The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music review: Sound Ensemble Wisconsin (SEW) stitches together an impressive debut with the early modernism of Bartok and Kodaly, Debussy and Ravel.

June 11, 2012

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

A new musical organization made its debut on Friday evening, June 8, in the high-tech, richly  wooded in-the-round Forum Room (below) at the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery on the UW-Madison campus.

The organization is Sound Ensemble Wisconsin (SEW), directed by violinist Mary Theodore (below). Its founding principle is “to bring more people to music by way of chamber music,” and it has already blocked out an ambitious program of some seven events over the 2012-13 season.

For its inaugural concert, a very impressive musical program was mounted. It had as an overall theme the movement in the 20th-century to build new music out of principles embedded in neglected folk traditions.

At the center of such a movement was Béla Bartók, and he became a recurrent presence in the program. Quotations from his writings were read by Wisconsin Public Radio host Anders Yocom, while three sets of pieces, drawn from his 44 Duets for Two Violins (so rooted in Hungarian folk music), were sprinkled through the program–five of them in the original scoring, four each in arrangements for viola and cello or two cellos. (Below, cellist Michael Allen and violist Chris Dozoryst perform four of the transcribed violin duos.)

Of substantial works presented, the first was Ravel’s highly charged four-movement Sonata for Violin and Cello, drawing on harmonic language with folk backgrounds, while incorporated in some very imaginative contrapuntal duetting. The other was the extended three-movement Serenade for Two Violins and Viola by Bartók’s compatriot Zoltán Kodály, a score that draws heavily upon Hungarian and Balkan folk rhythms and instrumental coloring.

The final major piece was Claude Debussy‘s great and unique String Quartet (below). For all of Debussy’s importance as a true pioneer of “modern” musical experimentation, this relatively early work of his still had strong foundations in classical traditions and structure.

The performances were all splendid. Oh, I could have wanted just a tad more intensity in the Debussy Quartet’s slow movement. But these are very challenging works, and the command of technique and the precision of ensemble throughout was of the highest artistic standards.

Six instrumentalists were involved in varied assignments: three violinists, Mary Theodore herself, Naha Greenholtz (below), and Leanne Kelso League; violist Chris Dozoryst; and cellists Michael Allen and Maggie Townsend. All are seasoned chamber music players, and all but one of them is active in our local orchestras, notably the Madison Symphony Orchestra (where Greenholtz is, in fact, the concertmaster). These are formidable musicians, suggesting the kind of top-quality talent that SEW can draw upon.

In all, this was a most impressive debut concert. The events planned for the season ahead exhibit another principle to which SEW is committed. That is, the integration of chamber music into larger themes. Thus, future concerts will explore links with sonics, with textiles, with food, with popular music and dance, and with jazz. There is even a “24-Hour Chamber Music Marathon” projected for early December.

It remains to be seen, of course, how well SEW can pursue these extra-musical associations while still offering attractive program of high-quality chamber music-making. But it will certainly bring a new dimension to Madison’s cultural scene. The organization is eager to encourage financial contributions, and general information — including its ambitiously eclectic next season — can be had from its web site:

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