" would be beautiful in Overture Hall or the Capitol Theater, with strings backstage, flutes onstage and a trumpet behind the audience. But I'm not going to complain with so much lovely music waiting to be heard.