The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: What are your favorite warhorses? The Ear says warhorses need defending and performing, and also thinks Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto is far superior to his Second.

September 30, 2012

ALERT: Phenom conductor Gustavo Dudamel (below) leads the Los Angeles Philharmonic in Stravinsky‘s “The Rite of Spring” LIVE on an NPR webcast today at 5 p.m. EDT on Here he discusses the landmark work with “All Things Considered” host Robert Siegel:

By Jacob Stockinger

Just a week ago, last Sunday afternoon, I heard a stunningly good concert by the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

It was the perfect season opener and featured an all-Russian program plus a tribute to two MSO figures who died recently, principal tuba player Paul Haugan (below top) and longtime conductor and music director Roland Johnson (below bottom).

I agree with just about all my critic colleagues, who wrote very positive reviews. It was an extremely impressive and satisfying concert in so many ways.

The “Adagio for Strings” by UW composer John Stevens (below) was less emotionally wrenching than Samuel Barber’s well-known work of the same name. But that only made it more suited to the occasion. It held loss in a level gaze and didn’t sentimentalize the inevitability of death and loss. Plus, the MSO strings sounded so beautiful and so precise.

Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 1 “Classical” was performed with all the wit and spark that the neo-Classical pastiche requires. All sections showed the energetic snap the piece calls for.

And who wouldn’t be overwhelmed by the drama and fierce rhythms, the masterful orchestration and sonic beauty of The “Firebird” Suite, which showcased the entire orchestra, by Stravinsky (below).

But as for the finale, the Piano Concerto No. 2 in G Major, Op. 44, by Tchaikovsky – well I guess I find myself in the role of the dissenter filing a minority report.

MSO music director and conductor John DeMain (below, in a photo by James Gill), now entering his 19th season in Madison, programmed it at the suggestion of the soloist pianist Garrick Ohlsson. It proved to be a premiere performance in the almost century-long history of the MSO.

And I think for good reason.

One critic praised it as a deserving work and a wonderful piece. And it is true that the performance received an enthusiastic standing ovation.

But I think that reception was largely NOT for the music.

I think the audience’s reaction came from hearing a first-rate performance of a second-rate piece.

It is good once a while to hear this rarely performed work. But let’s not overdo it. It is true that the concerto does have some beautiful moments. But overall, it is ponderously long, especially in the first movement.

The second movement, a piano trio with less piano than cello and violin, was performed exceptionally well by principal cellist Karl Lavine (below top, in a photo by Katrin Talbot) and concertmaster Naha Greenholtz (tomorrow bottom). But it really can’t compare for me with the beauty of the Piano Trio in A minor by the same composer. And the final movement was disjointed, albeit virtuosic.

The virtuosic Ohlsson (below) played the treacherously difficult piano part with aplomb, confidence and conviction.

But too much of the concerto just sounded to The Ear like a reworking of passages from the more famous Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor, which has made so many careers including those of Arthur Rubinstein, Vladimir Horowitz, Sviatoslav Richter, Van Cliburn, Emil Gilels, Lang-Lang and many others.

What drive and what lyricism that earlier concerto has. It is irresistible. It changes your world. It shakes you up. It stirs you deeply. And makes you hum or sing along.

If it is a warhorse – and it truly is – it is for a good reason. Its magic never fails. It is indisputably great. It is reliable. It never fails to deliver the goods.

It was good to hear the Second Piano Concerto by Tchaikovsky (below), but more as a curiosity than as a great listening experience. The audience would really have gone wild the First Concerto, especially the hands of such a fluent and powerful player as Ohlsson. I also bet it would have meant sellouts for all three performances at a time when symphonies can use all the attendance they can muster.

Perhaps the concert could have concluded with a Rachmaninoff or Prokofiev concerto, or even the Shostakovich Second. Or the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, which like the same composer’s great symphonies, stands up to the First Piano Concerto and surpasses the Second Piano Concerto.

So I’ll be anxious to hear what other audience members have to say about Tchaikovsky’s Second Piano Concerto? Was it a great work that you liked? Or the great performance that enthralled you?

The Ear wants to hear. You be the critic.

I also want to hear what your own favorite “warhorses” are: J.S. Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins or Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons”? Beethoven’s Fifth or Ninth symphonies, or maybe his “Emperor” piano concerto? Rachmaninoff’s Second or Third Piano Concertos or his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini? Mozart’s G minor and “Jupiter” Symphonies, or perhaps his Piano Concerto in D Minor? Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony? Grieg’s Piano Concerto or Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring”? Puccini’s opera “La Boheme”? Or maybe Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 (at bottom)?

Some very experienced or even jaded listeners will call them “warhorses” and dismiss them.

But so-called warhorses get their name precisely because they are tough and reliable, and because they work. It is laudable to program beyond them, but not to ignore or dismiss them

Warhorses are usually great music that should be performed live more often, great music that will help attract new and younger audiences who might not even know them at all because, unfortunately, “warhorses” aren’t supposed to be played – and, at the risk of seeming unsophisticated, often aren’t.

Classical music: University of Wisconsin-Madison and Edgewood College student orchestras go head-to-head this Sunday afternoon.

September 29, 2012
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By Jacob Stockinger

In yet another sign of the growing conflicts and competition that inevitably occur when with a city the size of Madison has a classical music scene that keeps growing, two of the major academic institutions in Madison — the University of Wisconsin and Edgewood College — go head-to-head this Sunday afternoon.

(And that doesn’t even include Wisconsin Public Radio’s live concert broadcast of “Sunday Afternoon Live From the Chazen,” which runs from 12:30 to 2 p.m. and this week features pianist Michael Mizrahi, below, in a program of an early Beethoven sonata, Chopin’s last Mazurka and rarely heard works by newer composers such a Burke, Greenstein, Dancigers and Burke.)

The Ear bets there are many individuals, groups and families especially who would like to support both schools, both music departments. But, alas, that seems impossible.

On Sunday at 2 p.m. in Mills Hall, the UW Symphony Orchestra (below top, with the UW Choral Union) under conductor James Smith (below bottom in a photo by Jeff Miller) will perform a FREE concert. The unusual program includes “Un Sourire pour Orchestra” (A Smile for Orchestra) by Olivier Messiaen, “Sieben fruhe Lieder” (Seven Early Songs) by Alan Berg and Hector Berlioz‘s famous “Symphonie fantastique,” Op. 14.

At 2:30 p.m. on Sunday at Edgewood College, the: Edgewood Chamber Orchestra Concert will perform a concert under conductor Blake Walter (below, in a photo by John Maniaci)  in the Saint Joseph Chapel, 1000 Edgewood College Drive.

Admission is $5; free with Edgewood College ID.

Included on the program is the Overture to “Il Viaggio a Reims” by Rossini, Granville Bantock’s “Old English Suite” and Haydn’s Symphony 99 in E-flat major.

This concert is presented as part of the Year of the Arts at Edgewood College, a celebration of music, theatre and art for 2012-2013. Supporters of our Year of the Arts programming include the Kohler Foundation, BMO Harris Bank, the Madison Arts Commission, with additional funds from the Wisconsin Arts Board, Dane Arts with additional funds from the Pleasant T. Rowland Foundation, Native Capital Investment, and the Ahrens-Washburn Community Fellows Program.

Classical music: This is a big week for Madison percussionist Nathaniel Bartlett as performer and composer. Ensemble SDG performs the early music of Johann Pisendel

September 28, 2012
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ALERT: The Madison-based early music duo SDG — Edith Hines on broque violin and John Chappelle Stow on harpsichord and organ — sent the following message:  “You are invited to Ensemble SDG’s second Madison performance of the season, this Saturday, September 29, at 8 p.m. in Morphy Hall in the UW Humanities Building (455 North Park Street). Admission is FREE. Our program, “Music from Dresden in the Time of Johann Georg Pisendel,” will feature music connected to the virtuoso violinist who was concertmaster of the Dresden court orchestra in the second quarter of the 18th century.  We will play two sonatas by Pisendel himself; a sonata by Tomaso Albinoni dedicated to Pisendel; a sonata by Jean-Marie Leclair that he copied out for the court library; and a suite by Dresden court lutenist Silvius Leopold Weiss that was arranged for violin and keyboard by Pisendel’s friend and colleague J. S. Bach.  We will be performing Bach’s version of the suite with Lautenwerk, a harpsichord strung with gut strings.  For information, visit

By Jacob Stockinger

Although he has performed in his native Madison for many years, percussionist Nathaniel Bartlett (below) will come into the spotlight this week as both a performer and composer.

On Saturday at 6 p.m. in the Overture Center’s Promenade Hall, Bartlett will perform a one-hour concert of his new original music “Return Transmission” that uses three-dimensions and computer-generated sounds.

The Ear is always wary of art that requires long, technical and complicated notes or explanations, whether it is about music or wall labels at a museum. But the fact is that a lot of new and unusual music requires such explanation, which often seems part of its appeal. 

So, here are program notes:

“Nathaniel Bartlett’s performances seamlessly meld his five-octave acoustic marimba with a powerful Linux-based computer, custom computer control interfaces, a variety of hardware audio electronics, and eight loudspeakers (plus subwoofer) arranged in a cube. With the audience positioned in the center of the loudspeaker cube, an elaborate, kinetic, three-dimensional sound environment can be projected into the audience space, totally immersing the listeners in the music. In his immersive sound environments, spatialization (the positioning and movement of sounds in physical space) becomes a central musical parameter, along side of pitch, rhythm/time, timbre, and so on.

“The sound environments of Bartlett’s compositions are composed of sounds culled from many sources and techniques, including digital audio manipulations of his live marimba, digital audio manipulations of recorded acoustic sounds stored on his computer, and synthetically engineered sounds. The intricate three-dimensional sound environments of Bartlett’s works are further enriched by the use of high-definition audio (24 bit/88.2 kHz, superior to CD-quality), which allows for a significant increase in sonic nuances.

“In his performance rig, two computer monitors are used in place of a conventional music stand. The music notation, now free from the physical realm of paper and ink, is created and manipulated in real time, just as the computer-generated sounds are created and manipulated in real time.

“Bartlett designed his performance rig for maximum mobility without compromising audio quality, and has performed all across the US in a wide variety of venues, such as art galleries and museums, concert halls, dance spaces, “DIY”/”underground” spaces, and many universities and colleges. In order to present his music in its original three-dimensional, high-definition form at every performance, he always tours with all his own electronic equipment and marimba.

“Recordings of Bartlett’s original compositions and other projects — all on multi-channel, high-resolution media — can be found on Albany Records, and on his own label, Sound-Space Audio Lab.

“Bartlett performs on a Malletech Imperial Grand five-octave marimba, and uses a custom, silent (true 0dB) computer created by

“Nathaniel Bartlett was born in 1978 in Madison, Wisconsin. In addition to studying privately with marimbist Leigh Howard Stevens, he graduated from the Eastman School of Music (Rochester, NY), the Royal Academy of Music (London), and holds a doctoral degree in music composition from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He currently lives with his wife Lisa in Madison, and is a postdoctoral associate at the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery (below).

And it is the Wisconsin Institutes of Discovery, 30 North Orchard Street, across from the new Union South, that his work “luminous machine” for solo percussion will also be premiered by Justin Alexander in a FREE public  performance on Tuesday, Oct. 2 at 5:15 p.m.

For more information, visit: Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery, Town Center

Performer Justin Alexander is currently serving as Adjunct Instructor of Percussion at Troy State University in Troy, Alabama. He is the Principal Timpanist with Sinfonia Gulf Coast and a section member of the Tallahassee Symphony Orchestra, the Northwest Florida Symphony Orchestra, and currently serves as chair of the Percussive Arts Society’s Collegiate Committee.

Here are the composer’s notes about “luminous machine”:

“luminous machine — composed 2011, ca. 12 min. — is a solo percussion work focusing on separating instruments, sounds, and musical textures into binary, opposing states. Two types of implements are used to strike the instruments: hard mallets and soft mallets. Two main instrument groups are used: metal and wood.

“Within each instrument group, there is also a binary relationship. For the metal instruments, the relationship is between the sound signatures of solid instruments (triangles, threaded rods) and membrane-like instruments (gongs, bowls, metal sheet). For the wooden instruments, the relationship is between the sound signatures of solid instruments (claves) and hollow instruments (temple blocks). Finally, the piece is constructed out of two opposing rhythmic textures: metric (steady and mechanical; “digital”) and ametric (free and smooth; “analog”).

“The score for luminous machine, like all my recent compositions, uses my original notation system in order to render the musical concepts clearly and intuitively. I have included a few score excerpts below. Visit:

Classical music education: Sound Ensemble Wisconsin opens its inaugural season with a FREE concert on Saturday afternoon plus a sound installation at the Wisconsin Science Festival that runs today through Sunday at the Wisconsin Institutes of Discovery.

September 27, 2012
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By Jacob Stockinger

Sound Ensemble Wisconsin (SEW) is opening its inaugural season with the FREE concert “The Common Thread.”

SEW is taking part in the Wisconsin Science Festival through a performance and interactive sound installation, examining our relationship to music and how musicians have tapped into the power of music in different ways over time.

The sound installation, designed by SEW director and violinist Mary Theodore (below top), will be on display in the Atrium at Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery (below bottom) for the duration of the festival, from this Thursday through Sunday.

The performance will take place on Saturday, Sept. 29 at 3 p.m. in the Atrium (below) at WID. Music includes Indian Raga; Bach’s Cello Suite No. 6; Steve Reich’s “Drumming, Part One”; and Gyorgy Ligeti’s String Quartet No. 2.

Performers (below) include Vanitha Suresh, Andy Johnson, Mary Theodore, Mary Perkinson, Chris Dozoryst, Mark Bridges, and percussion group Clocks in Motion. UW Professor of bassoon Marc Vallon will also give a brief talk about Ligeti.

This concert is free and open to the public; donations are encouraged.

SEW will be accepting fabric at all performances for their community quilt, sponsored by Stitcher’s Crossing and fabricated by volunteers, to be presented and auctioned at the last concert to benefit SEW’s future programming. All are welcome to bring 5-inch square to 1/4 yard, 100% cotton fabric they’d like to share.

SEW’s mission is to share great chamber music with more people through theme-based programming, collaboration, and education while encouraging participation in an authentic performance experience.

For more information, visit:

Classical music: New contemporary percussion group Clocks in Motion will makes its FREE concert debut this Saturday night. The famed Saint Thomas Choir sings at Overture Friday night.

September 26, 2012
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REMINDER:  The 2012-13 season of the Overture Concert Organ opens Friday night at 7:30 p.m. in Overture Hall with the Saint Thomas Choir (below) from New York City. at 7:30 p.m. in Overture Hall. The Saint Thomas Choir of Men and Boys is considered to be the premiere choral ensemble of the Anglican music tradition in the United States and among the finest in the world. The program will include a variety of styles from the 16th century to the present day by composers including Thomas Tallis, J.S. Bach, William Byrd, James MacMillan, Benjamin Britten, Charles Parry, among others. Two organ solos by J.S. Bach and Dan Locklair complete the program.

Tickets are $19.50 at and the Overture Center box office at (608) 258-4141. For more information, visit or the the choir’s website, where you can listen to performance videos.

 This season the Overture Concert Organ Series also includes The Westminster Choir on Sat., Jan. 12, at 7:30 p.m.; Felix Hell, organist and Madison native and Baltimore Symphony principal trumpet Andrew Balio on Feb. 23 at 7:30 p.m.; and David Briggs on Sat., Mar. 23, at 7:30 p.m.

By Jacob Stockinger

Madison’s new contemporary percussion ensemble, Clocks in Motion (below, rehearing a work by Steve Reich in a photo by James McKenzie, is kicking off its 2012-13 season this Saturday night, Sept. 29, at 8 p.m. in Mills Music Hall on the UW-Madison campus.

Consisting of current music students and recent graduates of UW-Madison, Clocks in Motion is dedicated to the performance of modern repertoire and the commissioning of new works for percussion ensemble. Members (below, from left, in a photo by Megan Aley) are: Joseph Murfin, Brett Walter, Neil Sisauyhoat, Dave Alcorn, Elena Wittneben, Michael Koszewski and Sean Kleve.  James McKenzie is also a member.

Not only a group of exclusively percussionists, Clocks in Motion also includes pianist Jennifer Hedstrom (below top, in a photo by Dean Santarinala and conductor Matt Schlomer (below bottom, in a photo by Laura Zastrow). Scholmer, now at the Interlochen Academy, has previously worked at the UW-Madison and Edgewood College.

This FREE concert entitled “New Beginnings” features some early pieces of Steve Reich, a look towards the future with the world premiere performance of a new composition by Madison composer John Jeffrey Gibbens  entitled “Allhallows” (Prelude), and the unveiling of a new instrument, the quarimba.

Composer Gibbens (below, in a photo by Milt Leidman) wrote the following program notes:

“Allhallows (Prelude) for three Percussion is scored for Marimba supplemented by a second Marimba tuned a quarter-step flat, or Quarimba, Vibraphone, and seven tuned Gongs.  It was composed in July and August 2012 at the request of Clocks in Motion for performance in the fall of 2012.

“The title is an archaic synonym for the feast of All Saints on November 1, and for me evokes associations with the onset of winter in Wisconsin, including the commercial holiday of Halloween, the beginning of the new year in the Celtic calendar, the liturgical function of All Saints, elections, and Armistice, now Veterans’ Day.  These occasions address our sense of the closeness of uncanny events to everyday life.

“Each section of the Prelude is like a number in the program of an imaginary ceremony.  Each player gets an opportunity to address the crowd in a solo, before joining together and filing out.  I invented a nonsymmetrical pitch shape which in combination with the scoring goes beyond the limitations of both the equal tempered scale and its quarter-tone double.”

This program also features a unique composition written by Herbert Brun called “At Loose Ends.”  Written in 1974, this piece uses a large orchestra of percussion instruments including timpani, tuned cowbells, quarimba, xylophone, 12 snare drums, tam-tams, cymbals, piano, celesta, and chimes.  

With a passion for instrument building, the ensemble has constructed micro-tonal aluminium keyboards called sixxen for Xenakis’ “Pleiades” and continues to look for more opportunities to discover new expressive sounds within the percussion world.

Future concerts this season – all FREE –  by Clocks in Motion include (posters are by Dave Alcorn):

Saturday, Oct. 5, at 7 p.m.: Live at the Lobby of the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art in the Overture Center.

Sunday, Oct. 21, 2 p.m. in Mills Music Hall: George Crumb‘s “American Songbook VI: Voices from the Morning of the Earth.”  FEATURING vocal soloists Jamie Van Eyck (below top) and Paul Rowe (below bottom, in a photo by Katrin Talbot).

Saturday, Dec. 8, at 7 p.m. in Music Hall: “A Dream of Darkness” featuring the music of Karlheinz Stockhausen, Franco Donatoni, and a world premiere of a new piece by Filippo Santoro.

For a complete list of upcoming concerts, events, media, and detailed performer biographies, please visit

Here is a video previewing the upcoming season of Clocks in Motion:


Classical Music Q&A: Here is what’s happening with the Grammy-nominated Imani Winds ensemble, which opens the new Wisconsin Union Theater series in Mills Hall this Friday night.

September 25, 2012
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By Jacob Stockinger

While the historic Wisconsin Union Theater is being renovated for the next two seasons, the WUT’s concert series will be taking place at Mills Hall at the University of Wisconsin School of Music. For more information, visit:

The WUT classical season, cut back this year to four less expensive and often mixed genre crossover or fusion concerts  designed to help draw younger audiences, opens this Friday night at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall with a concert by the Grammy-nominated group the Imani Winds quintet (below, in a photo by Eddie Collins).

In addition to the concert, the Imani Winds will offer a free master class. The class, open to the public, is in Mills Hall in the Mosse Humanities, 455 N. Park St., on Thursday night at 7 p.m. The ensemble will also be interviewed on Thursday at noon on Wisconsin Public Radio’s “The Midday” on WERN, 88.7 FM.

The program for the performance on Friday night consists of both classical and original pieces, including works commissioned by the high-energy group.

They will play Jeff Scott’s “Startin’ Sumthing”; Jason Moran’s “Cane,” about the Cane River which runs through Natchitoches Parish where the composer’s ancestor, ex-slave Marie Coincoin, is fabled to have established a colony of creoles in the 1700s; and works from the group’s flutist, Valerie Coleman (below and at bottom on YouTube), “Suite: Portraits of Josephine Baker,” commemorating the remarkable life story of the African-American dancer, chanteuse, humanitarian and WW II resistance fighter, and “Tzigane.”  Then, in line with the night’s theme of “West Meets East,” the group will also perform Igor Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” and Gene Kavadlo’s arrangement of Romanian folk “Klezmer Dances.”

Tickets for the concert are $25 for the general public, $21 for Memorial Union members, faculty and staff, and $14 for young people under 18.  As always, tickets for UW Madison students are only $10 with a valid ID.  Call the Box Office at 608-265-ARTS (2787), buy online, or purchase in person at the Campus Arts Ticketing box office in Vilas Hall, 821 University Ave.

This performance is sponsored by the Wisconsin Union Directorate Performing Arts Committee and is supported in part by a grant from the Wisconsin Arts Board with funds from the State of Wisconsin. Other sponsors include the Union Theater Endowment Fund, Wisconsin Public Radio and WORT, 89.9 FM.

Clarinetist Miriam Adams (below) recently answered an email Q&A for The Ear:

Can you briefly describe the history of the Imani Winds: How it came into being? What is its mission or purpose, its special point of view or approach?

Imani Winds was just a name in the mind of Valerie Coleman, flutist, back in 1996 before she had the players. She wanted to create a group that would perhaps approach classical music from the similar ethnic and cultural background she had. The group was indeed formed without anyone but her or I knowing each other previously.

The mission also involved championing composers that were underrepresented from the non-European side of contemporary music which continues to be a platform for us. Now our mission has broadened to include collaborations, expanding the idea of what a wind quintet can sound like and bridge the gap between traditional classical audiences and pop culture audience.

What would attract audiences to hear the group (below)?

Imani Winds performances are right away noted for the synergy and chemistry between the players. Being together for almost 15 seasons helps this and it allows the music we play to come off the page more. The repertoire is definitely not your average classical standard and we play lots of music that is written for our unique personalities. There’s usually a little something for everyone on our programs.

Could you briefly comment on the pieces on the Madison program?

The Madison program is “West Meets East” in a back-and-forth of works that were created in the West (the States) and pieces that are inspired by the sounds of the East. Jeff Scott’s “Startin Sumthin'” is a down home almost tribute to Henry Mancini’s “Pink Panther” style of cool jazz.

Jason Moran’s “Cane” is a result of our Legacy Commissioning Project that presents a journey of a famed ancestor of his from Louisiana that had quite a story of perseverance. “Tzigane” by Valerie Coleman is a wild gypsy ride that was inspired by the collaborations we have had with great world musicians of the east; her suite “Portraits of Josephine” is inspired by the great ex-pat, Josephine Baker. The arrangement of “The Rite of Spring” by Stravinsky (below) has been an amazing feat that changed the way people hear the piece. Look for it and the Klezmer Dances on our next album!

What are your future plans for touring, recording, TV and radio appearances, etc.?

We are on tour almost full-time and are having quite a bit of success with our international touring in Europe and Asia. We are in residence at Sirius-XM and find a moment at least once a year to be on an NPR program, either locally or nationally.

The biggest projects for us right now are the collaborations with pianists that will take us to a commission from Chick Corea (below)  in a couple of years as well as the festival that we started in New York City during the summer, the Imani Winds Chamber Music Festival.

We have a new album coming out this season that is self-produced and a great selection of repertoire including original pieces by our own Valerie Coleman, Jeff Scott, the “Rite of Spring,” Astor Piazzolla and the Klezmer Dances.

There’s never enough time to get in all our projects at once, so it’s nice to be in a place that we can schedule things one at a time and really have a chance to dive in to each one, knowing there’s always an exciting one around the corner.

Could you comment on the state of wind music today in terms of both composition and performance? Do you commission works and arrangements?

We started the Imani Winds Legacy Commissioning Project for our 10th year anniversary, and it has been an ongoing love affair of working with living composers. It’s extremely important for the wind quintet repertoire to have a pump of fresh energy from composers that wouldn’t normally write for our instrumentation. So we have had great experiences approaching a wide variety of musicians.

We also do arrangements, many by our own composers. But in general are very picky because we always want to make sure our repertoire highlights the diversity and virtuosity of each instrument and player.

Classical music: The Madison Symphony Orchestra hits its first glorious high note of the new season with an all-Russian program plus a tribute to the loss of two of its own.

September 24, 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 MadisonEarly Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.

By John W. Barker

The Madison Symphony Orchestra opened its new season with a truly memorable program this past weekend.

It had been planned as a collection entirely of Russian music, but the mood and organization were complicated by two sad losses of recent months. One was the orchestra’s long-time and beloved tuba player, Paul Haugan (below top), and the other was Roland Johnson (below), the long-time builder and conductor of the MSO as well as the co-founder of the Madison Opera.

In their memory, maestro John DeMain opened the concert with a performance of the “Adagio for Strings” — not the famous one by Samuel Barber but the one by John Stevens (below) of the University of Wisconsin School of Music. It is easy to find initial parallels with Barber’s celebrated and moving, but basically rather simplistic piece. The one by Stevens is longer, more complex: it has an integrity of its own, and more extensive thematic growth. In short, a worthy tribute.

Then came the originally intended opener, the Symphony No. 1, popularly known as the “Classical Symphony,” by Prokofiev (below). This clever and totally enjoyable re-imagining of the idiom of Haydn and Mozart is justly familiar, and widely performed. Many conductors lean a little forcefully on the score, but DeMain seemed consciously to aim for greater lightness and deftness. Though the approach diminished the tensions of the second movement, it worked well otherwise.

For this concert, be it noted, DeMain once more shifted the second violin section behind the first, instead of opposing them. The decision was made partly to address some problems of co-ordination by the violins, in what is famously tricky string writing. The issue of the players hearing each other more effectively is important, though from the audience side I still think the firsts/seconds opposition works better sonically, as DeMain (below, in a photo by Jim Gill) had been proving in recent seasons.

To balance the program around the intermission more sensibly, with the Stevens piece added, what was intended to be the final work was shifted to close the first half of the program.

This was the Suite from Stravinsky‘s “Firebird” ballet. This suite exists in two forms: the popular 1919 version, and a longer one that Stravinsky (below) made in 1945. His logic was less musical than financial: he had lost out on full royalties for the 1919 suite, and so he made this “revision” to claim new contractual profits.

Aside from tinkerings with the orchestration, the main difference between the two versions is that Stravinsky added further segments from the original ballet. While this gives us more of the score, the additions are mainly of functional and movement-supporting stuff that is of limited musical interest and strains the patience. Better to have picked the concise 1919 version. Still, DeMain led a colorful and precisely disciplined reading.

The Big Event came as the program’s second half. It is to the credit of DeMain and some of his recent guest soloists that they have avoided warhorse concertos and given us bold rarities.

And it is to the credit of the guest soloist this time, Garrick Ohlsson, that a noble rarity was indeed set forth. Instead of the terribly overplayed Piano Concerto No. 1 of Tchaikovsky (below), we were given the Concerto No. 2.

This is a far more expansive, substantial and inventive work than the flashy but superficial No. 1. While composed in the usual three movements, it is full of experiments. There are two unusually big cadenzas woven into the first movement. The second adds solo violin and cello to play off the pianist — one thinks at times of the fabulous Piano Trio in A Minor by Tchaikovsky for this combination, so memorably played last June in the Bach Dancing and Dynamite concerts.

The orchestra in general has more of a “symphonic” role of its own. And, above all, the work is filled with magnificent melodies representative of the composer at his best.

This superb work is heard far too rarely in concerts and recordings. That may be because of its length, or because the pianist fears he is being upstaged by the other two soloists in the second movement.

There is, of course, demanding bravura solo work demanded of the pianist, and Ohlsson (below) brought it off with confident musicality. His collaboration with DeMain and the orchestra was music-making of the highest quality.

This is what concerts should be like at their best — really glorious.

EDITOR’S NOTE: All of the city’s critics generally agreed.

Here is a link to what critic Greg Hettmansberger had to same about the same concert for his Madison Magazine blog “Classically Speaking”:

And here is a link to what Lindsay Christians had to say for 77 Square, The Capital Times and The Wisconsin State Journal:

Classical music: Music and the arts should get their due from University of Wisconsin parking authorities — despite the popularity of football games.

September 23, 2012

By Jacob Stockinger

It is only the beginning of the new season and already last weekend was packed, even overloaded, with great classical music and fine performances, as I remarked last week.

There was a concert by the UW Pro Arte String Quartet; a concert by the Ancora String Quartet; two performances by the Oakwood Chamber Players; the start of Wisconsin Public Radio’s “Sunday Afternoon Live From the Chazen”; and an inaugural concert in a series to be given by gifted University of Wisconsin School of Music alumni.

Because of various commitments, I could only get to one: the concert by the Pro Arte Quartet (below) on Saturday night in Mills Hall. (But here is John W. Barker’s glowing review for Isthmus of the Ancora String Quartet’s Romantic program at the First Unitarian Society:

But what effort it took!

The UW Business School’s Grainger Hall (below), which is supposed to be the parking lot of choice for arts events – because it is close to both Mills and Morphy Halls in the Mosse Humanities Building — had been reserved in its ENTIRETY for football parking, a situation made worse by the late kickoff time of 7 p.m. I tried to park there and found it packed, just absolutely jammed.

So was the city lot between Lake and Frances Streets, where I finally and fortunately lucked out and found  one spot as someone left.

Now I realize football is popular. Go Badgers!

But many of us also like to attend other UW events.

Plus, I cannot believe that UW parking authorities can’t set aside enough parking (photo below is by Jeff Miller for UW News) to allow for good attendance at a comparatively small arts event.

But sadly, they didn’t.

And sadly there were far fewer people at the Pro Arte concert than should have been there — just look at all the empty seats, both downstairs and especially in the upper balcony and on the sides in the photos below  — for a fabulous concert of late Haydn, early Schubert and late Dvorak that deserved the prolonged and enthusiastic standing ovation it received.

Was all of the absence due to parking problems? Not at all, given competing musical concerts, both classical and non-classical, as well as other events.

But I did in fact hear many people complain about the parking problem, which also almost made me late. And I also heard some pretty complicated arrangements – early arrival, tag-team driving times and walking long distances — for how people managed to circumvent the terrible parking situation in order to attend the Pro Arte concert.

So The Ear has to ask: Can’t UW Parking do its fair share to promote and help the arts on campus? After all, parking is there to serve the university — NOT the other way around.

And there is only so much any one driver can do, despite some tips from Steve Brown Apartments (below).

What do other readers have to say? Leave your voice in the Comment section.

Maybe someone at UW Parking will get the message, pay attention and solve the problem.

Or maybe NOT.

Classical music: What piece most embodies Fall for you and do you most look forward to hearing when autumn arrives?

September 22, 2012

By Jacob Stockinger

Today, Fall arrives in the Western Hemisphere – at 9:49 a.m. this morning.

Sometimes I ask readers: What is the best piece of classical music to honor spring or fall or a certain holiday?

But music, and all art really, is really much more subjective than that.

So today I simply ask: What piece of classical music best embodies Fall FOR YOU? What musical work do you most look forward to hearing and listening to – either in a recording or a live performance – when the weather cool and Autumn arrives?

A couple of decades ago, The Ear was riding around the lovely Wisconsin countryside at harvest time, with rows of dried corn stalks in the fields. He was listening to Brahms’ three violin sonatas played by Itzhak Perlman with pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy (at bottom).

Oh, my!

Somehow Brahms – whose late works for piano, strings, winds and orchestra have often been described as “autumnal” because of the bittersweet melancholy they possess – seemed a perfect choice.


And so ever since then, when I want to take a fall ride through the countryside – and this year it seems so unfair that a cold Fall has come early, too early, on the heels of a blazingly hot, record-setting summer — I make sure to bring that Brahms CD (below) with me. Curiously, my favorite sonata  of the three changes from year to year. They all work their magic superbly. But overall, I favor the last movement of No. 1 and the second movement of No. 3.

So, tell us a similar story about you and your favorite Fall music.


It could be a well-known work or a rarely heard work.

It doesn’t matter.

It might be Vivaldi’s familiar “Fall” from “The Four Seasons” or Haydn’s “The Seasons” or Astor Piazzolla’s reworking of Vivaldi in Argentina. It could be a song or aria or choral work, a piano or string piece, chamber music or orchestral music.

We all end up with our own personal traditions of listening, made up by experience as we go along.

Just share yours with the rest of us  and help all of us enjoy the coming of Fall – even if it is a bit early this year.

Classical Music: Award-winning conductor and music educator Tom Buchhauser of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras will retire at the end of this season.

September 21, 2012

ALERT: University of  Wisconsin-Madison trombone professor Mark Hetzler (below, in a photo by Katrin Talbot) will perform a FREE concert on the Faculty Concert Series this Saturday night at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall. He will be joined by pianist Vincent Fuh, bassist Nick Moran and percussionist Todd Hammes for an evening of progressive rock, jazz and electro-acoustic modern classical music. The program will feature works by Nels Cline, Mark Engebretson, Madison composer John Stevens, Henry Cowell and the Dub Trio.

By Jacob Stockinger

For the past 30 years, cellist-conductor Thomas Buchhauser has served as an exemplary music educator for thousands of students who have played in the ranks of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras.

But at the end of the 2012-2013 season, Buchhauser will retire and bring to a close his career as WYSO’s associate music director.

In addition to his 30 seasons conducting WYSO’s Philharmonia Orchestra, Buchhauser taught at Madison Memorial High School and Jefferson Middle School from 1966-1999; played cello for Madison Symphony Orchestra for nearly 20 years; served on the faculty of the National String Workshop for 10 years; and directed ensembles for the University of Wisconsin School of Music Pre-College Institute, the Madison Community Orchestra and the Madison Symphony Orchestra’s Steenbock Young Artist Concerto Concerts. 

Buchhauser (below, conducting the WYSO Philharmonia Orchestra in a photo by Cheng-Wei-Wu) has received numerous awards for his excellence in teaching, including the Wisconsin Music Educators Conference Distinguished Service Award (1983), the National School Orchestra Association Director of the Year Award (1993), the American String Teachers Association Outstanding Service Award (1993), the Rabin Youth Arts Award (2001), and has scholarships named in his honor by the WSMA Honors Project, WYSO, and Madison Memorial High School.  In 1999, Madison Metropolitan School District named the Memorial High School auditorium the “Thomas E. Buchhauser Auditorium.”

According to a statement from WYSO, Buchhauser’s masterful conducting along with his kindness and wit have endeared him to multiple generations of students who have taken his lessons to heart. WYSO founder Marvin Rabin (below, a reception when he won a lifetime achievement award last year from the Wisconsin School Music Association) confirmed this legacy, stating, “Tom’s presence has made a positive and striking difference in the lives of so many music students and teachers. We are very fortunate and grateful that Thomas Buchhauser has contributed so profoundly to our community.”

Upon announcing his decision to retire, Buchhauser told WYSO: “I have had many teachers and experiences that have shaped my life as a musician, teacher and conductor but none so profound as Marvin Rabin’s coming to Madison in 1966 to start WYSO and David Nelson asking me to be Associate Music Director of WYSO in 1983. It has been an honor to be part of such a great organization and I will be forever grateful to WYSO for all that it has given to me.”

Here is a sample of Tom Buchhauser at work — you can find others on YouTube— conducting a 2011 performance by WYSO’s Philharmonia Orchestra of “Greensleeves”:

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