Reflecting on 2010: Classical music (and more) in Madison

It’s the middle of my third year in Madison, Wisconsin, and I remain impressed by the classical music offerings in and around town. Between our local performing organizations and the international artists and ensembles that come to Madison on tour, I never feel like I’m missing all that much, and 2010 was no exception. When buzz about Stephen Hough’s Tchaikovsky albums was building, Stephen Hough came to town, and played Tchaikovsky. When I started to lament the lack of adventurous programming at alternative venues, the Portland Cello Project showed up and rocked out at the High Noon Saloon. And just as The New York Times began to cover the JACK Quartet, UW-Madison booked the stellar ensemble for a residency and performance. Not to mention the big names that make regular stops in the city, like the Emerson Quartet, who I got to hear live for the first time in 2010 at the Wisconsin Union Theater. Classical music is a New York-centric industry, and while I was left drooling over videos of Le Grand Macabre and pining for a local (le) poisson rouge, the capital of America’s Dairyland did pretty well for itself in 2010. Here’s a sampling of my favorite performances of the year, classical and otherwise.

Stephen Hough with the Madison Symphony Orchestra [Feb. 28, 2011]

Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concert No. 1 was the first classical piece I really loved. First, as a mediocre piano student, laboring over an abridged version of the second movement, and then in high school, as an official obsessive, listening to my Bernstein / Philippe Entremont recording on repeat. To me, the piece was always wild, the pianist on the brink of emotional eruption, with fingers spinning out of control in a fit of tortured passion. Hough‘s performance deconstructed the work for me. Because of my expectations, it felt a bit cool at first, but by the end, it translated as a magisterial interpretation. Every note rang clear, and Hough made a strong argument as a sort of anti-Lang Lang, entirely composed and collected on the piano bench. Understated, but never devoid of passion and emotional truth, Hough let this overplayed staple speak for it self, for a change.

Thao and Mirah with The Most of All at the High Noon Saloon [June 29, 2010]

Billed as an indie “superband collaboration,” this show was crazy good, and it’s where my mind wandered to at every classical concert that left me inconsolably antsy. I’m not the coolest kid on the block, so I only heard about Thao and Mirah after reading a preview of their tour in 77 Square. After asking around, I learned that a bunch of my friends were already going, and that I’m just a few years behind, per usual. Eclectic alt-folk-rock sung with ferocity and a knack for keeping the crowd moving added up to a great night.

As You Like It at American Players Theatre [July 24, 2010]

Updated to the Dust Bowl of 1930s America, this production popped, anchored by David Daniel’s comedic tour de force as Touchstone, James Ridge’s aching portrayal of Jaques, and Matt Schwader’s naive and heroic Orlando. I want to give special mention to the original music composed by Josh Schmidt. Mostly set to acoustic guitar in a style reminiscent, somewhat anachronistically, of Don McLean, it was sung beautifully by various cast members, particularly Marcus Truschinski. It still gets stuck in my head. “This life is most jolly…”

Token Creek Chamber Music Festival [Aug. 31, 2010]

Who wouldn’t want to spend an evening in John Harbison’s Wisconsin barn? My first trip to the composer’s charming chamber music festival just outside of Madison was a lecture/recital titled “Variations.” The program featured the pianists Judith Gordon and Ryan McCullough in Schubert’s Variations on an Original Theme in Ab, Roger Sessions’ Piano Sonata No. 1 (1930), and Harbison’s Piano Sonata No. 2 (2001). The intimate venue and relaxed atmosphere is perfect for this sort of program, and McCullough’s performance of the host’s sonata was outstanding.

Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra at the Wisconsin Union Theater [Nov. 21, 2010]

The Union Theater is in dire need of renovation, but its acoustics are still killer. The place is LOUD, which surely affected my experience at this concert: the MSO sound was simply overwhelming in Grieg’s Suite No. 1 from Peer Gynt, Barber’s Violin Concerto (feat. Frank Almond), and Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra, all led by new music director Edo de Waart.

Symphony concerts are a funny beast. For me, the decision to attend is almost entirely repertoire driven, and speaking honestly, my satisfaction is determined by whether the performance thrills more than listening to a recording would. For me, there are no social or emotional benefits to sitting quietly in a stuffy, uncomfortable auditorium in a row of people at least twice but mostly three times my age, where listening is the sole activity. This is opposed to a rock concert, where I can commune with friends, dance, and drink, or an opera or theater performance, where I’m offered visual stimulation and storytelling that supersedes anything recreated on a TV screen. So it always strikes me as a small miracle when I leave a symphony concert utterly floored, which is what happened at this MSO event. Alex Ross described the orchestra’s sound under de Waart as “old world,” and whatever “old world” means, I’m inclined to agree. The strings were decadently lush, and the brass had a tangy flavor that worked particularly well in the Bartok. I played the Concerto for Orchestra with the New York Youth Symphony in 2003, and it remains one of the most satisfying musical experiences in my life to date. The MSO evoked everything I love about the work, and combined with the aural alchemy of the decaying Union Theater, something magical happened. I wonder if anyone else felt it, too.

My job

In addition to heading out to concerts and all that in my free time, my job brings me into close contact with musical greatness on a regular basis. Those performances are obviously disqualified from any “best of” list I write, but I want to mention a few singers that I hope you all get to hear sometime soon: soprano Caroline Worra (The Governess in The Turn of the Screw), bass-baritone Bradley Garvin (The Dutchman in The Flying Dutchman), and soprano Anya Matanovic (Susanna in The Marriage of Figaro).

Onward and upward to 2011! Happy New Year, folks.

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