The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Madison’s Ancora String Quartet marks two anniversaries this Saturday night and has big plans for the future | October 8, 2010

By Jacob Stockinger

This Saturday night at 7:30 p.m, in the Landmark Auditorium of the First Unitarian Society, 900 University Bay Drive, Madison’s Ancora String Quartet will open its new season, which is an anniversary season.

The program features two big works, two solid masterpieces: Beethoven’s “Harp” Quartet in E-Flat major, Op. 74; and Brahms’ famous Piano Quintet in F Minor.

A free champagne reception will follow.

Tickets are $15, $12 for seniors over 55 and students, and $6 for children under 13.

For more information — including biographies, reviews and a concert schedule — visit the quartet’s home page at:

Members of the Ancora Quartet (below) are Leanne Kelso League and Robin Ryan, violins; Benjamin Whitcomb, cello; and Marika Fischer Hoyt, viola.

Fischer Hoyt recent spoke via e-mail to The Ear about the Ancora Quartet, its concert and its plans for the upcoming anniversary year.

This season marks your 10th anniversary as an ensemble and your 5th year as an artist in residence at First Unitarian Society. What plans does the Ancora have for the future in terms of the quartet itself and the FUS residency?

FUS music director Dan Broner (below) comes up with new ideas every year on how to integrate our skills and services into the community there.

Our residency has seen us play for church services, lead string sections for concerts there, play programs at All-Music Sunday as well as at Small Music Sunday (programs for children), and perform at the annual Art Fair.

But for the first time, a few weeks ago, we gave a free, Sunday morning between-service mini-recital, which was very well attended and enthusiastically received.

On Oct. 19 we will give a class in the adult education program, focusing on how performers interpret chamber music. All of these events allow us to further our connection with FUS members who regularly attend our recitals, and reach others who haven’t yet attended our recitals.

Can you comment on the program this Saturday night: the Beethoven “Harp” quartet and the Brahms Piano Quintet? What should listeners listen for?

The Beethoven “Harp” quartet is an old friend, in that it was on the first program we ever performed when Benjamin joined the group, back in 2003.

The Harp quartet is also my personal favorite in the quartet literature.  The highlight for me occurs at the end of the first movement, when the first violin breaks forth into beauteous heavenly arpeggios, while the inner voices sigh in yearning and the cello anchors the whole passage with the plucking (pizzicati), which give the work its nickname.  Also listen to Leanne in the slow lyrical Adagio; later on in that second movement, you might catch Benjamin singing the melody up high while I hold down the bass – we love that moment.  The Scherzo is a breathless romp, and the Finale presents a lovely theme and variations.

While we have by no means exhausted the vast string quartet repertoire, we are thrilled to have the chance to play some absolutely gorgeous quintets this season.  With the Brahms Piano Quintet in F minor, we welcome another friend, pianist Myung Hee Chung (below), on the faculty at UW-Whitewater along with Leanne and Benjamin.

The Brahms is lush, romantic and gorgeous from beginning to end.  The first movement is tempestuous, and the second peaceful, while the Scherzo is riveting – just when you don’t think it can get any more exciting, it does.  I can understand why Brahms is Leanne’s favorite composer (although I maintain my unswerving devotion to J.S. Bach).

Will you do touring or outreach and educational programs, or other professional engagements?

We have a variety of activities planned for this season, apart from our FUS recital performances.  Many of the activities are repeats of what we’ve done in the past, such as giving master classes; we’re working to find a date to coach students again in the excellent WYSO chamber music program, directed by cellist Karl Lavine.

We will be returning on Oct. 24 to UW-Whitewater to play the Brahms quintet there, and going back on November 6 to present a recital at the gorgeous Stoughton Opera House (below).

But we’re also excited to be breaking new ground this season.  We’re presenting a lecture-demo on Oct. 19 under the auspices of the FUS adult education program, on the topic of how a chamber ensemble transforms notes on a page into music; what decisions are involved, and how those decisions are achieved.

We’re also premiering a new work by composer Patrick Beckman for chamber choir, string quartet and piano, commissioned by the Monroe, Wisconsin-based Bel Canto Singers.  This will be our third appearance at the beautiful Monroe Arts Center, and we’re thrilled to be building a network of friends in that community.

Are more young people taking to chamber music? How does one interest them in chamber music?

We have a healthy population of young people in our audiences, starting with our own children (my older daughter follows along in the score as we play).

I think the best way to interest young people in chamber music is to expose them to it, whether live or on YouTube, and then have them try it themselves with their peers and an enthusiastic coach.

Our goal, for an audience member of any age, is to provide an intimate, approachable, enjoyable experience.  Chamber music is inherently intimate, and the 280-seat Landmark Auditorium at FUS, with its exposed stone and ground-hugging Frank Lloyd Wright architecture, provides a suitably intimate setting.

We try to break down the barrier between audience and performer with interviews like this one, with printed program notes, and with spoken comments from the stage.

But when it comes to breaking down barriers and making the event enjoyable, our pièce de résistance, apart from our playing, is our now-famous champagne reception.  With juice for the under-21 set and more sweet and savory goodies than you can imagine, I defy any youngster not to enjoy it.

What will the rest of the season bring – concert-wise and program-wise — for the Ancora (below, in a photo by Barry Lewis)?

I already mentioned some of our upcoming performances, above.  For the November performance at the Stoughton Opera House, we’ll repeat the Beethoven and Brahms, but add an early Mozart quartet to start off the program.

Our FUS recital program on March 12, 2011, will include the Borodin Quartet No. 1 in A Major, and the Schubert Quintet in C Major, with guest cellist Karl Lavine (below, in a photo by Katrin Talbot).  This is really a program for Robin – she loves Russian composers (Tchaikovsky, Borodin, and especially Shostakovich); and she chose the theme from the first movement of the Schubert quintet as the bridal processional at her own wedding. The Schubert Quintet holds a special place in many a musician’s heart.

And we can’t wait to learn a brand new piece in the new year.  Composer Pat Beckman (below) rose to prominence in 2009 when he released a CD with clarinetist Richard Stoltzman.  Entitled “Big Muddy,” the CD features Beckman’s jazzy suite for clarinet and piano, describing scenes on the Mississippi River.

Here’s a clip:

Beckman works regularly with the Bel Canto Singers, and was delighted to receive this commission. I believe he’s scheduled to finish it in January or February.  We’ll perform it on a program with the Bel Canto Singers at the Arts Center (below) in Monroe, Wisconsin, on May 15, 2011.

Posted in Classical music

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