The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music notes: Page-turners can make or break a concert

April 30, 2010

By Jacob Stockinger


Then some more beautiful music.


Then more beautiful music

And so on for 40 minutes or so.

There I was recently, listening to a wonderful piece of chamber music, a piano trio by Schubert, the energetic opening of which is performed here by Yehudi Meuhin at the 1964 Bath Festival in England.

But the music was interrupted by this sound of an annoying thwap, and another, and another.

It was by the very capable pianist who was turning her own pages.

Of course, I understand why someone might do that. I know one pianist in particular who is really fussy about turning pages and who does it. Get the wrong page-turner and you can get in serious trouble. It’s a special skills as you can read here:

String players and other instrumentalists turn their own pages all the time and usually seem to have the time to do so. And pianists do it when they are practicing.

But when you are a playing the piano in a performance, I’m not so sure that turning your own pages is a good idea, especially when you’re playing a fast movement (first movement, last movement, middle scherzo) and have to turn the page really fast – thereby creating a loud and distracting paper crinkle of the page.

Then too, the noise gets even louder when the page doesn’t turn fully and you lose your place as you slap the page back down again because it doesn’t stay flat.

Of course, maybe something happened in the concert in question. Maybe the page-turner didn’t show up, though the nearby University of Wisconsin School of Music should be full of capable student willing to turn pages.

“I wanted to offer to help,” said another sympathetic listener after the performance, when we were chatting.

I had had the same impulse.

But I figured, as he probably did, that she did what she wanted to do. And maybe neither of us would have been an improvement because we hadn’t rehearsed it with the pianist.

Anyway, I really urge piano players in chamber music performances to line up a capable page-turner. (Notice the one in the one the video above of a thoroughly professional piano trio.)

And I encourage the public to appreciate the good and bad that page-turners can make in a concert. They seem so secondary or tertiary — but they can be vital.

Take a look at this story:

Have you ever been distracted by a musician turning pages during a performance?

What do musicians say about the dilemma?

Do any page-turners have something to say?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

Classical music review: Madison Bach Musicians sparkled in Bach’s “Brandenburg” concertos. They made you look as well as listen. Take a peek.

April 29, 2010

By Jacob Stockinger

I think it was the composer Igor Stravinsky who advised people to look while listening.

Making music, after all, is one of the supreme acts of hand-eye coordination.

It’s impressive a skill that is great fun to watch. That’s why everyone wants to sit on the left side of the house when a pianist performs – so you watch the fingers wiggle.

Well, a great example of that happened last Saturday night when the Madison Bach Musicians performed the second installment of J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg concertos – Nos. 4, 5 and 6, along with a Telemann unaccompanied sonata for two recorders.

The performances were crisp and well thought through. In a few places there were minor pitch problems – but then it was dark and stormy night, after all, the kind that drives period instruments crazy when it comes to holding their tune.

This secular music was joyously written and joyously performed, full of spiky dance rhythms and sharp attach as well as virtuoso displays that demonstrated that Bach was not always the modest church musicians afraid of showing off.

And these performances proved a wonderful occasion to become reacquainted with these works that many of us heard early on and then often found too popular and too easy to revisit. But revisit them we should. They are great masterpieces and gladden one’s heart.

The leader, Edgewood music professor Trevor Stephenson (below), was his witty and urbane but illuminating self when he gave about a 40-minute talk about Bach and his music. He explained major issues in early music – lower pitch, gut versus metal strings, how a harpsichord works, the tonal color of different keys.

But the real show came with the players, who left no doubt that the Madison Bach Musicians are the premiere period music group in town and maybe even the state. They do the most — in quantity and variety — and they do it the best.

But I’ll save some of my verbiage and word praise, and trade it in for pictures I took to show you how exciting it was to witness a Baroque “band” – some 15 players usually in groups of 10 or fewer (below top) – as they performed to the sold-out event at the Unitarian Society’s new Atrium Auditorium. (below bottom).

It is one thing to say, “Well, Bach is unusual when he pits two violists against three viola da gambists and cellists in the Brandenburg Concerto No. 6.” It is quite another thing, and an impressive thing, to see it play out in front of your ears – and your eyes.

So I start with Concerto No. 6 – first the ensemble (on top), then the two groups of soloists: (from left) cellist Anton TenWolde and gambists Steuart Pincombe and Eric Miller in the middle; and violists Marika Hoyt (left) and Christie Liu, on the bottom.

In No. 5, the harpsichord steals the stage, even as it plays against two recorders. Unfortunately, Stephenson was surrounded by instruments during his explosive cadenza, so you could see him play. But I did get to see the replica of Bach’s own two-manual, dark-key harpsichord (below) that he and Norman Sheppard had built. And boy, does it work. Stephenson’s playing sizzled.

In No. 4, it was amazing to watch violinist Kangwon Kim (below top right,  with Edith Hines on the left and Eleanor Bartsch in the middle ) perform a tremolo to the harpsichord so fast you could hardly see her articulate the bowing. She parried with recordists Patrick O’Malley (below bottom left) and Lisette Kielson, who also performed the Telemann sonata.

Why do we like watching musicians at work?

Or am I the only one who is so fascinated with music’s visuals?

If you like the photo-essay format, let me know and I will do more of them.

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

Classical music datebook: Best bets for April 28 to May 4 are dominated by Beethoven’s massive “Missa Solemnis” as well as vocal, wind and brass music

April 28, 2010

By Jacob Stockinger

Saturday is a very busy day over at the University of Wisconsin School of Music. But things are beginning to slow down from the frenetic pace of the past couple of weeks, now that the end of the semester is only two weeks away.

STILL, THERE IS ONE BIG MUST-HEAR EVENT: The UW Choral Union and Symphony Orchestra join forces to perform Beethoven’s epic “Missa Solemnis” under the direction of Beverly Taylor (below) on Saturday, May 1, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, May 2, at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Concert Hall.

The soloists are Brooke Jackson, soprano; Jennifer Sams, mezzo-soprano; Heath Rush, tenor; and Thomas Weis, lyric bass. The “Missa Solemnis” was last performed by Choral Union 15 years ago under the direction of Thomas Hilbisch.

According to a press release from the UW School of Music, conductor Beverly Taylor calls this challenging 85-minute work by Beethoven (below) “one of the great masterpieces of western music.” She says it has some of the most demanding choral parts a choir is likely to encounter and that the extended high notes and low notes and fast and slow sections all contribute to its difficulty. “Just when you think you couldn’t sing one more high note, you turn the page and there are more high notes!”

If you would like to know more about the Beethoven work, the performers or the Choral Union’s schedule for next season, Taylor answered a two-art interview on this blog for Monday and Tuesday:

Here are links:’s-“missa”’s-“missa”-massive-hear-it-for-yourself-this-weekend-at-uw-part-2-of-2/

The 160-voice choir will be accompanied by the 78-piece UW Symphony Orchestra (below, rehearsing). The stage will be extended to accommodate the choir, orchestra, soloists and conductor. The mass will be sung in Latin with translations provided in the program.

It’s worth noting how the soloists all have UW ties. That is a sign, The Era bets, not only of quality and loyalty, but also of the cut-back budgets that preclude bringing in more expensive and experienced imported soloists.

Soprano Brooke Jackson graduated from Simpson College (Indianola, Iowa) and has had a diverse singing career, performing in many different styles from opera and oratorio to folk music and jazz. She has performed with the Apollo Chorus of Chicago under the direction of Stephen Alltop and had a small solo role in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s presentation of “Madama Butterfly” at the Ravinia Festival. She earned the M.B.A. degree in arts administration at UW-Madison in 2009.

Mezzo-soprano Jennifer Sams (below) is pursuing the Doctor of Musical Arts degree at UW-Madison in voice performance with a minor in opera production, studying with James Doing and William Farlow. She graduated from Baldwin-Wallace College Conservatory of Music and received a master’s degree from the University of Tennessee. She has performed with the Knoxville Opera Company and last week performed the role of Elisabetta in University Operas spring 2010 production of “Maria Stuarda.”

Tenor Heath Rush studied with James Doing at UW-Madison with the assistance of a grant from the Pleasant T. Rowland Foundation. He has performed with San Francisco Operas acclaimed Merola Opera program and was an apprentice with Sarasota Opera. Locally, he has performed with Madison Opera, Madison Symphony Orchestra and Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra. He is returning to Wisconsin following a year with the Orlando Opera Studio.

Lyric bass Thomas Weis (below) has appeared as leading man in “Kiss Me, Kate” and “The Music Man” with the Heartland Festival in Platteville, Wisconsin, as Grandpa Moss in Skylight Opera Theater’s production of “The Tender Land” and as bass soloist in Handel’s “Messiah” with the Milwaukee Symphony. He performed the role of Figaro in University Opera’s production of “Le nozze di Figaro” in 2006. Weis teaches voice at Carroll University (Waukesha, Wisconsin) and at Waukesha County Conservatory of Music in Hartland. He graduated from UW-Madison with the Doctor of Musical Arts degree in 2007.

Single admission tickets are $15 for the general public and $8 for students and seniors. Tickets are available in advance from the Wisconsin Union Theater Box Office at (608) 265-ARTS. Remaining tickets will be sold at the door 30 minutes before each concert.

Mills Concert Hall is located in the Mosse Humanities Building at the corner of Park Street and University Avenue. Visit the School of Music’s web site at for program information, or call the Concert Line at (608) 263-9485. To receive the Digest, a weekly e-mailed listing of concerts, master classes and student recitals, send your e-mail address to


On Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall, the UW Master Singers will perform.

The 54-voice mixed choir will sing under the direction of graduate assistant conductors Brian Gurley, Hyojung Huh and Michael Pfitzer.

The program includes “Cantate Domino” by David L. Brunner (b. 1953); “Magnificat on the Eighth Tone” by Tomas Luis de Victoria; “Cantique de Jean Racine” by Gabriel Faure; two works by Mozart, “Regina caeli” and “Solemn Vespers of the Confessor,” K. 339; and the traditional spiritual “Wade in the Water,” arranged by Moses Hogan.

A small chamber ensemble accompanies the works by Faure and Mozart.

The concert is free and unticketed.


On Friday from 12:15 to 1 p.m., the weekly free Noon Musicale by the First Unitarian Society, 900 University Bay Drive, will featured folk inspired songs by Britten, Copland, Canteloube and de Falla.

The concert will take place in the original Frank Lloyd Wright  Landmark Auditorium (below). The performers are Melissa Simonson, soprano; Bart Terrell, bass; and Unitarian music director Dan Broner, piano.

Admission is free and open to the public.

For information, call 608 233-9774.

Also on Friday, at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall, the UW Wind Ensemble will perform under conductor Scott Teeple.

This concert is the first of an annual series called “ca. Now!” for recent, original music composed for wind ensemble.

The concert will feature “Jaunt” by Joseph Stillwell; “My Hands Are A City” by Jonathan Newman (UW commission and WI premiere); “Home of the Great Spirit” by Dan Mitchell; “Homages” by Michael Djupstrum; “Lullaby for Kirsten” by Leslie Bassett; and “First Symphony for Band” by William Bolcom.

The concert is free and open to the public.


On Saturday at noon in Old Music Hall, the UW World Percussion Ensemble will perform under director UW percussionist Anthony Di Sanza.

No program has been given.
The event is free and unticketed.

Also on Saturday, May 1, at 3:30 p.m. in Morphy Hall, the Perlman Trio will perform.

The Perlman Trio is an advanced undergraduate trio sponsored by Dr. Kato Perlman. The trio is made up of Eleanor Bartsch, violin; Maureen Kelly, cello; and Thomas Kasdorf, piano.

For this third annual concert, the trio will perform the Piano Trio No. 7 in B-flat major, Op. 97, (“Archduke”) by Beethoven and the Piano Quartet No. 3 in C minor, Op. 60 by Brahms, with violist Daniel Kim.

Admission is free and open to the public.

Also on Saturday, at 4 p.m. in Mills Hall, the All-University String Orchestra will perform under Janet Jensen.

No program is listed.

The concert is free and open to the public.

On Sunday from 12:30 to 2 p.m. on “Sunday Afternoon Live From the Chazen,” the UW’s Wisconsin Brass Quintet (below) will perform.

The concert will be broadcast live by Wisconsin Public Radio (WERN, 88.7 FM in the Madison area).

The program will feature Michael Praetorius’ Dance Suite from “Terpsichore,” Johann Sebastian Bach’s “The Art of Fugue,” Joseph Blaha’s 1995 composition “Psalm Twenty-seven,” Joshua Hauser’s 2003 piece “Road Rage” and WBQ tuba performer John Steven’s 1987 composition entitled “Seasons.”

Performers include John Aley and Matthew Kuhns on trumpet, Douglas Hill on horn, Mark Hetzler on trombone and John Stevens on tuba.

Founded in 1972, WBQ is ensemble-in-residence at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music. They have performed throughout the Midwest as well as nationally, including performances at New York’s Carnegie Recital Hall and Merkin Hall.

Members of the Chazen Museum of Art or Wisconsin Public Radio can call ahead and reserve seats for “Sunday Afternoon Live performances.” Seating is limited. All reservations must be made Monday through Friday before the concert and claimed by 12:20 p.m. on the day of the performance.

For more information or to learn how to become a museum member, contact the Chazen Museum at 608 263-2246.

If you hear one of the events, let us know what you thought.

I am particularly interested in reaction to and assessments of the Beethoven “Missa Solemnis.”

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

Classical music interview: What makes Beethoven’s “Missa” massive? Hear it for yourself this weekend at UW (Part 2 of 2)

April 27, 2010
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By Jacob Stockinger

This Saturday and Sunday nights, the UW Choral Union – a campus and community chorus – will team up with the UW Symphony Orchestra to perform Beethoven’s late and massive (85 minutes long) “Missa Solemnis,” Op. 123.

Performances are in Mills Hall at 8 p.m. on Saturday and 7:30 p.m. on Sunday.

Tickets are $15 for general admission, $8 for seniors over 62 and students. Call 262-2201 or 265-ARTS or 252-1500. Tickets will be sold at the door starting 30 minutes before the performance.

I recently asked Beverly Taylor (below), the director choral activities at the UW School of Music and the assistant conductor of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, to discuss the Missa, which she will conduct after a semester of rehearsals.

What follows is the second of a two-part interview with Taylor. The first part was posted Monday.

Are there particular parts you would direct the attention of the general public to? Which ones and why?

In the slower sections such as the Kyrie, Agnus Dei and Sanctus, listen for the wonderful chorale-like writing for the orchestra, while the soloists, who operate as a quartet most of the time, weave intricate dialogues in and out of the texture.

In the Gloria, it’s the Kentucky Derby, a pep rally and Nascar rolled into one, with an overall acceleration built in.  The Credo uses the word Credo (I believe) repeatedly throughout the work to announce various sections.  Beethoven uses some typical text painting—“Descendit de coelis”  — he descended from the heavens,   “et invisibilium”—believing in invisible things is very quiet— but he uses several twists to expectations, such as the tender start to the Sanctus, instead of a heroic one.

Given the overall popularity of Beethoven, why is the Missa not heard and performed more often?

It is so vocally demanding, and the orchestral challenges are great as well.  And the soloists not only have to be good singers, but have to be astute musically and able to work well with the other soloists.

Is there a recording of the Missa you recommend?

I own the Robert Shaw recording with Atlanta, which I like, but I know there are other good ones out there.

How have the tight budgets of the state and the UW affected the Choral Union)?

More of our soloists now are in-house; if we do a work such as the Verdi Requiem, which requires several adult opera singers for power, it costs much more; at present I don’t have those funds.

I also have to alternate works that are in the public domain, where orchestral parts can be bought or rental is low, with the more modern works that come with heavy rental tags.

We also can not always afford to rent larger spaces, at least not every semester.  Mills is great for many concerts, but for the ones with Choral Union and the UW Symphony (shown below, rehearsing in Mills Hall), it’s a very tight fit on stage; I look forward to a more friendly stage in the new facility.

What can you say about next season’s programs by the Choral Union? Is there truth to the rumor you might perform a major work in Overture Hall? Which one and when?

I can confirm that we’ll perform Handel’s wonderful “Israel in Egypt” next fall, with the UW Chamber Orchestra.  With the smaller orchestra we fit onstage, and we choose repertoire that fits their makeup.  We have some really wonderful string players at the UW, and that’s always exciting for the Handel.

I’m hoping some of our faculty vocalists will perform with us.  Although we’ve picked a performance date for the spring, we may alter it slightly in order to perform in Overture Hall; I’m looking into the funding possibilities for that and have to check out a few things with colleagues before that’s confirmed.

If we go to Overture, the work most likely will be the Brahms Requiem, but if we stay in Mills it might be another work.

BONUS: Here is Leonard Bernstein conducting soloists and the Concertgebouw of Amsterdam in the Benedictus from Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis:

Posted in Classical music

Classical music interview: What makes Beethoven’s “Missa” massive? Hear it for yourself this weekend at UW (Part 1 of 2)

April 26, 2010
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

This Saturday and Sunday nights, the UW Choral Union – a campus and community chorus – will team up with the UW Symphony Orchestra to perform Beethoven’s late and massive (85 minutes long) “Missa Solemnis,” Op. 123.

Performances are in Mills Hall at 8 p.m. on Saturday and 7:30 p.m. on Sunday.

Tickets are $15 for general admission, $8 for seniors over 62 and students. Call 262-2201 or 265-ARTS or 252-1500. Tickets will be sold at the door starting 30 minutes before the performance.

I recently asked Beverly Taylor (below), the director choral activities at the UW School of Music and the assistant conductor of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, to discuss the Missa, which she will conduct after a semester of rehearsals.

What follows is the first of a two-part interview with Taylor. The second part will be posted Tuesday.

What is the place and importance of the Missa Solemnis in Beethoven’s body of work and in choral music or music in general?

It’s one of just two masses that Beethoven wrote, the other being the very classical Mass in C (which Choral Union performed last season.)  The Missa Solemnis, with its drama large color palate and dramatic demands is one of the great works of western art.

How big are the forces that will perform it in May and who are the soloists?

The Choral Union (shown rehearsing below) is about 160 singers and the orchestra about half that.  The soloists are Brooke Jackson, who is a terrific soprano who works for the University, Jennifer Sams, who is working on her doctorate at the UW in voice, Heath Rush, who is an opera singer who coaches with Prof. James Doing, and Tom Weis, who received his doctorate from the UW and who has been teaching at Carroll College and performing in the Milwaukee area.

The work has the reputation for being hard to perform. Is that true and what makes it difficult?

Absolutely it’s true.  For the singers, it’s the range and tessitura, tessitura being the part of the voice where most of the notes fall.  In the Missa Solemnis, all the voice parts sing both low and high in their ranges, and the tessitura for sopranos and tenors is fairly high throughout.  Beethoven also asks the chorus to sing much faster than many other composers during parts of the work.  For the orchestra, there is some very fast playing and occasionally difficult passage work, and a wide range of dynamics.

What are the challenges of the work for the average listener?

On most levels, I think Beethoven’s intent is obvious—that is, the dramatically varied dynamics and speeds are obvious.  But it’s important in the Beethoven also to enter the spirit of the wonderful slow, elegiac sections, such as the opening of the Sanctus.  And it can be interesting to see where Beethoven deviates from normal mass-settings practice by repeating earlier text.

For instance, in most classical masses, the chorus sings the Sanctus, followed by a Hosanna, then the Benedictus followed by the same or another Hosanna.  Beethoven brings back the Benedictus words in the middle of a hosanna.  And in the Dona nobis pacem( “Grant us peace”)  he suddenly inserts another “Miserere nobis” (“have mercy on us) from the Agnus Dei into the Dona nobis pacem.

Why did you choose the Missa Solemnis?

I’ve both admired and feared it for years.  I’ve prepared the work for three other conductors.  The first two performances were college singers, untrained voices.  I thought the work was a bit too much for them vocally.  But I also prepared the chorus for the Madison Symphony some years ago, and found that with some older singers, allowing them sometimes to drill down an octave and other methods kept the voices fresh.  Choral Union is a mixture of college students and community adults, so we’re able to do well, I think.  I also was looking for an exciting symphonic work that only had double winds and no piano or extra percussion, so that we could all fit more or less in Mills Hall.

What do you like most and least about the work?

I love the sweep of color, speed, and dynamic contrast.  There are parts that are unbelievably exciting, and other parts that are tender.  The writing for the orchestra is truly symphonic, not simply an accompaniment.

What I like least is, oddly enough, also an interesting feature of the piece—the high range.

I sang soprano on the work in a performance of Robert Shaw’s years ago, and I remember naming the end of the Credo the “You’ve got to be kidding” section, because after pages of high notes, you turn the page and sing more high notes SLOWLY.

The work also is hard to balance—you really could use a chorus of 250 with a full size orchestra playing.

BONUS: Here is an audio-visual clip of Leonard Bernstein conducting the “Kyrie” with soloists and the Concertgebouw of Amsterdam:

Tomorrow: What the public should listen for; how budget cuts have affected the Choral Union; and next season’s schedule of works.

Posted in Classical music

Classical music review: The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra proved it has what it takes for a productive middle age

April 25, 2010

By Jacob Stockinger

How far has the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra come in 50 years?

A very long way, as we found out Friday night in the Overture Center’s Capitol Theater — its indoors home venue for the concert season — when the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra closed out its 50th anniversary season.

The ensemble played to a three-quarters house – not bad considering all the other musical (University Opera’s “Maria Stuarda” and the Pro Arte String Quartet) and non-musical events going on the same night. That tells me the WCO has developed a loyal following beyond the fair-weather friends it always has when it plays the free summer Concerts on the Square.

Of course, the WCO has been progressing – some steps backward to many steps forward – ever since it was founded. It especially matured during its many years under the late David Lewis Crosby .

But it seems to have blossomed especially during the tenure, now entering its 10th year, of its current New Zealand-born music director Andrew Sewell (below).

I know personally because I have heard the WCO play for 35 or so years of its existence.

And today it plays with accuracy, precision and tightness in programs that years ago would have been too ambitious for the group.

Take Friday night’s Masterworks concert.

The unusual program, typical of Sewell’s eclectic approach, combined the tried-and-true with the relatively unknown.

In the latter category, the concert open with six string performers playing the Sextet from Richard Strauss’ late opera “Capriccio.” The played tightly and showed no pitch problems – which could not always be said about this chamber group in earlier times.

At times, the music recalled Strauss’ lovely opera “Der Rosenkavalier” is its late Romantic harmonies and its long, songful lines. It got a fine performance in front of many listeners who had never heard the piece before and probably won’t hear it again.

Then out came the soloist of the night – Canadian pianist Stewart Goodyear (below) – who performed another relatively rare work: Johann Neopmuk Hummel’s Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 85.

It recalls Chopin’s concertos – Chopin kept this Hummel work in his active repertoire – combined with elements of Beethoven and Schubert, Mozart and Haydn: That’s all to be expected from a composer who knew those greats and studied with most of them, and who was an important figure in the transition from Classicism to Romanticism.

In their roles as accompanists, both Sewell and his players were terrific. They never seemed out of synch or at odds in intent, and they sounded consistently balanced in dynamics, never drowning out the piano.

Goodyear himself is a very strong, virtuosic pianist – after the difficult concerto, he rewarded the audience with Chopin’s knuckle-busting “Heroic” Polonaise, Op. 53, which he seemed to just toss off. (In fact, at times I felt Goodyear was too strong, too brilliant, not only for what much of the music called for but also for the piano, which sounded thin and tinny in the upper treble registers the harder it was played.)

That is not to say that Goodyear did not play with some nuance, but he needed more subtlety and musicality, less pianism. If you heard pianist Jonathan Biss in his recent appearance with the Madison Symphony Orchestra in an early Mozart concerto, you know how totally deep and entrancing soft playing can be. I would have liked to hear more moments when both the orchestra and the soloist took the sound levels down a few notches and seduced me rather than attacked me.

Still, it proved a successful and popular performance – and perhaps the only live one many of us will ever hear of the quite lovely Hummel work that is both dramatic and lyrical.

The program concluded with a staple: Schubert’s Symphony No. 9, called “The Great” because of its ambitious compositional style and its length. In fact, the WCO (below) used extra brass and strings on stage.

Yet despite such massive force for a chamber orchestra, they played tightly in a difficult work to bring off, which they did.

To be honest, it is not my favorite Schubert symphony. I would have much have preferred to hear the Fourth (“Tragic”) in C minor, the Fifth in B-flat major or the Eighth “Unfinished.”

Not that the Ninth doesn’t have glorious moments. But, as often happens in Schubert’s piano sonatas, you get lost – as he himself seems to, perhaps wants to – in lateral drift.  This same master of the short art song could also be a master of endless, and seemingly pointless, aesthetic digression.

So the piece is challenging, as challenging to the performers as to the listeners. And the WCO acquitted itself impressively. You could see Sewell and musicians working hard to keep the right balance, to bring out voices, to keep everyone together.

So in the end, this final all-classics concert  of the season proved a fine sampler of just how impressively good the WCO can play across a range of styles and needs of music-making: in a very small group (the Strauss Sextet), which speaks the excellent staffing and high quality of the WCO players; in its usual configuration but acting as an accompanist (the Hummel), which speaks to its ability to adjust to and accommodate other outside musicians; and as a cohesive and independent group on entirely its own (the Schubert).

So the verdict is in: One can look forward to many more years and maybe even decades of fine music-making from the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra.

Happy Birthday, WCO!

And Thank You for many years of great music both in the past and yet to come.

What was your impression of the concert?

Do you have birthday wishes to leave for the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

Classical music profile: Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Jennifer Higdon is profiled in the New York Times

April 24, 2010

By Jacob Stockinger

In case you missed it, Wednesday’s edition of The New York Times featured a terrific and comprehensive profile of Jennifer Higdon (below), this year’s winner of the Pulitzer Prize in music.

It was written by Vivian Schweitzer.

Here is a link:

And here is a link to Higdon’s Wikipedia entry:

This should be a big Higdon year, with a recording of Yuja Wang performing the premiere of Higdon’s Piano Concerto, and several videos of Hilary Hahn discussing her premiere of the Violin Concerto, which won the Pulitzer Prize and which she has recorded for release in September.

Unfortunately, YouTube does yet offer audios of those works.

But you can hear interviews with Hahn and another interview about her piano concerto.

You can also hear an excerpt for the Concerto 4-3 with its bluegrass influence, the Trombone Concerto (which won a Grammy) and the Piano Trio.

And here is a performance of “Blue Cathedral,” which she composed for her brother when he died and holds especially dear:

Do you like Higdon’s music?

Do you find it accessible?

Will you seek out more of her music?

Like to hear it performed by local musicians?

The Ear wannts to hear.

Posted in Classical music

Classical music preview: Let us now praise Johann Nepomuk Hummel — whose music you can hear tonight

April 23, 2010
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

Tonight at 8 p.m. in the Overture Center’s Capitol Theater, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra closes out its 50th anniversary season.

(Tickets are $19-$62. Call the Overture Center box office at 608 258-4141.)

On the program are Richard Strauss’ “Capriccio” Sextet; Schubert’s Symphony No. 9 “The Great”; and the Piano Concerto in A minor by Johann Nepomuk Hummel, with the critically acclaimed pianist Stuart Goodyear (below bottom) as soloist.

It’s the last work that is special and makes this concert a chance not only to celebrate the WCO but also to mark the rediscovery of Hummel (below, depicted in a painting).

Fifty years, ago Hummel (1778-1837) was not a well-known figure. Today. he is still largely unknown by the general  public, but much less so.

And he deserves a still bigger place both in music history and concert programs. He was a major transitional figure who bridged music from Classicism to Romanticism.

Hummel (a bust of him in his hometown of Weimar is below) has quite the biography.

Not many musicians could boast of having studied with Mozart, Hayd, Clementi and Salieri; of having played for and been friends with Beethoven; of having had the last three piano sonatas by his friend Schubert dedicated to him; of having composed two piano concertos (in A minor and B minor) that the young Frederic Chopin kept in his active repertoire.

Here is a link to Wikipedia’s biography of Hummel, which is as impressive as it is surprising:

It is a sign of the programming acumen of WCO maestro and music director Andrew Sewell that he has programmed the Hummel concerto. It is a charming and dramatic work that looks forward more to Chopin than it looks back to Beethoven, though it has elements of both.

There are fine recordings of Hummel’s work – Stephen Hough has recorded his most famous piano concertos and piano sonatas, and Wynton Marsalis has recored his Trumpet Concerto — and more are constantly coming on the market. Especially popular are his piano works, his chamber music and his trumpet concerto.

Here is the beautiful and Chopinesque opening of the A minor piano concerto with Stephen Hough:

And here is a link to’s stock of recordings of Hummel:

What do you think of Hummel’s music?

Do you like it?

Do you have a favorite Hummel work?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

Yes, classical music critics cry too: What pieces make you cry? Try these.

April 22, 2010

By Jacob Stockinger

There we were, in the lobby of the concert hall, waiting to go hear Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.”

If you listen carefully, I joked, you’ll probably hear me sobbing at the end of the 18th Variation, a wonderfully lyrical several minutes that mark the end of the slow movement and has such a beautiful theme that French pianist Philippe Bianconi played so perfectly.

You mean even you, a music critic, cries?” asked one of the friends we were with.

Yes, I said, yes I do cry. Often.

In fact, the ability to make me cry is one of the things that draws me to classical music – though not by any means the only thing — and to certain pieces again and again. It feels good to cry at beauty – cathartic and at once communal and intimate.

The incident got me to thinking and I started making a list of the classical music that almost always makes me cry – though that is hardly the only criterion for choosing favorite pieces.

Why do I cry? Is it genetic or nervous system hard wiring? Is it social conditioning? It is a formative childhood experience? I honestly don’t know, though I suspect all play a role.

And it’s not just classical music. Certain pop and rock songs do it too. And hearing people sing “We Shall Overcome” always does it.

But here is a listing of some of the classical pieces that make this critic cry—almost every time:

The Andante movement from J.S Bach’s Violin Sonata No. 5 in F Minor and cantata aria “Ich habe genug”; Samuel Barber’s “Adagio” for Strings; Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto (the slow movement); Brahms’ “Selig sind die Toten” from his “German” Requiem and the slow movement from his Violin Sonata No. 3; the slow movement from Chopin’s Sonata No. 3; Sir Edward Elgar’s “Nimrod” Variation from the “Enigma” Variations; Mozart’s Requiem and the first two movements of his last Piano Concerto, No. 27; Puccini’s “Vissi d’arte” from Tosca” and “Nessun dorma” from “Turandot” and the opening duet from “La Boheme”; the 18th Variation from Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini” and the finale of his Piano Concerto No. 3; the second movement of Schumann’s “Kreisleriana”; and the “Love Death” from Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde.”

There are lots more, I’m sure. Maybe as they come to me, I will write about them.

In the mean time, here are some audio samples of the beautiful music that makes me cry:

First, here is Arthur Rubinstein playing that same 18th Variation with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Fritz Reiner. It is, as one commenter says on YouTube, both passionate and delicate. Try it and see.

Then here is a purely instrumental piece: the “Nimrod” Variation from Sir Edward Elgar’s “Enigma” Variations, played by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under its last music director Daniel Barenboim in a Carnegie Hall:

It was also used by Ken Burns in his documentary about World War II. But I loved it before then. I heard the CSO play it as a tribute to their longtime cellist who had recently died. That’s was a perfect piece for the occasion and made me ask the Lawrence University Orchestra to perform it for my 40th reunion in honor of those classmates who are no longer with us. They did and it was perfect. It worked again.

And finally, here is superstar tenor Luciano Pavarotti singing Puccini’s “Nessun dorma” from “Turandot” with the Met’s James Levine conducting in Paris. It was Pavarotti’s signature and no one before or since has done it like him. It works every time, from the first time I heard it – played as background against bombers dropping bombs in the film “The Killing Fields” — to the last Olympics Pavarotti sang in before he died.

Does classical music ever make you cry?

What pieces of classical music make you cry?

Let me know. I am anxious to expand my experience.

And The Ear wants to hear – as well as cry.

Posted in Classical music

Classical music datebook: Best bets for April 21-27 are plentiful and include early music and new music, symphonic music, chamber music and an opera

April 21, 2010
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By Jacob Stockinger

As we rush toward the end of the semester, the classical music calendar keeps getting busier and busier.

It would be hard to pick a more difficult day in the entire 2009-10 season to have to choose events to attend than this coming Friday: Do you go to the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra? The University Opera? Or the Pro Arte String Quartet? It’s a dilemma.

Sometimes it feels as if we classical fans in Madison need a space-time machine, so we can get to everything we want to hear.

It’s a hectic time — so here’s a run-down in chronological order:


Tonight, at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall, UW composer Laura Schwendinger (below) will direct the UW’s Contemporary Chamber Ensemble.

On the program are works by highly acclaimed composers, featuring “A City Called Heaven,” and “Trio for Violin, Cello and Piano” by Olly Wilson and “Dance Converging,” “Lullaby,” and “Imaginary Folk Song” by Sheila Silver.

Performers include Jessica Johnson, Anthony Di Sanza, Nick Jeffery and Jacki Whisenant.

The composers will be present for the concert.

Admission is free and open to the public.


At 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall, you can heard all three of the Brahms piano trios in one evening done by UW performers cellist Uri Vardi (below), violinist David Perry, and Chilean pianist Paulina Zamora.

The program features the three piano trios (C major, C minor and B major) by Johannes Brahms.  The artists will record these works this summer for the Eroica label, along with Brahms’ clarinet trio (with Uri Vardi’s son, Amitai Vardi).

(The same performers will also perform two of the three piano trios on Wisconsin Public Radio’s live broadcast  “Sunday Afternoon Live From the Chazen” this Sunday from 12:30 to 2 p.m.)

The concert, part of the Faculty Concert Series, is free and open to the public.


You can hear another great piano trio at the free and public Noon Musicale at the First Unitarian Society Meeting House, 900 University Bay Drive.

The concert runs from 12:15 to 1 p.m. and offers free coffee.

The program features Schubert’s great Piano Trio No. 1 in B-Flat Major performed by Kangwon Kim, violin; Eleanor Cox, cello; and Ina Selvelieva, piano.

For information, call 608 233-9774.

Friday night, at 8 p.m. in the Overture Center’s Capitol Theater, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, under the baton of Andrew Sewell (below) concludes its 50th anniversary season.

Tickets are $19-$62. Call the Overture Box office at 608 258-4141.

The program includes pianist Stewart Goodyear (below) in Hummel’s Piano Concerto A Minor, Op. 85; Richard
Strauss’ “Capriccio Sextet; and Schubert’s Symphony No. 9 in C Major, “The Great.”

The performers are very good, but I am giving this a MUST–HEAR rating especially because of the original program. Hummel was an older contemporary of Beethoven, whose music was more popular at the time than even Beethoven. Technically challenging and full of brilliance and vigor, this work is gaining popularity in the repertory.

According to WCO program notes, the Sextet for Strings by Strauss, is from his last opera, “Capriccio,” and is both lush and romantic.  Schubert’s Symphony No. 9 “The Great” in C major is a special work. Even though his life was cut short at the age of 31 in 1828, Schubert was the master of the German song or “lieder.”  Applying his gift for melody and bridging the gap between the classical and romantic periods in music, Schubert’s last symphony is on a grander scale than anything previously, and points the way to the next generation of symphonists.

Also on Friday, at 7:30 p.m. in Old Music Hall, Donizetti’s opera “Maria Stuarda” will be performed by the University Opera with the UW Chamber Orchestra. (In the photo below, by Brent Nicastro, are from left Celeste Fraser as Queen Elizabeth, Emily Birsan as Maria Stuarda,  and J. Adam Shelton as Leicester.) William Farlow directs the opera, and conductor James Smith leads the orchestra. (For more information and background, see the post here on last Monday.)

The opera will have two additional performances: Sunday, April 25, at 3 p.m.; and Tuesday, April 27, at 7:30 p.m.

Tickets are $20 for the general public, $18 for senior citizens and $10 for UW-Madison students, available in advance through the Wisconsin Union Theater Box Office at (608) 265-ARTS, Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m.–5:30 p.m. and Saturdays, noon–5 p.m.

Tickets are also available at the Vilas Hall Box Office (262-1500) from Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m.–5:30 p.m., and after 5:30 p.m. on University Theatre performance evenings.

Because shows often sell out, advance purchase is recommended.  If unsold tickets remain, they may be purchased at the door beginning one hour before the performance. The Carol Rennebohm Auditorium is located in Music Hall at the foot of Bascom Hill on Park Street.

Gaetano Donizetti’s “Maria Stuarda,” based on the play by the great German writer Friedrich von Schiller, offers what history could not: a fictional meeting between Queen Elizabeth and Mary Stewart. The confrontation leads to an epic power play that ignites vocal fireworks seldom seen in “bel canto” opera.

Graduate student Emily Birsan (below) – who sang the title role  in Massenet’s “Thais” last semester — performs the title role; the role of Queen Elizabeth is shared by Celeste Fraser (April 23 & 27) and Jennifer Grace Sams (April 25). The role of Leicester is performed by J. Adam Shelton; Talbot, by John Arnold; Cecil, by Justin Niehoff Smith; and Anna, by Megan Gryga.

The opera will be sung in Italian with projected English surtitles by Christine Seitz.

The production is a University Opera premiere and is generously supported by the Dara Elizabeth Welty Memorial Fund.

Finally, on Friday, at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall, the Pro Arte Quartet (below, in a photo by Katrin Talbot) — which turns 100 years old during the 2011-12 season — performs on the Faculty Concert Series.

The program includes the same works that the Pro Arte will perform at CARNEGIE HALL’s Weill Hall on Wednesday, May 12: Haydn’s String Quartet in C Major, Op. 64, No. 1; the String Quartet No. 2 in F-sharp minor, Op. 15 by Alexander Zemlinsky; and the String Quartet in E-flat major, Op. 51 by Antonin Dvorak.


In Mills Hall at 4 p.m., the University Chorus and Women’s Chorus perform under Michael Pfitzer and Kimberly Dunn Adams, respectively.

Then at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall, the UW group Chorale will perform under Bruce Gladstone.

Also at 8 p.m. in Morphy Hall, the University of Minnesota New Music Ensemble will perform.

The New Music Ensemble, directed by Young-Nam Kim and Jerry Luckhardt, participates in a three-way exchange with UW-Madison’s Contemporary Chamber Ensemble and the University of Iowa’s Center for New Music.

Away from the UW School of Music, on Saturday at 8 p.m. in the new Atrium Auditorium of the first unitarian Society, 900 University Bay Drive – on Madison’s near west side – Trevor Stephenson (below) and the Madison Bach Musicians will perform J.S. Bach’s “Brandenburg” Concertos Nos. 4, 5 and 6. There will be a free lecture at 7:15.

You may recall I named Stephenson this blog’s “Musician of the Year” for 2009 after his memorable performance of Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion” and his terrific lecture-recitals with harpsichord and fortepiano.

I’ve heard excerpts from the first performance of this concert on April 10, and the quality is high, just as the quantity of sound is amazing for 11 musicians playing period instruments. Call it tuneful transparency.

Advance tickets are $20, $15 for student s and seniors over 65, and are available at A Room of One’s Own, Farley’s House of Pianos. Orange Tree Imports, Ward-Brodt Music Mall and the Willy Street Coop.

At the door, tickets go to $25 and $20, respectively.

If you want more information, call 608 238-6092 or visit:


On Sunday, April 25, at 2 p.m. in Mills Hall the UW Concert Band will perform under director Mike Leckrone.

Then at 4 p.m. in mills Hall, the University Bands will perform under Justin Stolarik, Erik Jester and Matthew Schlomer.

Sunday night, at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall, UW soprano Mimmi Fulmer will perform with UW pianist Christopher Taylor.

This is the new date for the concert originally scheduled for January 29, 2010.

The program begins with four Finnish songs and continues with the celebrated song cycle “Frauenliebe und Leben” (“Woman’s Love and Life”), Op. 42 by Robert Schumann – which to The Ear is the best female song cycle ever composed.  (This year marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Schumann.)

Following intermission, the duo performs two other song cycles: “The Nursery” by Modeste Mussorgsky and “Histoires Naturelles” by Maurice Ravel.

The concert is part of the Faculty Concert Series, and is free and open to the public.


At 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall, the UW Western Percussion Ensemble performs with Roger Braun under the direction of Anthony Di Sanza.

The WPE performs two works by percussionist-composer Roger Braun: “A Spirit Unbroken” with Braun as vibraphone soloist and “A Terrible Beauty” for six percussionists.  Roger Braun is a member of the Biakuye Percussion Group, Galaxy Percussion and the Latin jazz group Los Viejos Blanquitos.

At 8:30 p.m. in Morphy Hall, the UW Early Music Ensemble will perform under director John Chappell Stowe. No program has been announced, but the concert is free and open to the public.

WHEW!! That’s a lot of music and events in one week.

That’s a lot.

Anything I left out? If so, leave a comment.

And leave a capsule review.

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music
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