The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music review: Difficult music from the Classical era sounds easy when played superbly by UW students, Pro Arte String Quartet

February 19, 2010
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

Today’s post is about classical music versus Classical music.

The term “classical” (small c) refers to the overall style or kind of music. The term “Classical” (capital C) covers the Classical era from the 18th and early 19th centuries.

This past week has been a good one for Madison fans of classical music from the Classical era.

Four composers form the core of the Classical era repertoire: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert, with the last two veering off in proto-Romanticism late in their careers.

All knew each other in Vienna; all learned form and even emulated the others.

And they remain one of the highest summits of Western classical music.

Thursday night the University of Wisconsin’s Pro Arte String Quartet (below, in a photo by Katrin Talbot) performed an all-Classical program of Haydn String Quartet in C major, 74, No. 1; Mozart’s dark and moody String Quartet in D minor, K. 421; and Beethoven early String Quartet in G Major, Op. 18, No. 2.

(The Pro Arte will repeat the program this Sunday on “Sunday Afternoon Live From the Chazen” from 12:30 to 2 p.m. The concert will broadcast live over Wisconsin Public Radio — 88.7 FM in the Madison area.)

As you might expect from past performances, these seasoned pros brought all the necessary elements that make for great Classical interpretations. Verve and restraint were held in check in precisely the right proportions — and proportion is key to Classical classical music.

The challenge about Classical music is that it can sound so easy because it sounds so balanced, so transparent. (It graces the ear, which is one reason is it often used as background music for brunches.)

But it is good to recall legendary pianist Artur Schnabel’s quip about Mozart being too easy for prodigies and too hard for professionals. There isn’t much cover to hide your mistakes. Classical-era music is difficult to play.

Done well, this hard music sounds easy, deceptively easy.

And that’s what the Pro Arte did.

But they weren’t alone.

More surprising to The Ear than the Pro Arte was the outstanding performance by the UW Chamber Orchestra (below) under conductor James Smith last Sunday afternoon. The free concert was like a Valentine’s Day treat for Classical music lovers, and deserved its surprisingly good attendance.

True, the concert opened with Arnold Schoenberg’s rarely heard Chamber Symphony No. 2, Op. 38, from 1939. It proved a great modern parallel to the Haydn symphony that followed.

It’s not bad, as Schoenberg goes — I am not a great Schoenberg fan — and the players did very well in the masterfully orchestrated score. I also realized how close Schoenberg, whose music can seem dry and academic, often came to being atmospheric in the same way that TV and movie scores often are. That’s probably heresy, but so be it.

But then came the big Classical – and classical  — payoffs.

The awards-winning UW 2004 master’s graduate,French hornist Bernhard Scully (below), performed Mozart’s Horn Concerto in E-Flat Major, KV 437 — perhaps the most famous of the four horn concertos Mozart composed, with a gorgeously lyrical slow movement and the well-known hunting song, repeated-note finale.

The orchestra performed its accompanying or partnering role with precision and gusto. The French horn solo part was exemplary, as you might expect from Scully who at a young age has already enjoyed a world-wide concert career as a member of the Canadian Brass. Little wonder he was given a distinguished alumnus award art the concert.)

But the highlight for me was the concluding second-half: Haydn’s “Drumroll” Symphony No. 103. It’s hard to find fault with such a performance.

The playing was tight in each section, from the ear-opening namesake percussion at the start, through the strings and winds and brass.

The tone was rich and secure.

The interpretation projected Papa Haydn’s famous wit and humor, his cheerfulness.

But the playing had verve and the drama, much of it from upbeat tempi, sharp attacks and the silence of rests.

In short, conductor James Smith (below) and the students’ performance proved the essence of Classicism in sound – the very embodiment of Enlightenment rationalism translated into music with just the right touch of emotion and poignancy. (One must never forget that Haydn also was a man of passions and lust, who also had his Storm-and-Stress, minor-key period as a mid-life crisis.)

If you do not regularly attend concerts by the UW Chamber Orchestra and the UW Symphony Orchestra, you are missing some great music making – all for the extravagant sum of FREE admission. But freee does not, in this case, equate to second-rate or inferior.

And if you want to catch the UW Chamber Orchestra or Pro Arte performances via Internet streaming (they should be posted by the end of the  weekend), here is a link (go to the date and click on the tiny loudspeaker icon):

I also want to praise the outstanding program notes written by retired musicologist Walter Gray, who taught at the UW-Madison and elsewhere. They were both informative and accessible without resorting to professional Music-Speak, without using the kind of jargon and technical terms that go beyond most of the listening public

Gray’s notes were a pleasure to read. And too often UW School of Music concerts go without good program notes — am unexpected disappointment for such a fine school of music. Gray sets a model for how program notes should be done. Here’s hoping he writes more of them for the UW — and maybe for other classical music groups in town.

If you were at either of the two concerts, what do you think of them?

What do you think of Classical-era classical music?

Do you have a favorite Classical composer and work?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

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