Madison's classical-music scene has been enjoying a richly rewarding growth curve for some years now, not least in one of its oldest traditional venues, the Wisconsin Union Theater.
The Union Theater's 81st concert season begins on Friday, Oct. 6, with the superstar pianist Garrick Ohlsson making his fourth appearance at the Union since 1971, the year after Ohlsson, then 23, won the International Chopin Competition in Warsaw. He carries on the tradition of his legendary teacher, Claudio Arrau, known for power and insightful readings of classical and romantic repertory. At 6'4," Ohlsson is a commanding physical presence, a feature that carries into his style of playing. But unlike many brilliant younger pianists, he does not drive the instrument beyond its limits, replacing lyricism with percussiveness. His program for the upcoming concert should amply demonstrate this approach, for it includes the third sonata and a group of mazurkas by Chopin, as well as the second sonata and a group of transcriptions by Rachmaninoff.
On Oct. 27, the cellist Janos Starker, renowned for his uncannily accurate playing in repertory of surpassing difficulty, will present a recital of sonatas. I still remember seeing him play the fiendishly demanding Kodaly Sonata for Solo Cello, Op. 8, a hair-raising performance in a work that spends much of its time in the instrument's stratosphere. Starker's program consists of Strauss' Sonata in F Major, Op. 6, the Beethoven Sonata in C Major, Op. 102, No. 1 and the Brahms Sonata in E Minor, Op. 38. While these can only be termed standard works for cellists, Starker is now in his 70s and can bring his lifelong musical experience to bear on them. His pianist for many years has been Shikeo Neriki, promising an intimate collaboration in the three sonatas, which are virtuoso works for the pianist as well as the cellist.
With two soloists under its belt, the series next turns its attention to chamber music, a perennial favorite with Madison audiences. On Nov. 17, the relatively new Brentano String Quartet, formed in 1992, will offer a program of quartets by Mendelssohn and Bartok, plus a newly commissioned piece by Steven Mackey, an American born in Germany and currently attracting the attention of major orchestras and ensembles. The Brentano Quartet's honors include the prestigious Naumberg Chamber Music Award, won in 1995.
The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center is one of the country's leading ensembles devoted to chamber-music performance, founded by composer William Schumann, singer Alice Tully and pianist Charles Wadsworth in 1969. Since its inception the CMS has presented a wide variety of players and a even wider range of repertory, usually to rave reviews. Included in their Madison program on Jan. 27 will be the seldom-heard "Trout" quintet by Schubert, a piano quartet with string bass added (it's this unusual instrumentation that accounts for the rarity of live performances).
Lyric soprano Barbara Bonney enjoys critical accolades in both opera and song recitals and is widely reputed to be at the top of her form. A frequent star in operas by Mozart and Strauss, she also consistently wins praise for thoughtful lieder recitals, which is what the Madison audience will get on Feb. 9, though the exact program is not yet available.
Pianist Wu Han first appeared at the Union Theater in 1998 with cellist David Finckel and returns to Madison on March 30 for a solo recital, playing a program as yet unannounced. The next day, Han will be the soloist in a Mozart piano concerto with the University Orchestra.
The Union Theater's classical-music series winds up on April 27 with the brother-and-sister violin and piano duo Gil and Orli Shaham. A player of incredible dexterity, Gil Shaham's recordings reveal a fiery temperament and awesome ability.
Union Theater director Michael Goldberg says that he tries to keep his sights on a guiding principle he gleaned from his predecessor, Fanny Taylor: "Quality is the issue," he says, "and Fan Taylor told me, 'It doesn't matter what you offer, as long as it's the best.'"
Goldberg notes that audiences have changed since he took over in 1981, and that the Union Theater has changed accordingly. "We can't afford to operate with a set, cookie-cutter formula, because it doesn't create excitement," he says. "It's unrealistic to expect nothing but smash hits, but it's our goal to give audiences a peak experience every time."
Isthmus, September, 2000
Copyright 2000 Jess Anderson