The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Con Vivo turns in a polished performance of mixed and unusual repertoire, and allows a comparison of acoustics and seating distance to be made | January 20, 2016

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 for 12 years hosted an early music show every other Sunday morning on WORT FM 89.9 FM. He serves on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison. He also took the performance photos, some at the First Congregational United Church of Christ and some at the Capitol Lakes Retirement Center.


By John W. Barker

Last Friday night, the chamber music ensemble Con Vivo (Music With Life) gave its winter concert at the First Congregational United Church of Christ.

Con Vivo core musicians

It was a large program of nine relatively short pieces, designed to allow eight members of the group to show off their skills in solos, in duets and in trio pairings.

Participants were: Robert Taylor, clarinet; Cynthia Cameron-Fix, bassoon; Olga Pomolova and Kathryn Taylor, violins; Janse Vincent, viola; Derek Handley, cello; Dan Lyons, piano; and Don DeBruin, organ.

The opening and closing items—Mikhail Glinka’s Trio pathétique and Felix Mendelssohn’s Konzertstück No. 2, combined clarinet and bassoon with piano (below).

Con Vivo 2016 bassoon, clarinet and piano

A corresponding combination of clarinet, viola and piano (below) was mustered for two of Max Bruch’s Eight Pieces, Op. 83.

Con Vivo 2016 viola, clarinet and piano

In string groupings, two violins (below) played one of Georg Philipp Telemann’s Canonic Sonatas (you can hear an example in a YouTube video at the bottom), and, with piano added, Three Duets by Dmitri Shostakovich.

Con Vivo 2016 two violins

Violin and viola rendered the Little Suite for Autumn by Peter Schickele (the real person behind “P.D.Q. Bach”).

Franz Danzi’s Duet, Op. 9., No. 1, called for viola and cello (below), while George Crumb’s Sonata was for solo cello.

Con Vivo 2016 viola and cello

And, for good measure, there was a duet by Clifford Demarest for piano and organ.

Con Vivo 2016 organ and piano

The program was certainly varied. It ranged from deeply diluted pseudo-Copland (Schickele) and unabashedly entertaining trivia (Shostakovich) through Telemann’s contrapuntal wit and Danzi’s artful string contrasts (though too deeply caught up in the viola’s upper register), to the varied colors of winds and piano.

Surely the most striking piece was Crumb’s sonata, a tough work that is not easy listening but provocatively interesting, and was dazzlingly played by Handley.

Rather a throwaway, though, was the Demarest duet, in which the powerful organ sound all but totally overwhelmed the piano.

As it happened, this group gave the same program (less the Demarest) at the Grand Hall of the Capitol Lakes Retirement Center the evening before.

I found it a good opportunity to compare the contributions of differing acoustics to chamber music listening. For such experience, I like to sit very close to the players, and I could do this at the Thursday performance, and in a modestly sized hall with fine acoustics for music.

But the First Congregational Church is a long, deep hall, and I sat about halfway back in it. Its reverberations can add a nice bloom to projected sound, but also some blur.

This was certainly the case where the two wind instruments tended to meld. And when the viola was at the piano, at the back of the chancel, it almost disappeared at times, while other two-string combinations were not always crystal clear.

I have had growing concerns about First Congo as a venue for chamber music, and I should think the Con Vivo folks must think about this. And listeners should, also. Clearly, where you sit for intimate music-making has its effects.

For all that, I enjoyed the group’s program in each setting, and renewed my admiration for their artistry and enterprise.



  1. Interestingly enough, I was at the Friday evening concert at First Congo, and didn’t feel that the space was inappropriate for the music. Maybe it was because I was sitting out in the open central section of the Nave, as opposed to being under the edge of the balcony as Prof. Barker was.

    Yes, there were balance issues, but you’ll find them in any hall. For example, in the Demerast, I found the instruments as well balanced as they possibly could have been, given the power that a pipe organ has over a grand piano.

    And like fflambeau, I didn’t find any Copland in the Schickele piece, but then again, I didn’t find it dark, either. What I disliked most about it was the interruption of the flow of the music with Ms.Taylor’s ideas of what the music represented. It would have been more appropriate for those to have been printed in the program (if, indeed, they had needed to be there at all), or announced at the very beginning of the piece. The music itself was, speaking as a violist, quite lovely and lyrical. It’s something I’m going to look for to play myself.

    As for the Shostakovich being “trivia”? Nonsense!! Not all of his music has to be Sturm und Drang style (although much of it is, which is entirely understandable given the times he lived through), and hearing these duets for the first time was a treat. It would have been nice to know more about them, why they were arranged by Fortunatov (whoever he might be), and what the original scoring had been, given that they were arranged.

    My big issue with both the Telemann and the Shostakovich was the pairing of Ms. Taylor and Ms. Pomolova. I have never seen two more radically different playing styles, and it really showed in the Shostakovich.

    The Crumb Sonata was interesting, especially if one is a fan of George Crumb, but it was one I could take or leave.

    My main reason for attending this concert was the number of viola/other instrument(s) pieces on the program. Simply put, the viola doesn’t get enough spotlight time in this city, and when someone has as beautiful sounding an instrument as Ms. Vincent’s is, it’s a crying shame!!


    Comment by bratschespeilerin — January 20, 2016 @ 2:27 pm

    • Nice. Maybe “dark” was the wrong word to use. Mournful (especially the opening and third “movement”)? I agree it is a lovely composition.


      Comment by fflambeau — January 20, 2016 @ 9:18 pm

      • If you listen to the 2nd movement (part?) of the Peter Schickele piece, I think there is some Philip Glass influence in there. Both were students at Julliard at the same time.

        Especially so, if you agree with Glass, that his kind of music is not minimalism at all but instead music with repetitive patterns and structures. That can certainly be said of this whole Peter Schickele composition.

        This is a piece that grows on you and so thanks to the Con Vivo people for presenting it.


        Comment by fflambeau — January 20, 2016 @ 10:02 pm

  2. Meanwhile, Barker’s revolutionary insights into acoustics and sound–from word I’ve picked up on the street–has local musical groups rescheduling events, sound engineers scrambling for fixes, churches looking for remakes and more. It has even been reported that Barker has been signed up to a lucrative contract as a sound consultant to the new performing concert hall to be built for the UW School of Music.

    One eminent acoustic engineer, commenting on Barker’s insightful tip (“Clearly, where you sit for intimate music-making has its effects”) summed it up best: “Who would have thought this medievalist would surpass all of us who graduated from MIT and how could he come up with such an earthshaking perception without a PhD in sound engineering?


    Comment by fflambeau — January 20, 2016 @ 5:50 am

  3. It’s always a hoot to read Barker and this “review” has some nuggets that only he could write. Like this:

    “It (the program) ranged from deeply diluted pseudo-Copland (Schickele) and unabashedly entertaining trivia (Shostakovich)…”

    Sorry, I don’t hear any Copland at all in the Schickele piece: it’s far too dark for Copland. A Youtube of the piece is attached so readers can judge for themselves.

    And who but Barker would describe anything written by D. Shostakovitch as “entertaining trivia”?


    Comment by fflambeau — January 20, 2016 @ 3:21 am

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