The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music news: They were silenced too soon. Here are prominent deaths in the classical music world in 2011. Plus PBS offers a live broadcast tonight of a New Year’s Eve concert of music by Gershwin and Bernstein.

December 31, 2011
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AN ALERT: Just a reminder than the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet, all under the baton of Alan Gilbert, will perform an all-American concert of music by George Gershwin (below) and Leonard Bernstein TONIGHT — New Year’s Eve —  from 7 to 9 p.m. on Wisconsin Public Television. The live broadcast is part of PBS’ award-winning “Live From Lincoln Center” series that is produced by UW-Madison alumnus John Goberman. The program features the Piano Concerto in F and “Rhapsody in Blue” by Gershwin plus Bernstein’s Overture to “Candide” and the Symphonic Dances From “West Side Story.” For more information, visit: http://www.pbs.org/programs/live-from-lincoln-center/

By Jacob Stockinger

The end of the year is always a time of mixed emotions.

We toast Cheers to a Happy New Year. Yet all the whole we are looking over our shoulder and behind us at what losses the past year brought us.

This past year did not strike me as a sad one for the number of deaths of prominent figures in the world of classical music so much as for the unexpectedness of so many of the deaths, which came to people who, by today’s standards, were too young to leave us and their profession or art.

The much heralded tenor Salvatore Licitra (below), who was frequently hailed as the successor to superstar Luciano Pavarotti but who died in a motorbike accident, is a prime example.

One senses that so many of these figures had much more to say and to add to their legacies, whether as performers or composers.

Here is a West Coast site with a photo gallery:

http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/news/arts/la-et-art-notable-deaths-classical-music-dance-jazz-2011-pictures,0,4127772.photogallery

And here is another slide show from the East Coast. Be sure to read the Comments:

http://www.wqxr.org/#/blogs/wqxr-blog/2011/dec/26/memoriam-musicians-lost-2011/

And here is a list of mixed genres from NPR:

http://www.npr.org/2011/12/22/143974208/in-memoriam-musicians-we-lost-in-2011


Classical music news: The Pro Arte String Quartet, originally from Belgium and now from the University of Wisconsin–Madison, is Musician of the Year.

December 30, 2011
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By Jacob Stockinger

It is the end of the calendar year, though not the end of the concert season.

That makes it time to announce The Ear’s choice for Musician of the Year.

And this year’s Musician of the Year is: The Pro Arte String Quartet. Members (below, from left, in a photo by Rick Langer) are: Perry Karp, cello; Suzanne Beia, second violin; Sally Chisholm, viola; and David Perry, first violin.

I’ll give you more details about the reasons for my choice. But first I have to offer one qualification and one disclosure.

The qualification is that it is very far from easy to pick out one single individual musician or group in a city where the practice of making classical music is so prevalent and takes place on such a high level.

The disclosure is that I am a member of the committee working on the centennial celebration of the string quartet. But speaking frankly, that kind of close work has only given more reasons to make my choice.

So here are several reasons why the Pro Arte Quartet deserves this honor:

1. The Pro Arte Quartet is celebrating its centennial this season. No other quartet in this history of music has ever achieved the milestone of staying active for 100 years. (Below is an excerpt from their 1934 recording, still in print, of the Schumann Piano Quintet with famed pianist Artur Schnabel.)

2. The Pro Arte Quartet embodies in the performing arts the Wisconsin Idea that the university is to serve the larger public that supports it. The quartet is constantly playing, touring and teaching. They are supremely successful ambassadors of the state and the university.

3. The Pro Arte Quartet is celebrating this momentous centennial year  with commissions that will add two new string quartets (by Walter Mays and John Harbison, below) and two new piano quintets (by Paul Schoenfield  and William Bolcom) to the chamber music literature. That important achievement seems to have gone largely unnoticed by the same critics who most protest the lack of new music. But the heritage of the Pro Arte is that it has always pioneered new and modern music, all the way back to Bartok and Schoenberg, and the current configuration is continuing that tradition of innovation.

4. In addition to concerts the Pro Arte Quartet has lined up free lectures by important figures includes NPR host Bill McGlaughlin and New York Times senior critic Anthony Tommasini (below). In addition the concerts are FREE and open to the public. In short, the Pro Arte Quartet adds to the life of the community through both accessibility and quality.

5. The Pro Arte Quartet changed the business model for just about all string quartets and chamber music ensembles. When in 1940 the members back then (pictured below) were marooned in Madison because Hitler had invaded their native Belgium, they joined the UW-Madison as artists-in-residence—the first such positions to be created. These days, just about every important quartet (the Juilliard, Emerson, Tokyo, St. Lawrence, Takacs, Fine Arts and Brentano quartets, to name just a few prominent examples) has an academic affiliation that allows it to perform and concertize as a string quartet and simultaneously to teach.

6. But that dual role of performer-teacher can exact an exhaisting toll. Many people know that the Pro Arte Quartet plays beautifully, plays exceptionally well. (Just listen to the short Prelude by Ernest Bloch at the bottom of this post.)  But few know that that mastery is the result not only of talent but also of very hard work. The current Pro Arte Quartet (below, by Rick Langer) rehearses every weekday morning from 9 a.m. to noon. Then they still teach and still tour around the state, the nation and the world to perform and to conduct music education education and outreach.

7. For all its devotion to new music and innovation, the Pro Arte Quartet is also unapologetically devoted to the great quartet repertoire of the 18th , 19th and 20th centuries. They have performed complete cycles of Beethoven and Shostakovich. Their programs this year are the very model of smart and balanced programming. Each of the four centennial concerts features a world premiere of a contemporary commission. Each of the four concerts also features an older, more mainstream modern work to which the quartet has a special relationship. (Few people realize, for example, that the Pro Arte Quartet gave the world premiere of the famous ‘Adagio for Strings” by Samuel Barber – below — in 1936 in Rome.) And each program features a major work by an established classic composer such as Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert.

8. The individual Pro Arte members are devoted collaborators who also perform frequently with other performers, from their colleagues at the UW Madison School of Music to the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra.

In short, the four members of the Pro Arte Quartet are the model of well-rounded musicians who are committed to both performing and teaching, to both the past and the present, to both fellow professionals and the general public.

We should all be proud to have the Pro Arte Quartet call Madison and Wisconsin home. It showed great foresight for the University of Wisconsin to recruit them; and it showed great generosity of spirit that the Belgium-born quartet agreed to emigrate permanently to the UW-Madison to pursue their artistry.

The Pro Arte Quartet deserves a much bigger reputation and higher profile than they currently enjoy — locally, regionally, nationally and even internationally. Perhaps this post and honor will help achieve that.

Certainly no one in the Madison area who is interested in chamber music and classical music in general should miss Pro Arte concerts. The two remaining sets of centennial events and concerts –  in late March (March 21-25) and late April (April 17-22) – are nothing short of MUST-HEARS. One can also stream the centennial concerts, albeit NOT live, from the UW School of Music website and Events Calendar at www.music.wisc.edu/events. For more information about the Pro Arte Quartet and its Centennial Celebration,  visit www.proartequartet.org

Why, one can even hope that the 2-CD set of four new commissions the quartet is recording in Mills Hall (below) — with Grammy-winning producer Judith Sherman — will be nominated for, and maybe even win, a Grammy Award next year.

With so many pluses going for the quartet and its music-making, The Ear says it isn’t too soon to start the campaign.

Cheers to the Pro Arte Quartet, now and in 2012!

Cheers to us for being lucky enough to hear them live!


Classical music news: U.S. House and Senate — plus President Obama — cut back on funding for the arts and humanities, even as Congress grows richer while we get poorer.

December 29, 2011
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By Jacob Stockinger

Well, guess what?

SURPRISE!!!!!

The U.S. House of Representatives (below) and the U.S Senate – both of which have been so-o-o-o popular and so in tune with the American public lately – last week passed a bill to cut back on the arts and humanities (specifically, the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities) even though those organizations might benefit their own constituents and their own children.

Instead the House and Senate have favored a time-honored historical group that is more conservative and less adventurous about new and contemporary culture: The Smithsonian Institution (below). And it looks like President Obama will sign the bill into law as a compromise measure.

That venerable historical institution of course benefits the city of Washington, D.C. — the very area where the Congressmen and Congresswomen spend so much time dithering in inertia.

Well, they need some place to go unwind and to pretend to be cultured, don’t they?

Do you think it has to do with the anti-intellectualism and pseudo-populism of the Republican Party and the Tea Party?

Good question.

Do you think it has to with federal debt and spending, so many will no doubt say?

Or do you think maybe those same groups see independent or critical thinking skills or art and beauty as dangerous to their agenda and underlying ideology?

Certainly The Smithsonian seems a safer and less creative choice, although no one can deny it is certainly a deserving institution with great many valuable artifacts and exhibitions. (See the photo os its interior below.) And the new Museum of African American History is sure to add to its reputation.

But don’t these cuts also reek of the same know-nothing, take no prisoners partisanship that leads the House majority party to want to defund public radio and public television?

More good questions – especially for a Congress that, as we learned this week, has seen its net worth increase a lot while the average net worth of most Americans has declined.

Read all about it the citizen-politician wealth gap right here:

http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/45793299/ns/politics-the_new_york_times/t/economic-downturn-took-detour-capitol-hill/#.TvtHRJjH1UQ

http://nation.foxnews.com/congress/2011/12/27/members-congress-net-worth-tripled-over-last-25-years-us-family-struggles

And here are links to read all about it the budget cuts to the arts and humanities:

http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/culturemonster/2011/12/federal-budget-arts-spending-nea-neh-smithsonian.html

Read it and then let me know what you think.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music news: How did deafness affect the way that Beethoven composed?

December 28, 2011
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By Jacob Stockinger

Did Beethoven’s deafness shape his music? In a new study some experts say yes.

What caused his deafness and what kind of hearing impairment was it?

And how do you think deafness changed Beethoven (below) as an artist?

Check out if you are right. (And look below at the various ear trumpets, on display at the Beethoven House in Bonn, Germany, that the deaf composer used.)

Here is where you can find what the experts think.

But be sure to pursue a lot of the links in the stories to read the study and see some specific examples, including the late Symphony No. 8 and the String Quartet, Op. 130 (the famous Cavatina movement from that quartet is at the bottom):

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-16283109

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/12/25/beethoven-deafness-music_n_1163636.html

And to read the full text of the  study, visit this site:

http://www.bmj.com/content/343/bmj.d7589?tab=full


Classical music news: Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestra will go on tour to Europe and perform in Vienna, Prague and Budapest in July of 2012. But WYSO needs to raise $30,000.

December 27, 2011
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By Jacob Stockinger

The details are still being worked out. So we will have to wait a while to find out specific repertoire and a specific itinerary with dates and venues.

But under the baton of conductor Jim Smith, the Youth Orchestra (below) of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras will go on tour to perform in Eastern Europe (really Central Europe) from July 7-17 in 2012.

WYSO has already been holding a raffle (two people get airfare plus hotel for three days in Paris in November) and seeking other ways to raise money to make this exciting honor come true. The drawing to name the winner will be in March.

But I also want to remind readers that as we approach the end of the current tax year, this is a great time to make a major charitable donation and tax deduction to WYSO and its International Tour Scholarship Fund to help them undertake this significant event.

Of course there are plenty of organizations offering food to the hungry and shelter to the homeless also competing for funding. But music education – especially during these days of federal and state budget cutbacks in the arts and arts education – is also a cause worthy of support.

And let me tell you: If the students musicians in WYSO play Dvorak as I heard them play it two years ago, the Czechs will go wild with enthusiasm!

WYSO has been a major player in American music education since it was founded in 1966 by Marvin Rabin. It has trained more than 5,000 young people from more than a hundred communities in southern Wisconsin.

Here is a link to WYSO’s main website with a lot of information about the background and mission of this worthy organization.

http://wyso.music.wisc.edu/

And here is a link to the webpage with specifics about the upcoming tour and its fundraising needs:

http://wyso.music.wisc.edu/intltour12.html


Classical music news: For today, Monday, Dec. 26, the web site medici.tv is offering a full day of free viewing.

December 26, 2011
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By Jacob Stockinger

Christmas may be over, but there are still important holiday gifts and special deals involving classical music to be had. Here is one as described in a recent press release The Ear received;

The go-to site for experiencing world-class classical performances on the Webmedici.tv – will be offering all music lovers in the U.S. an unlimited free day of viewing on Monday, Dec. 26 of the myriad programs in the site’s pay-per-view library. (A sample is below.)

Much of the live programming on medici.tv is available free throughout the year, but on the day after Christmas, the pay-for-view archival programs will be free, too – as a gift to the site’s fans and new friends.

What’s available on medici.tv now includes more opera than ever before – including acclaimed productions from the UK and Paris with such top stars as Jonas Kaufmann (below), Natalie Dessay and Gerald Finley.

There are also live Webcasts of top-tier orchestral concerts, vocal performances, and chamber recitals, along with vintage documentaries and music films – including the much-lauded Christopher Nupen catalog.

More and more praise accrues to medici.tv with each passing month.

New Yorker magazine writer Alex Ross (below) said on his blog, “The Rest Is Noise,” that “the hits keep coming at medici.tv.” Offering “treasures aplenty” was how Gramophone editor-in-chief James Jolly put it, designating medici.tv as one of the Web’s leading classical experiences.

The medici.tv app for iPads, iPhones, and other digital devices – available for free at the Apple app store – was named one of the top five apps for classical music by WQXR, the classical music station of New York City.

In addition to its live webcasts, medici.tv also offers an extensive library of video-on-demand programs, available via subscription. These performances, documentaries and archival features spotlight leading musical institutions and world-class artists – from golden-age legends to today’s top stars.

The 30-plus Christopher Nupen films available at medici.tv include not only the priceless du Pré documents (complete with Elgar’s Cello Concerto and a number of all-star chamber performances) but also films of Evgeny Kissin, Vladimir Ashkenazy and Nathan Milstein. All 32 Beethoven piano sonatas recorded by Daniel Barenboim (below) in 1983-84 will be available by the year’s end.

About medici.tv: Since its official launch in May 2008, medici.tv has gained international recognition, bringing together a community of music and arts lovers from 182 countries – online viewers who have watched over 12 million videos to date. The site currently averages more than 80,000 individual visitors each month.

In addition to offering live concert hall events that music lovers can experience on their computers and entertainment systems, medici.tv now offers a free application (available at the Apple App Store) that makes it possible to experience world-class artistry on iPads and iPhones.

Building on the success of webcasts from the Verbier Festival (below) in 2007, medici.tv has offered high-definition webcasts from many other leading festivals, including Aix-en-Provence, Saint-Denis, Aspen, Glyndebourne, Salzburg, and Lucerne; from such Parisian venues as the Opéra National de Paris, Auditorium du Louvre, Cité de la Musique, and Salle Pleyel; and from Milan’s famed La Scala.

Many operas and concerts performed by the world’s top artists and orchestras have been webcast as live events and later as video-on-demand (VOD) – all available for free. The list of artists presented at medici.tv is a “who’s who” of today’s stars, including Claudio Abbado, Martha Argerich, Daniel Barenboim, Pierre Boulez, Plácido Domingo, John Eliot Gardiner, Valery Gergiev, Bernard Haitink, Riccardo Muti (below), Anna Netrebko, Maurizio Pollini, Thomas Quasthoff and Simon Rattle.

Among the featured orchestras are such renowned ensembles as the Berlin Philharmonic, Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra, New York Philharmonic, London Philharmonic, Royal Concertgebouw (below), Orchestre National de France, Orchestre de Paris, Filarmonica della Scala, and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe.

In addition to webcasts of more than 80 live concerts each year, medici.tv has partnered with the world’s top artists and music institutions to offer subscriptions, giving music-lovers the opportunity to watch more than 700 Video On Demand programs – growing to 1,000 programs over the next two years.

They include concerts, operas, recitals, documentaries, master classes, artist portraits, and archival material. Featured artists include such legendary musicians as Leonard Bernstein, Maria Callas, Glenn Gould, Herbert von Karajan, Yehudi Menuhin, David Oistrakh, Sviatoslav Richter, Mstislav Rostropovich, Arthur Rubinstein (below), Georg Solti and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, as well as such leading film directors as Bruno Monsaingeon, Paul Smaczny and Frank Scheffer.

You can watch medici.tv concerts on iPhone with the free medici.tv App.

You can also:

Follow medici.tv on Facebook!

Follow medici.tv on Twitter!

Follow medici.tv on YouTube!


Classical music: Merry Christmas! At holiday time we gather to celebrate and we gather to make music, especially J.S. Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” and George Frideric Handel’s “Messiah.”

December 25, 2011
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By Jacob Stockinger

Most of the time during the year we treat music-making as more or less an individual activity even when it involves ensembles in chamber music, orchestral music and opera.

We generally seem to feel more comfortable when we recognize the individual talent and drive involved rather than the collective effort. We emphasize who stands out, not who blends in.

But then when the holidays come along, we shift of emphasizing soloists and individualism to the social bonding that happens through art and through music – which are indeed social as sell as individual acts. Just look at the amateur chorus singing along to “Messiah” below.”

This year has been an especially insightful one in underscoring that realization and phenomenon.

So to mark Christmas Day, this posting links to two terrific stories – both enjoyable and inspiring — that involve two individuals, professional and community members, who join together with others to make great music that is also appropriate to the occasion.

The first is a story that aired on NPR on Friday  The reporter talked to a single member of the ancient but restored St. Mary’s Church (below top is its exterior, below bottom is its interior) in Berlin, Germany, to find out what it means to sing J.S. Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” every year.

It is a short but moving and insightful radio piece in which the source is everything and the reporter is just about invisible except for providing some background. The amateur musician speaks as eloquently as the music:

I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Here it is:

http://www.npr.org/2011/12/22/144078970/a-church-an-oratorio-and-an-enduring-tradition

The second piece aired last week on PBS’ NewsHour and featured prize-winning poet Mark Doty (below) reading one of his poems about a community sing-out of Handel’s “Messiah” at the Massachusetts seaside town where he lives.

It too is well done in both the words and the music with the added attraction of pictures or images.

I hope you enjoy this one too.

Here is a link:

http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/entertainment/july-dec11/messiah_12-21.html

And here is a truly massive community sing-along of the “Hallelujah” Chorus:


Classical music: The music is ALWAYS more important than the performer or performance. That’s good to remember especially during holiday gift shopping.

December 24, 2011
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By Jacob Stockinger

Well, here we are — down to Christmas Eve, down to the last shopping day before Christmas.

Then, of course, after the holiday and gift-giving comes the chance to redeem all those gift cards and spend all that cash.

In past weeks, I have offered a series, compiled by distinguished critics from The New York Times and The New Yorker magazine to NPR and the list of Grammy nominations , of suggested recordings from 2011 that would make fine holiday gifts for classical music lovers.

Here are links to those posts:

http://welltempered.wordpress.com/2011/12/02/classical-music-news-here-is-a-complete-list-of-the-classical-music-nominations-for-the-54h-annual-grammy-awards-happy-listen-and-shopping/

http://welltempered.wordpress.com/2011/12/10/classical-music-shopping-continues-so-for-the-weekend-here-are-more-holiday-gift-guides-from-alex-ross-anne-midgette-npr-wfmt-and-others-for-classical-recordings-featuring-the-best-of-2011/

But I recently ran across this review by Alan Elsner of a single upcoming release. It reminded that in many cases you can and should ignore the experts, and instead simply obey your own impulses.

It is good to remember that the music is ALWAYS more important than the performer or performance.

The great pianist Artur Schnabel said something similar when he remarked that great music was frustrating to work on because it was always better than it could ever be played.

In this case, the review is talking about a new recording of French music by Saint-Saens, Franck and Ravel for Sony by violinist Joshua Bell and pianist Jeremy Denk. (Unfortunately, it won’t be released until Jan. 10, so don’t look for it in time for the holidays. That seems bad consumer timing from Sony, no? Maybe Grammy Award eligibility has something to do with that.)

There is a local tie-in, by the way. Both Bell and Denk (below, teaching a student master class in Madison) have appeared together and separately in Madison at the Wisconsin Union Theater. And the violin sonata was recently heard in a transcription for cello on “Sunday Live From the Chazen.”

But what struck me about this review was the depth of commitment the review felt toward the music – in this case, the famous Sonata for Violin and Piano by Cesar Franck (below), a certified masterpiece. And that is, I think, a very important lesson to remember.

If certain piece of music has special meaning for you, then even an old recording of it makes it a gift from the heart and to the heart, as Beethoven once described a major composition he had written. To give music you really love is to give a piece of yourself.

For me, that would be, among many others, Bach’s Partita No. 2 for keyboard, Cantata No. 147,  and the “Goldberg” Variations; Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 27; Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas Op. 109 and 110 plus his Piano Concerto No. 4 and Symphony No. 7; Schubert’s last two piano sonatas, two Piano Trios and Cello Quintet; Chopin’s Ballade in F MinorScherzo No. 3 and Sonata No. 3; and Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2, Piano Quintet in F minor and Symphony  No. 4.

I would be lying if I didn’t say I have favorite performers and performances, among them Arthur Rubinstein (below) in Chopin and Brahms.

But I would also be lying if I didn’t stay that I knew and loved the music before I knew and loved the performer, and that I have heard many performances in those works and liked them. The music elevates the musician.

In any case, I like the personal quality and commitment you find in this review. I hope you find it as appealing and convincing as I did. It brings us back to the basics of music – which is not to nit-pick over which performance is the best or is somehow definitive, though performances can indeed make a different in our appreciation, but instead to guide us to the greatness of the music.

Here is a link to the review:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/alan-elsner/music-and-spirituality_b_1112982.html

Still, if you need more help, here is one person’s general list of the Best 100 Best Classical Works – without specific artist or performance performances, or without being confined to the past year.

http://www.digitaldreamdoor.com/pages/best-classic-wks.html

And here is a list of the all-time top classical recordings that is not limited to releases this past year:

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/music/classicalmusic/6137471/100-Best-Classical-Recordings.html

Happy hunting.

And happy listening.


Classical music Alert: Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols airs this year on Saturday, Dec. 24, at 9 a.m. and again on Sunday, Dec. 25, at 2 p.m. on Wisconsin Public Radio

December 23, 2011
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By Jacob Stockinger

Although this is not technically a classical music event, it often features classical composers and it is itself a classic — a very popular, enjoyable and moving event that appeals to many of the same people as classical music does.

Plus, I am responding to a request by a loyal reader of this blog.

She asked me: When is Wisconsin Public Radio broadcasting the traditional Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, started after World War I, from King’s College in Cambridge, England (below)?

I couldn’t answer for sure.

It was then that I realized I hadn’t heard any promo or teasers on the radio, so I checked it out.

Good thing I did.

It used to be broadcast twice on Christmas Eve, once live in the morning and then again in the late afternoon or early evening.

But this year the two broadcast times are Christmas Eve morning (Saturday, Dec. 24) at 9 a.m. CST and Christmas Day (Sunday, Dec. 25) at 2 p.m. CST. In the Madison area, that is WERN 88.7 FM.

I’ll confess: I am a devotee of the broadcast for many years and I never fail to get weepy when it opens with the solo a cappella boy soprano singing “Once in Royal David’s City” and then as the sounds swells with other boys, and then the organ, and then the full chorus.

And if there is a better opening prayer than the one this service uses — with its plea on behalf of “the lonely and the unloved” — I have yet to hear it.

And then there is usually a newly commissioned carol as well as traditional carols and favorite hymns.

If you don’t know the service or ceremony already, give it a listen. I don’t think you will be sorry you did.

For more information about Wisconsin Public Radio’s other holiday programs and schedules, visit:

http://wpr.org/holiday/

What do you think of the program?

And of the new scheduling?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music review: UW-trained singer Emily Birsan returns home to be the special gift package in the holiday concert by the Middleton Community Orchestra.

December 23, 2011
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By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, a review written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker. Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who hosts an early music show every other Sunday morning on WORT 88.9 FM. He serves on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.

By John W. Barker

Some weeks back, my wife and I attended a production of “Tales of Hoffmann” at the Chicago Lyric Opera, in which we saw soprano Emily Birsan in the role of Stella. We saw her, but could not hear her, because the bit of music that survives for the part was denied her.

So it was a great joy to be able to hear Birsan after all, as the featured soloist at the holiday concert by the Middleton Community Orchestra (below) on Wednesday night.

Birsan’s appearance was a kind of homecoming for her, since she has previously attracted the ear of Madison area audiences by singing in the University of Wisconsin School of Music graduate program and with the Madison Opera. (As an undergraduate, she also attended the Lawrence University Conservatory of Music in Appleton, Wisconsin.)

She immediately made clear how much she has matured. To a strong, clear, handsomely balanced, and beautiful soprano voice, she joins strong dramatic feeling. She demonstrated the fact in her clever choice of three contrasting opera selections.

Birsan, ( below) conveyed all the nervous bravado of Fiordiligi in the florid aria “Come scoglio!” from Mozart’s “Così fan tutte”; the unstable mental health of the heroine, amid her ardor, in “Regnava nel silencio” from Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor”; and the way a love-smitten daughter can bend daddy around her finger in Lauretta’s “O mio babbino caro” from Puccini’s “Gianni Schicchi.”

In each of these selections Birsan’s facial expressions and body movements were fully apt, while her handling of even the most virtuosic demands was always perfectly precise. She is already a true pro, and an artist with very great promise for the future.

The Middleton orchestra gave sturdy support for these vocal selections, but also had its own room to show off. Conductor Steve Kurr (below) downplayed the usual glitz in Rossini’s “La scala di seta” Overture with more thoughtful tempos, though the tricky writing for the first violins still imposed strains. The flowing melodiousness of Waldteufel’s “Skater’s Waltz” — the program’s only seasonal concession — showed off better the orchestra’s unity.

The only possible reason for programming Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony as the grand finale was just to show that the orchestra could tackle it. And, in fact, Kurr and his players brought it off with credit. The work is so overplayed that one forgets what an exciting and revolutionary work it really is, until a group of players ardently committed to it reminds us.

I give particular credit to maestro Kurr, too, for consistently opposing first and second violins, the value of which was notably demonstrated in the Beethoven.

This was the third concert I have attended this month that was not caught up in the usual mindless frenzy of Christmas. That said, a lapse was allowed in the encore, some Vaughan-Williamsy arrangements of some Christmas songs. Tolerable, at least.

Middleton should take particular pride in being able to support an orchestra like this. Its ranks are full of really fine musicians, not to be shrugged off with the misused label of “amateurs.”

I understand that ordinarily they have only four rehearsals (below) before each concert, with little time in between to hone ensemble discipline and burnish their corporate sound. But this is a group with real potential for maturing, and the hope is that the continued experience of playing together will further such goals.

I, for one, look forward to their remaining concerts this season, on February 29 and May 30 at the Middleton Performing Arts Center (below), next to Middleton High School.

For more information about joining the orchestra, attending upcoming events and more, visit:

http://middletoncommunityorchestra.org/


Posted in Classical music
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