The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music matters: Madison’s Classical Musician of the Year for 2009 is keyboardist, educator and conductor Trevor Stephenson | December 31, 2009

By Jacob Stockinger

A quick reminder: Tonight at 7 and again at 10, Wisconsin Public Television will broadcast “Live From Lincoln Center,” which offers a special New Year’s Eve concert by the New York Philharmonic under Alan Gilbert with baritone Thomas Hampson. The all-American program features music by Copland and Gershwin. That means you can channel surf back and forth to the music as you wait for the ball to drop in Times Square. Nice, no?

2009 was an excellent year for classical music in Madison.

So, who should be the musician of the year for 2009?

It would be easy to pick a big name to honor – John DeMain and the Madison Symphony Orchestra, or Andrew Sewell and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, or Allan Naplan and the Madison Opera or the University Wisconsin School of Music and the Pro Arte String Quartet.

And, in fact, I have done so before, when I was writing for The Capital Times and the Wisconsin State Journal.

All of those people and groups continued to turn in outstanding performances and all contributed immensely to the vibrant and healthy classical music scene in the Madison area. So did many others.

But this year, I am going to name Trevor Stephenson (below) as Madison’s Classical Musician of the Year.

Stephenson, you may recall, is a Madison musician and keyboard-maker whose specialty is early music.

He has many duties and does a lot.

He teaches at Edgewood College and performs tirelessly at many local venues.

But the biggest reason he serves the honor is that he is a superb musician who is also as terrific explainer.

As a conductor, Stephenson was responsible for the most memorable event of 2009, which was a sublime reading, with period instruments and outstanding singing (below), of J.S. Bach’s mammoth “St. Matthew Passion,” perhaps Bach’s biggest and best work. Stephenson and the Madison Bach Musicians he founded and directs performed the work at the First Unitarian Society last spring for performances. Both were sold-out. No wonder, since the music making was first-rate.

But I have also seen Stephenson at work in other capacities.

He performed on the fortepiano – an early version of the piano that came after the harpsichord — on “Sunday Afternoon Live From the Chazan.” His Haydn, Schubert, Mozart and Beethoven were tasteful, energetic and ear-opening.

I heard him perform a similar program at one of the free Friday Noon Musicales at the First Unitarian Society, and he was humorous, witty and patient with the appreciate audience who wanted to know more about the instrument and the music. But he was also very, very good in his playing. I was particularly impressed with his natural manner of playing and his original ornamentation in variations and repeats.

I have also heard from friend whose judgment and ears I trust that Stephenson appeared in a UW Extension Continuing Education class on Bach’s cantatas to explain Bach’s cantatas and Well-Tempered Clavier, and did an outstanding job. (He also did the latter at a small private event, but should schedule a Madison Bach Musicians concert to do excerpts from books of the Well-Tempered Clavier of maybe the Two-Part Inventions and Three-Part Sinfonias.)

Stephenson has recordered many CDs, including keyboard works from the Italian baroque.

I imagine his students at Edgewood feel very luck to have such a fine classical musician who is so genial and who makes both himself and the music so accessible without compromising performance standards.

That makes Stephenson, who seems to share the well-adjusted and cheerfully inventive temperament of Haydn, a model for all classical musicians and lovers of classical music.

I look forward to hearing and seeing more of Trevor Stephenson. My guess is serious music lovers will be very satisfied if they go to the Madison Bach Musicians’ performances this spring (Saturday, April 10, at Trinity Lutheran Church and Saturday, April 24 at the First Unitarian Society) where they finish up their Bach “Brandenburg” Concerto cycle with Concertos Nos. 4, 5 and 6. You could also hear Stephenson solo performing works of Bach, Handel and Scarlatti (all born in 1685) at the official dedication of a double-keyboard harpsichord built by Norman Sheppard of Middleton. That concert is Friday, March 12, at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church.

For information, here is a link:

http://www.madisonbachmusicians.org/

So please join me in wishing Trevor Stephenson a healthy and happy new year filled with much more music-making and more informative and good-natured talk.

He deserves it, and we are lucky to have him.

Who would you nominate as Madison’s Classical Musician of the Year for 2009?

The Ear wants to hear.

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