The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music review: Phenom pianist Yuja Wang plays as sexy as she looks, but her new “Fantasia” CD is more nightmare than dream, and a waste of a major keyboard talent.

April 20, 2012

By Jacob Stockinger

As regular readers of this blog know, I am a big fan of pianist Yuja Wang (below). I like her and I like the way she plays – not just the alluring or controversial way she dresses.

No wonder, I say, that at 25  she is in constant demand on the concert circuit and has already been nominated for two Grammys out of the first three CDs she did for Deutsche Grammophon. She is the Real Deal. Just use this blog’s search engine to check out interviews and other posts about her.

Now comes her fourth CD, “Fantasia,” which was released last week.

Just looking at the promising title of this concept album gave me fantasies.

Well, I thought, now we will get to hear Wang is some really great repertoire: maybe a fantasy by Mozart; maybe Schumann’s great Fantasy in C Major or his fabulous “Fantasy Pieces”; maybe one of Beethoven’s two Fantasy Sonatas, Op. 27, including the ‘Moonlight”; maybe Schubert’s “Wanderer” Fantasy; maybe Chopin’s Fantasy in F Minor or Polonaise-Fantasy; maybe Brahms’ set of Op. 116 Fantasies.

But no.

This really is about Fantasia, not fantasy. There is little great music on this CD, which is why I am so disappointed. It is made up of largely encore-like pieces.

True, a very few are terrific works, like Chopin’s Waltz in C-sharp minor, Liszt’s transcription of Schubert’s song “Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel” and the Sgambati transcription of Gluck’s “Dance of the Blessed Spirits.”

But, really, who needs a piano transcription of the Paul Dukas’ “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice? It only makes this CD’s title more reminiscent of the Walt Disney cartoon movie “Fantasia” than of the mystical and expansive genre that evolved out of the more formally structured sonata.

Wang plays as sexy as she looks. Her wondrous keyboard skills are evident in abundance. In her four Rachmaninoff pieces (three Etudes Tableaux and an Elegie), she goes go from calm and quiet to thunderously loud in practically no time.

Her single Scarlatti Sonata in G Major, K. 455, shows a wonderful sense of articulation, line and clarity, despite its fast tempo.

And the five early Chopin-like Scriabin preludes and poem, which she used to open her Carnegie Hall debut, show a masterly fluidness and lyricism as well as a refreshing transparency.

Every aspect of her astounding virtuoso technique is in evidence, as is her musicianship.

But why do we get the Bizet-Horowitz “Carmen” Variations, Saint-Saens’ “Danse Macabre” a la Horowitz and a transcription of Strauss’ “Tritsch-Tratsch” Polka? But do we really need another Horowitz (bel0w)?

Junk food and empty calories may be fun. But they are a terrible thing on which to waste such a major new talent. And this kind of repertoire just plays into the perception of Wang as a beautiful and well-dressed light-weight,more glitz and glamor than substance — which is NOT the case.

This is definitely NOT a CD The Ear will want to put on and listen through, though I occasionally might want to hear a piece or two at a time.

So I am still waiting for the concept album that her consummate skills – and her fans – deserve. I say Let Yuja be Yuja.

In short, The Ear gives this CD an A-plus for pianism and a D-minus for music.

Let’s hope the DG guys in Artists and Repertoire department let Wang do something more substantial in her next outing, though my bets are on the Prokofiev Third Concerto – coupled to a Prokofiev Sonata – which she recently performed and which is perfectly suited to her, as recent reviews proved again:

We’ll see what lies in the future.

In the meantime, stick to her first three CDs – etudes and themes and variations by Ligeti and Brahms plus big sonatas by Chopin and Liszt and concertos by Rachmaninoff — and you won’t go wrong.

What do you think of Yuja Wang and her other recordings?

What do you think of this latest recording?

The Ear wants to hear.

Classical music news: Michigan-born composer Kevin Puts wins the Pulitzer Prize for his World War I opera “Silent Night” two weeks after the Madison Symphony Orchestra performs his “Inspiring Beethoven.” Listen to excerpts of both here.

April 19, 2012

By Jacob Stockinger

Some people in Madison complain about not hearing enough contemporary or new music.

But the reality is that we get to hear a fair amount of new music.

The acclaimed Lincoln Trio last week performed works by living women composers, including UW composer Laura Schwendinger, on the UW School of Music’s Guest Artist series.

And this week, the Pro Arte String Quartet (below) will perform the fourth world premiere – John Harbison’s String Quartet No. 5 — of a commission this season. (The FREE concert is this Saturday at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall.) The Pro Arte will have done two string quartets (Walter Mays and John Harbison, who is another Pulitzer prize winner) and two piano quintets (Paul Schoenfield and William Bolcom.)

Then there is the UW Contemporary Chamber Ensemble, which this week performed the music of John Harbison (below) and UW alumnus Steven Burke. And this weekend the Madison Chamber Choir is giving the world premiere of a vocal work by San Francisco composer David Conte.

Plus, the Madison chapter of Classical Revolution and New Music Everywhere (NEW MUSE) have already played contemporary works this season.

I’m sure there are more I haven’t mentioned.

But perhaps the most newsworthy or timely performance occurred over the first weekend in April when the Madison Symphony Orchestra under John DeMain gave three performances of “Inspiring Beethoven” – based on Ludwig’s famous Symphony No. 7 — by the young Michigan-born, Yale-trained composer Kevin Puts (below).

And now – just this week — comes news that Puts has won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for music for his opera “Silent Night” (below, in a photo by Michal Daniel for the Minnesota Opera) about the temporary, unofficial Christmas Truce between the Germans and the Allies during World War I.

Talk about being timely!

So here is link to a story with excerpts, about the work and the composer:

And here is link to another story about Puts and his Michigan roots:

So, here is a shout-out by The Ear to Maestro John DeMain (below, in a photo by James Gill) and the Madison Symphony Orchestra for making such a prescient and pertinent choice.

Congratulations to all.

And maybe the Madison Opera, where DeMain is the artistic director, will stage a production of “Silent Night” in the not too distant future.

Unfortunately, it was during spring break and I wasn’t able to attend the concert, at which French pianist Philippe Bianconi soloed in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 and then the new MSO Concertmaster Naha Greenholtz turned in a reportedly outstanding performance of Richard Strauss’ tone poem “Ein Heldenleben” (A Hero’s Life).

(The other local connection, of course, is that Allan Naplan, the former general director of the Madison Opera, was at the helm of the Minnesota Opera as president and general director when it gave the world-premiere performance of Puts’ opera, but just recently announced his resignation from the post after only one year.)

Puts sure knows how to choose his material. The Christmas Truce is a popular and timely topic in a time of war and severe partisanship. You might recall when the all-male vocal group Cantus performed a similar piece, quite movingly, during the holiday season at the Wisconsin Union Theater two seasons ago. And World War I (below) plays a big role in the popular PBS Masterpiece drama series “Downton Abbey.”

Now the fact that Puts has won the Pulitzer Prize makes me all the more sorry I missed the MSO concert. But it is the kind of piece – a short curtain-raiser that is a good prelude to a real Beethoven symphony or concerto – that I expect to hear again and see programmed soon.

The performances of “Inspiring Beethoven” (below) were generally well reviewed and received, though there were some exceptions:

Here is Lindsay Christians’ review for 77 Square:

Here is Greg Hettmansberger’s review for Madison Magazine and his blog “Classically Speaking”:

Here is John W. Barker’s review of the Puts work for Isthmus:

Here is a link to Bill Wineke’s review for

What did you think of the Puts piece that tried to capture Beethoven’s creative process?

How did you find his music?

The Ear wants to hear.

Classical music datebook: The busiest week EVER in Madison features the world premiere of John Harbison’s String Quartet No. 5; requiems by Verdi and John Rutter; violinist Itzhak Perlman; and much, much more.

April 18, 2012

UPDATE: Here is the review, posted Tuesday morning, by Greg Hettmansberger for Madison Magazine and his blog “Classically Speaking” of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra‘s concert last Friday with the chamber orchestra version of Beethoven’s Ninth:

You can read others’ reviews plus my own review at:

By Jacob Stockinger

This is the busiest week EVER in Madison for classical music I can remember, and I have been living here a long time. So it may well be the busiest week ever in Madison — period.

There are so many good or great choices, that one hardly knows where to begin or end.

And that’s not even counting Earth Day weekend activities or the 2012 Wisconsin Film Festival, which will run from April 18-22 and will screen more than 150 movies in nine cinemas. And I don’t know whether the film festival will draw more audiences to concerts downtown, or whether it will cut into music audiences. (I suspect the latter.)

I may be wrong, but I challenge anyone to think of a busier week, or a week with more difficult choices.

Take a look and tell me.

You should know that I am only listing the events for Pro Arte Quartet (below, in a photo by Rick Langer), which wraps up its centennial season. For a fuller description and other information, visit these other links and this earlier post from last week:

And here are some other links to the Pro Arte Quartet and John Harbison events:


Today from 4 to 5:30 p.m. in Room 1351 of the Mosse Humanities Building, 455 N. Park St., American composer John Harbison (below) will discuss his recent music and new String Quartet No. 5 in a public composition master class as part of the Pro Arte Quartet’s Centennial. Free.


From 9 a.m. to 11:45 a.m. in Mills Hall, Mosse Humanities Building, 455 N. Park St. there is an open rehearsal by the Pro Arte Quartet (below, rehearsing) with composer John Harbison for the world premiere of his Quartet No. 5 for the quartet’s centennial concert on Saturday night, April 21, at 8 p.m. in the Mills Hall of the Mosse Humanities Building, 455 North Park St. Free.

At 7:30 p.m. in Overture Hall, superstar violinist Itzhak Perlman will perform a recital of Brahms (Sonata Movement, Violin Sonata N.2 and Three Hungarian Dances plus Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 2). Tickets are $40.50-$89.50. For more information visit:


Friday’s FREE Noon Musicale, from 12:15 to 1 p.m. in the Landmark Auditorium (below) of the First Unitarian Society Meeting House, 900 University Bay Drive features violinist Leanne League and pianist Dan Broner in Brahms’ Violin Sonata No. 1. For information, call 608 233-9774 or visit

From 4 to 5:30 p.m. UW School of Music Colloquium in Room 2650 in the Mosse Humanities Building, 455 N. Park St. Public lecture-discussion by UK musicologist Tully Potter (below) on early 20th-century European string quartets. Free.

At 8 p.m. in Overture Hall, the UW Choral Union and UW Symphony Orchestra (both below in Mills Hall), conducted by Beverly Taylor perform Verdi’s  “Requiem” with soloists Shannon Prickett, soprano; Marion Dry, mezzo-soprano; Aldo Perrelli, tenor; and Tony Dillon, bass.

Tickets are  $10, $15, $20 and $25 through Overture Center Box Office, (608) 258-4141 or

The UW Choral Union comprises 175 voices and Symphony Orchestra has about 85 members.  Antiphonal trumpets will be positioned in box seats above and in front of the stage. The Requiem will be sung without intermission and lasts approximately 90 minutes.  This concert marks the first time Choral Union has performed the Verdi work since May 1999 at the Stock Pavilion.

For more information, visit:

At 8 p.m. at First United Methodist Church, the Madison Chamber Choir will celebrate its 20th anniversary with a concert of 20th and 21st century works.  Under the sure direction of Anthony Cao, the choir will perform the Frank Martin Mass for Double Choir.  They will also give the world premiere of a piece commissioned especially for the occasion:  “O Setting Sun” by San Francisco composer David Conte (below).  For information, visit:


From 3 to 5 p.m. in the Chazen Museum of Art, 750 University Ave. UK musicologist Tully Potter will lecture on “Four Famous Belgians: The Quatuor Pro Arte (below, in 1940).” It will be followed by a question-and-answer session. Free. (Pre-concert cocktails and a dinner 5-6:45 with composer John Harbison and UK musicologist Tully Potter in the Chazen Museum of Art, are optional ($35) by calling (608) 265-ARTS or going to

At 3:30 p.m. Morphy Hall this year’s Beethoven Piano Competition Winners will perform a FREE concert with a reception.

Aelin Woo, a senior, will peform the Sonata in D Minor, Op. 31, No. 2 “Tempest”; Jonathan Thornton, a first-year doctoral student, will perform Sonata in E Major, Op. 109; and Sung Ho Yang, a second-year doctoral student, will perform the Sonata in B-Flat Major, “Hammerklavier,” Op. 106.  All three are currently studying with professor Christopher Taylor.

The annual competition is sponsored by Chancellor Emeritus Irving Shain. 

At 4 p.m. in Mills Hall:  Women’s Chorus (below) and University Chorus, directed by Sarah Riskind and Russell Adrian.  Free admission.

At 8 p.m. in Mills Concert Hall of the Mosse Humanities Building, 750 University Ave. will be the last of the four concerts by the Pro Arte Quartet with the WORLD PREMIERES of commissioned works: The Pro Arte Quartet will perform Haydn’s String Quartet in C Major, Op. 54, No. 2 (1788); the world premiere of John Harbison’s String Quartet No. 5 in 10 short movements (2011); and Cesar Franck’s String Quartet in D Major (1889). (Pre-concert events with introductions to composer John Harbison and British critic Tully Potter and with questions from the audience will be held free from 7-7:30 p.m. There will be a free post-concert dessert reception at the nearby University Club, 803 State St., immediately following the concert.) Free.

At 7 p.m. in the Oakwood Village Auditorium West, 6209 Mineral Point Road, the Oakwood Chamber Players (below, in a photo by Bill Arthur) will close out is season when it performs a special Earth Day concert with a Beethoven trio as well as Dvorak’s “Cypresses,” Franz Schrekers “Der Wind” and Carter Pann’s “Summer Songs.”


Individual ticket prices are $20 for adults, $15 for seniors and $5 for students. Tickets can be purchased at the door. For any questions about the concerts please visit or call (608) 230-4316.

The Oakwood Chamber Players is a professional musical ensemble proudly supported by Oakwood Village and the Oakwood Foundation in collaboration with Friends of the Arboretum, Inc. All perform actively in the Madison area with the Madison Symphony Orchestra, Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and an eclectic mix of other professional ensembles. The Oakwood Chamber Players have been performing at Oakwood Village since 1984.

At 8 p.m. in the historic Gates of Heaven Synagogue, 300 East Gorham Street in James Madison Park, the Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble presents a concert of vocal and instrumental music.

The program includes J.S. Bach’s “The Art of the Fugue,” Contrapunctus 1-11; plus music by Monteverdi, Abel and Montéclair.

Tickets at the door $15 ($10 students).

Performers includes Edith Hines and Eleanor Bartsch, baroque violin; Marika Fischer Hoyt, baroque viola; Eric Miller, viola da gamba; Consuelo Sañudo, mezzo soprano; Anton TenWolde; baroque cello; and Max Yount, harpsichord.

For more comfort, feel free to bring your own chair or pillow. For more information 238-5126 or visit, or visit


From 12:30 to 2 p.m. in Brittingham Gallery III of the Chazen Museum of Art, 750 University Ave. “Sunday Live From the Chazen” will feature part of the Pro Arte Quartet’s Saturday night concert, including the second performance of John Harbison’s String Quartet No. 5. The event will be broadcast live over Wisconsin Public Radio (WERN 88.7 FM). Call 263-2246. Free.


At 2:30 p.m. in the St. Joseph Chapel at Edgewood college, 1000 Edgewood College Drive, mezzo-soprano Kathleen Otterson (below) will sing a program called “Life is a Cabaret.”

Admission is $7 to benefit music scholarships

Among the many works listed are those of Benjamin Britten, Stephen Sondheim, Marc Blitzstein, Johannes Brahms, Kurt Weill, George Gershwin, Christine Lavin, and Cole Porter.  The $7 admission benefits music scholarships at Edgewood College.

At 3 p.m. the new Atrium Auditorium (below, in a photo by Zane Williams) of the First Unitarian Society presents, 900 University Bay Drive, an All-Music Sunday will feature “Requiem” by the English composer, John Rutter (b. 1945) with the Society Choir with guest singers and instrumentalists. The program will also include Rutter’s “Suite Antique” for flute, strings and harpsichord.

A Free Will Offering will be accepted.

The Society Choir will be joined by solo soprano Heather Thorpe; Tyrone Greive is the Concertmaster, and Dan Broner, Music Director of First Unitarian Society, will conduct.  Flutist Marilyn Chohaney will be featured soloist in the “Suite Antique.”

For more information call (608) 233-9774.

At 4 p.m. in Mills Hall, the UW Trombone Choir, directed by Mark Hetzler (below, in a photo by Katrin Talbot) and the UW Tuba-Euphonium Ensemble, directed by Matthew Mireles, will perform.  Free admission.

At 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall, the University of Iowa Center for New Music, directed by David Gompper (below), will perform s FREE concert.

The program includes “Hiking on the Cascade Creek Trail” (2012) for solo percussion by Zach Zubow, a Ph.D. composition student at the University of Iowa; “Croquis” for string trio (1976-80) by Jeremy Dale Roberts, recently retired as head of composition at the Royal College of Music, London; “Musica segreta” for piano quartet (1996) by David Gompper; the premiere of “Mirage of the Mountains” (2012) for chamber ensemble by Zach Zubow; and “Chamber Symphony No. 1” (1992) by John Adams, one of the best known and most often performed of America’s composers.

Classical music review: Madison Bach Musicians deliver splendid period performances of two cantatas and a motet by J.S. Bach

April 17, 2012
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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

Performers and audiences alike braved parking problems and high humidity for a concert of sacred music by the Madison Bach Musicians’ namesake composer.

J.S. Bach’s achievements as a religious composer are most readily identified with his four surviving major works–the two Passions, the Mass, and the Christmas Oratorio. Devout concert performances of these masterpieces are regularly given as sacral events.

But the true heart of the work by Bach (below) in this sphere is what survives of his vast output of cantatas, mostly composed to fulfill his weekly obligations in Leipzig. In them Bach explored varieties of spiritual expression with wide-ranging inspiration. They were, however, designed for church ritual use that is no longer alive, leaving this great body of his creation (almost 200 items preserved out of some 300) without a ready and conventional performing venue.

Presenting these cantatas has been one of the MBM’s long-term commitments, and it has logically given them not in secular concert settings but in current church facilities. This latest program was thus presented in the welcoming setting of Grace Episcopal Church (below) on the Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon. (I attended the latter.)

Artistic director Trevor Stephenson rightly addressed his selections with the kind of intimate forces Bach so often used, with only one singer and player per part.

Thus, the vocal quartet of soprano Emily Birsan, countertenor Joseph Schlesinger, tenor Daniel O’Dea, and bass David Govertsen were partnered by oboist Luke Conklin, violinists Kangwon Kim and Alicia Yang, violist Marika Fischer Hoyt, and cellist Anton TenWolde, with Stephenson on harpsichord, all using period performing techniques.

Two full cantatas were presented: BWV 32, “Liebster Jesu, mein Verlangen” (a dialogue between the devout soul and Jesus), and BWV 22, “Jesus nahm zu sich die Zwölfe”  (Jesus Takes On The Twelve Disciples) intended for the Sunday before Lent and composed as Bach’s “demo” in his job application for Leipzig. Both scores include lovely obbligato work for oboe, played with stylish sensitivity by Conklin (below).

Each of the four singers (below) was satisfying and able, though Birson’s clear and powerful voice rang out with special glory, while Govertsen delivered truly commanding bass sonority. (Below, from left, are soprano Emily Birsan, countertenor Joseph Schlesinger, tenor Daniel O’De, and bass David Govertsen.)

It was not the cantata form, but a less-familiar category of Bach’s sacred writing that was represented in closing, via one of his six surviving “motets.” These were composed often for funerals or civic occasions, and feature no explicit solo sections but call rather for vocal ensemble throughout.

Such works are too easily reckoned today as “choral” pieces, but performance by simple vocal consort is at least equally plausible. Stephenson offered the best case I have encountered for the one-per-part approach, at least in “Lobet den Herrn, alle Heiden.” This is not only the shortest of the lot, but the only one for which a full continuo part is written out. The vocal writing, too, is highly soloistic within the ensemble structure, so that this “chamber” approach was brilliantly convincing.

As a kind of pre-encore, Kim and Yang (right and left, respectively, below) opened the second half by playing a brief, three-movement duo-sonata by French composer Jean-Marie Leclair.

This is “cutting edge” Baroque performance work by any standards anywhere, and Madison is among few cities blessed in having a group like Stephenson’s MBM to represent it.


Classical music review: Is there a better way to end a season than with Beethoven’s Ninth? Not if you judge by the outstanding success of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra.

April 16, 2012

By Jacob Stockinger

Is there a better way to end a classical music concert season than with Beethoven’s iconic Ninth Symphony?

I don’t think so.

And it seems I am not alone.

At least not if you judge but the outstanding results of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra’s concert on Friday night in the Overture Center’s Capitol Theater.

First off, the concert drew a rare sold-out house of about 1,000 – a large and appreciative audience that rose immediately to its feet for a prolonged, and well deserved, standing ovation at the end of the epic Beethoven work.

Music director and conductor Andrew Sewell put together a talented ensemble that featured an expanded orchestra, the Festival Choir of Madison combined with the newly formed Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra Chorus plus four very talented and well-matched soloists (below): soprano Michelle Areyzaga; mezzo Jamie Van Eyck; tenor Robert Bracey; and bass-baritone Timothy Jones.

The program was pure Sewell, a New Zealand-born Anglophile and Francophile who likes to explores the edges of the known repertoire and is not afraid to venture beyond his ease with and mastery of the Classical-era style of Viennese masters Haydn, Mozart, Schubert and Beethoven. You almost always come away from a Sewell program with some new and unknown work in your mind and ears.

Before performing the Beethoven, one of the best-known works in the repertoire, he performed one of the least-well known: Gerald Finzi’s “Dies Natalis.” Composed in six movements, “The Day of Birth” cantata may sound more like a Christmas piece, but it proved perfectly suited to springtime as a the time of rebirth and renewal. Even a similar text about joy is close to Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” that Beethoven used in the final movement of his symphony.

Finzi writes haunting and poignant string parts; and the solo tenor part was delivered with immediacy and emotion, as well as great tone, by the tenor Robert Bracey (below left, with Sewell on the right).

Then, after intermission it was on to The Ninth.

One usually hears more massive forces perform the legendary Beethoven. But I found it refreshing to hear the smaller chamber orchestra and choruses. The texture had a clarity that allowed much more transparency in the call-and-response between different sections. The woodwinds particularly came through the strings, brass and percussion.

Most listeners focus on the choral ending, which always and justly impresses with its singing by soloists and chorus.

But this time I found the first movement absolutely riveting. By using a brisk tempo; by focusing of the rhythmic motif of the dotted note; and by using sharp attacks to emphasize the silence between dramatic chords and passages, Sewell (below) added dramatic cohesion to the first movement, something it often lacks. The first movement often seems to me to wander or meander; not this time. It possessed a tight structure and pulse that carried you along with its logic.

Make no mistake: The Ninth is a very hard work to perform — for conductor, for instrumentalists and for singers. There were a few moments that needed just a bit more something – more sharpness and punch in the opening measures of the scherzo, which can easily get away from the players; or even a bit more silky and songful lyricism in the adagio to set up the frenzied opening of the final movement. But those are very minor and subjective quibbles.

This was a deeply moving and convincing performance that marks a new era for the WCO, a performance that spoke to people. Beethoven and Schiller’s populist plea for brotherhood and joy seemed especially fitting, with the state Capitol in sight and with the upcoming recall elections looming – something Sewell couldn’t have known when he first programed it and when protestors filled the Capitol Square and the Capitol (below).

In any case, Beethoven’s Ninth is a BIG work. So this successful performance of it marked a milestone undertaking in the history of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, which had never before performed it.

Now 11 seasons into his tenure, Sewell has brought the WCO to a new plateau. It is playing at a higher level. It is garnering more praise than ever before. It is performing in a home venue. It is booking terrific soloists. It is programming more ambitious works. And it is putting its stamp, through Sewell’s own distinctive philosophy of eclectic programming, on a very crowded local classical music scene.

That is a lot of joy to be celebrated.

And celebrated it was — at a season’s-end post-concert reception (below) but  mostly in the music itself.

Here are links to other reviews of the concert:

Here is John W. Barker’s for Isthmus:

Here is Lindsay Christians’ review of 77 Square (The Wisconsin State Journal and The Capital Times):

Here is Greg Hettmansberge;rs review Madison Magazine an this blog  “Classically Speaking”:

Here is Bill Wineke’s review for Channel 3000:

Classical music: There is more to conducting than just waving your arms and pointing your fingers. The New York Times, the Juilliard School of Music and New York University’s Movement Lab offer a revealing deconstruction of a maestro’s movements and motions.

April 15, 2012
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By Jacob Stockinger

One of the most exciting and informative classical music stories to appear in a long time is the recent story about what the movements of an orchestra conductor mean.

The conductor is question was the New York Philharmonic Orchestra’s music director Alan Gilbert.

Thanks to the Juilliard School of Music, where Gilbert heads up the conducting program, and to New York University’s Movement Lab and its motion-capture computerized graphics, Gilbert was recorded conducting and then explaining what the movements mean.

It is like taking a mini-seminar is an art that takes many years to master, and even then some conductrors obviously do it much better than others. Some conductors — like Leonard Bernstein — flamboyantly sand dangerously danced around a lot on the podium while other conductor — like Fritz Reiner and Herbert van Karajan — were known for an almost total economy of movement.

Here is a link to the terrifically inventive, well researched and well written story by Daniel J. Wakin of The New York Times:

It is fun to take in because it is printed and also an interactive video with highlighted comments by conductor Gilbert (below). Take a look:

And here is a link to a background story and video about how it was made in the lab. It is a fascinating and illuminating explanation that suggests we can expect a lot more in the future of seeing technology illuminate art:

Classical music: Phenom pianist and fashion plate Yuja Wang opens up to The New York Times about her artistic goals and her personal lifestyle.

April 14, 2012

By Jacob Stockinger

I will admit it: I am a big fan of Yuja Wang (below).

I find her playing assured and her stupendously fluid technique superb (see the bottom). I like her buoyant and infectious self-confidence. And I find her visual presence quite lovely and spicy, even edgy with the exactly the right kind of youthful energy that classical music needs right now to revitalize itself to a largely visual generation.

So I was particularly pleased to read a long profile written by Vivien Schweitzer of The New York Times.

In it, Wang explains a lot about her background and development as a pianist and as a public figure. It is hard to believe, for example, that a young performing artist with such charisma often finds herself lonely. But she admits that with the same openness that shows in her playing and in her stage presence.

Most of all, I enjoyed how unapologetic Wang is about her career and her treatment in the press, which has not always been kind or generous, especially about her sexy, provocative or even controversial manner of dressing for a concert, whether it is an orange micro-skirt or black gown with a thigh-high slit:

I also liked her relaxed attitude towards her own career – that is, she will enjoy it while she can and not worry about the future!

So I offer this to lots of others fans in the hope that also like it, and to those who aren’t fans in the hope that they might be persuaded.

Time and history, of course, will have the final say. But it seems to The Ear that we are in the presence of a major pianistic talent when we listen to Wang. Sure, she needs time to mature as a musician – and she admits as much is discussing the music of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven. But she has already come a long way and she probably has a lot of time for the maturing part.

But read this profile, listen to her recordings and decide for yourselves.

Classical music: On Friday the Thirteenth, can you name the 13 most bizarre and unlucky deaths of classical composers?

April 13, 2012

By Jacob Stockinger

Here’s a timely little quiz for today, Friday the Thirteenth, and it legendary status as a Day of Bad Luck.

Can you name 13 composers of classical music who died bizarre or unlucky deaths?

Here is a link to the answers with pictures, detailed stories and video clips of performances of their music:,the-13-strangest-composer-deaths-in-classical-music.aspx?utm_source=feed&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=Limelight+All+Articles+feed

Good luck and enjoy.

And let The Ear know if you know of any others who should be on the list.

Classical music news: Get ready for John Harbison Week and Pro Arte Quartet Week, with FREE events and concerts, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison

April 13, 2012

By Jacob Stockinger

There is a lot of classical music going on next week– to say nothing of the annual Wisconsin Film Festival.

But the biggest series of event involves the final of this season’s four concerts and four world premieres, with accompanying lectures and master classes, celebrating the centennial of the University of Wisconsin’s Pro Arte String Quartet (below, in a photo by Rick Langer).

The guest lecturer for the week with be the Scotland-based Tully Potter, perhaps the world’s foremost authority on the history of recordings.

So get out your datebooks and pencil in — or, better yet, ink in — various events almost of all of which are free and open to the public.

There are many events to go to, but the centerpiece will be on Saturday, April 21, when the composer John Harbison (below) will be present tp hear the world premiere of his String Quartet No. 5.

Here is a link to the detailed story and UW news release about the April 21 Pro Arte Concert, which features works by Haydn, Franck and the world premiere of John Harbison’s String Quartet No. 5 (in 10 short movements):

Or you can visit Pro Arte websites:

For background on the composer John Harbison, who in summer co-directs the nearby Token Creek Chamber Music Festival and who has won the Pulitzer Prize and a MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant” among many other honors, visit:

This is part of  the season-long celebration of the UW-Madison Pro Arte Quartet’s Centennial, in residence at the UW since 1940, when they were exiled by World War II from their home in Belgium while on tour in the US. The Pro Arte Quartet (below, in 1940) is the first string quartet in history to reach 100 and has commissioned two new string quartets and two new piano quintets to premiere to mark its centennial. ALL EVENTS ARE FREE AND OPEN TO THE PUBLIC.

Tuesday, April 17, 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall of the Mosse Humanities Building, 455 North Park St. The UW Contemporary Chamber Ensemble (below, under the direction of UW composer Laura Schwendinger, performs works by John Harbison and others. Free.

Wednesday, April 18, 4-5:30 p.m. in Room 1351 of the Mosse Humanities Building, 455 N. Park St. American composer John Harbison will discuss his recent music and new String Quartet No. 5 in a public composition master class as part of the Pro Arte Quartet’s Centennial. Free.

Thursday, April 19, 9 a.m. to 11:45 a.m. in Mills Hall, Mosse Humanities Building, 455 N. Park St. Open rehearsal by the Pro Arte Quartet with composer John Harbison for the world premiere of his Quartet No. 5 for the quartet’s centennial concert on Saturday night, April 21, at 8 p.m. in the Mills Hall of the Mosse Humanities Building, 455 North Park St. Free.

Friday, April 20, 4-5:30 p.m. UW School of Music Colloquium in Room 2650 in the Mosse Humanities Building, 455 N. Park St. Public lecture and discussion by UK musicologist Tully Potter on early 20th-century European string quartets. Free.

Saturday, April 21, 3-5 p.m. in the Chazen Museum of Art (below), 750 University Ave. Lecture by Tully Potter on “Four Famous Belgians: The Quatuor Pro Arte.” It will be followed by a question-and-answer session. Free. (Pre-concert cocktails and a dinner 5-6:45 with composer John Harbison and UK musicologist Tully Potter in the Chazen Museum of Art, are optional ($35 per head, deadlines of making a reservation is Monday) by calling (608) 265-ARTS or going to

Saturday, April 21, at 8 p.m. in Mills Concert Hall of the Mosse Humanities Building, 750 University Ave. Last of the four concerts with the WORLD PREMIERES of commissioned works: The Pro Arte Quartet will perform Franz Joseph Haydn’s String Quartet in C Major, Op. 54, No. 2 (1788); the world premiere of John Harbison’s String Quartet No. 5 in 10 short movements (2011); and Belgian composer (below) Cesar Franck’s String Quartet in D Major (1889). (Pre-concert events with introductions to composer John Harbison and British critic Tully Potter and with questions from the audience will be held free from 7-7:30 p.m. There will be a free post-concert dessert reception at the nearby University Club, 803 State St., immediately following the concert.) Free.

Sunday, April 22, from 12:30 to 2 p.m. in Brittingham Gallery III of the Chazen Museum of Art, 750 University Ave. “Sunday Live From the Chazen” will feature part of the Pro Arte Quartet’s Saturday night concert, including the second performance of John Harbison’s String Quartet No. 5. The event will be broadcast live over Wisconsin Public Radio (WERN 88.7 FM). Call 263-2246. Free.

Classical music Q&A: What makes J.S. Bach’s cantatas so great? Bach used all his many skills and re-invented himself weekly, says Trevor Stephenson of the Madison Bach Musicians, who will perform two cantatas and a motet this Saturday night and Sunday afternoon at Grace Episcopal Church.

April 12, 2012
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By Jacob Stockinger

One of the delights of each concert season for the past few years has been to hear J.S. Bach’s cantatas performed by the early music group the Madison Bach Musicians (below), founded and led by Trevor Stephenson, a keyboardist and conductor who trained at Cornell University under the renowned keyboardist Malcolm Bilson.

Stephenson opts for the much smaller ensembles (below) that scholars now say was closer to Bach’s original groups than for larger choruses. As a result the music has a transparency that moves the mind and stirs the heart.

This weekend features two performances at Grace Episcopal Church on the Capitol Square at 116 West Washington Avenue: At 8 p.m. on Saturday night and on Sunday afternoon at 3:30 p.m.  Both performances are preceded at 7:15 p.m. and 2:45 p.m., respectively, by a lecture given by Stephenson, who is a thoroughly engaging, accessible and witty explainer.

The all-Bach program features Cantata BWV 22 – “Jesus nahm zu sich die Zwölfe”; Cantata BWV 32 – “Liebster Jesu, mein Verlangen”; and the Motet BWV 230 – “Lobet den Herrn, alle Heiden.”

Soloists are UW-Madison trained soprano Emily Birsan and bass David Govertsen, both of whom currently sing at the Lyric Opera in Chicago. The countertenor, Joseph Schlesinger (who now lives in Chicago) has toured Europe for many years as an early music specialist; the tenor, Daniel O’Dea is outstanding and is working on his DMA at UW under Jim Doing.

For more information, visit or phone 608 238-6092

Advance ticket prices are: $20 General, $15 Students/Seniors (over 65).
Tickets at the door: $25 General, $20 Students/Seniors.
Cash or checks only. Make checks payable to Madison Bach Musicians. (Only cash or check are accepted; no credit cards.)

Advance tickets can be purchased at 

Orange Tree Imports; Farley’s House of Pianos; A Room of One’s Own; Ward Brodt Music Mall; and  Willy Street Co-op, East and West locations.

Trevor Stephenson (below) recently talked to The Ear about the Bach cantata project and the upcoming performances:

Why do you focus on the Bach cantatas and what are MBM’s plans for the cycle?

I like the Bach Cantatas because in them he brings everything to the table—they are the ultimate fusion of his spirit and intellect: a tenacious, enduring faith joined with an astonishingly original musical craft.

More than 200 of Bach’s Cantatas have survived (though he wrote probably more than 300) and somehow every one of them is unique—cut from a fresh block of marble.

Since many were written during a period when he was composing one per week, you could say with a good degree of sureness that Bach (below) really did re-invent himself every week!

Can you walk us a bit through each piece and tell us what to listen for?

On this concert we’ll perform “Jesu, nahm zu sich die Zwoelfe” a Cantata Bach composed specifically for his audition at Leipzig in early 1723. As we all know, he did get the job, and upon moving to Leipzig that year, plunged into his most intense period of Cantata creation during the next four years.

This Cantata begins with Jesus calling together the 12 disciples to tell them that they will all travel to Jerusalem “so that what has been written of the Son of Man will be fulfilled.” The disciples do not comprehend what Jesus is saying (primarily, that he will be crucified).

At that point the narrative really ceases and the soul takes over (in the guises of an alto solo, an extensive bass recitative (by David Govertsen, below), and a tenor aria) all developing the idea that one should now truly try to understand what the disciples at that time could not—that Jesus’ love for humanity was boundless, and that through his example we should strive to live properly and fully.

The melodic writing and texture of this Cantata foreshadows the St. Matthew Passion which Bach would complete just four years later and which he may have been working on already; indeed the narrative part of the St. Matthew Passion also opens with the scene in which Jesus unexpectedly announces the departure for Jerusalem.

And the other cantata?

Also on this program, we’ll perform BWV 32 “Liebster Jesu, mein Verlangen” (Dear Jesus, my longing). Composed for the first Sunday after Epiphany in January of 1726, it opens with one of Bach’s most elegant arias in which the soprano and obbligato oboe lines weave about each other in what seems like a miraculous improvisation—though of course Bach writes everything out in careful detail.

This is certainly one of my, what we call, “desert island” pieces–if you were sent to a desert island and could only take a few pieces, what would they be?

We’re delighted that baroque oboist extraordinaire Luke Conklin (below) —a graduate of the Juilliard baroque program, and now working on his doctorate at Indiana—will be joining us on this program. Bach lavishes some of the most expressive writing in the Cantatas on the baroque oboe, with its very warm and textured timbre. Luke will play several solos in the Cantatas we’ve selected for this concert.

We are also thrilled to be playing these Cantatas at Grace Episcopal Church (below, with exterior and interior photos, on the Capitol Square), which is a wonderful setting for this music both spiritually and acoustically. The sound there is reverberant and clear. The music carries, mixes, and reflects all around and yet you can still understand the words. Many spaces have one quality or the other, but Grace has both!

Where are you in the Cantata cycle and what are future plans?

With the concerts coming this weekend, Madison Bach Musicians will have performed 15 of Bach’s Cantatas (plus the B minor Mass in 2008 and the St. Matthew Passion in 2009).

Right now that puts us on a pace of about two each year (this is our eighth season).

But public interest in, and support for the project is growing quickly. In addition, the number of wonderful instrumentalists trained on baroque instruments and singers trained in the baroque style has risen dramatically even in the past decade.

So, we anticipate being able to increase the number of Cantatas we perform each year. We hope to present many, many more!

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