A Journey Through Madison's Classical Music Scene
Dec 27, 2011
02:14 PM
Classically Speaking

What Lingers in the Ear: Madison’s Year in Review, Classically Speaking

What Lingers in the Ear: Madison’s Year in Review, Classically Speaking

It is one of the great compulsive pleasures as a calendar year draws to a close to look back and decide what landmarks still jostle in the mind. Often we take the simple route of a more or less arbitrary “Top 10” list, but as I looked back over 2011 in Madison’s classical music life, such a list seemed capricious at best.

When in doubt … be chronological!

The year got off to an auspicious start when violinist Henning Kraggerud joined the Madison Symphony Orchestra in January to pull off one of the rarest feats of all: All forces combined to make a most familiar masterpiece fresh and new again. My review put it this way: “On any number of occasions DeMain turned to his left as if to conduct directly at the soloist, and Kraggerud never failed to zero in on the communication, frequently flashing a quick smile of agreement as the men molded the haltings and urgings of the musical flow. To the orchestra’s credit, they were attuned in razor sharpness to all of DeMain’s and Kraggerud’s subtleties.”

Not to be outdone, Andrew Sewell and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra tripled our pleasure in March with the Time for Three string trio in a performance of Jennifer Higdon’s 2007 concerto written for them. It was as if they brought spring to Madison a little early: “When Tf3 took the stage, they strode with the aggressive confidence of the Earp clan heading to the OK Corral, and there were plenty of moments when sparks seemed to fly, if not bullets. It is hard to say whether it is a greater compliment to Higdon or Tf3 to say that it is often hard to pinpoint when the soloists were improvising and when they were playing Higdon’s notes, so seamlessly was her style melded to theirs.”

The mid-year brought a small round number anniversary, courtesy of the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society. Shattering previous attendance records, the six-program series in Stoughton, Madison and at Taliesin was this good: I made it to five programs, and deeply regretted missing even one.

Here’s a new oxymoron for you: “quiet hype,” which could be said to have ushered in the start of the centennial season of the Pro Arte Quartet in October and November. It’s not as if the events generated the buzz of say, a Badgers sporting event, but those in the know greatly anticipated the world premieres, lectures by major figures from all over the U.S. and England … and the next performances by a foursome that just seems to get a little more polished and insightful at each and every event. The early money says that the PAQ concerts of next March and April will be mentioned in this column a year from now.

Madison Opera closed its fiftieth season in April, and Opera in the Park in July marked the first appearance of general manager Allan Naplan’s succerssor, Kathryn Smith. Early November saw the launch of the company’s fifty-first campaign, and they gave us a night of some wonderful singing and glorious orchestral playing in Tchaikovsky’s off-the-beaten-path Eugene Onegin. The transition to Smith’s more direct exercise of her duties will be eagerly watched in 2012 and beyond.

In a fitting symmetry to Kraggerud’s January refreshing of the overplayed, the famed virtuoso Midori performed the opposite trick in November: She took a “difficult” work, the Shostakovich Concerto No. 1, and made packed Overture Hall audiences sit on the edge of their seats and give her and the Madison Symphony the kinds of ovation that are push-button in Tchaikovsky, but rare in twentieth-century repertoire.

And one can never do a recap like this without feeling badly about what is left off … so here is the honorable mention list, with a very important reminder: For all of the truly great performances that pop up with gratifying regularity in our town, it is the whole that is greater than the sum of its parts that makes musical Madison such a living treasure. Here are some of those “other” folks that make that true:

Thank you and Happy New Year to the Ancora String Quartet (who had their tenth anniversary); Fresco Opera (thanks for staying “out of the box!”); UW Opera (can’t wait for your Giovanni!); Wingra Quintet; and priceless local gems such as pianist Christopher Taylor, the Token Creek Festival, which prevents withdrawal symptoms between Bach Dancing and Dynamite and the fall season … and to every local artist that gives Madison its “con brio.”

Photo by Greg Anderson, courtesy of Madison Symphony Orchestra.

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About This Blog

Years before I contributed my first classical review to the Los Angeles Times in 1988, I started a class in music appreciation for adults that had one aim: to put a few cracks in the “ivory tower elitism” I found pervasive in the classical music world since my boyhood days. Whether as a critic, program annotator or band director, that goal has never changed. After all, Mozart and Beethoven and the gang wrote their music for people like you—not critics or professors!

After growing up in the suburbs of New York City, and spending twenty years in and around Los Angeles, the last twelve years here leave me more amazed than ever at the musical riches of Madison. I’m a cheerleader at heart, because I always think more people would become classical fans if they’d give it a chance—but I’m also quick to tell you when you’re not getting your money’s worth. Classically Speaking brings you as much news and as many reviews as possible, and I hope you’ll join me for a fabulous musical journey.

–  Greg Hettmansberger
Follow Greg on Twitter @ghettmansberger

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