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. Barker also took the performance photo.
By John W. Barker
The Willy Street Chamber Players have already awakened us to Madison’s East Side as a promising new locale of our musical life. And in presenting their program in A Place to Be, the old store converted into a conversation haven at 911 Williamson Street, they have given us further reminder of that area’s lively community life and activities.
On last Saturday and Sunday afternoons, the Willys offered an hour-long program, admission-free but by reservation. (I attended the Saturday performance.)
The small space was certainly the kind of intimate venue ideal for music by string quartet: indeed, it made for virtually an in-your-face confrontation.
Four members (below) of the Willys’ core ensemble were on hand. Violinists Eleanor Bartsch and Paran Amirinazari (alternating in second and first chairs), violist Beth Larson and cellist Mark Bridges made up a well-balanced string quartet.
Their program of four works displayed anew the level of enthusiastic music-making these players have set for themselves, but also of their wide-ranging mix of repertoire.
The opening piece was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s beloved Serenade, Eine kleine Nachtmusik (A Little Night Music). As first violinist, Bartsch – who won honors at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music — set an exuberant tone for what became a newly fresh masterpiece.
The second work, Anton Webern’s early Langsamer Satz (Slow Movement), can sometimes seem too extended for its 9-minute length. But these players imparted a forward-moving pulse to its heavily Late Romantic character that made it a lovely experience. And I must say that Larson made me aware for the first time of just how significant a role the viola part has in holding together the dense texture.
The contemporary American composer Philip Glass (below) is inevitably typecast as the arch-exponent of minimalist repetition. His 9-minute String Quartet No. 2 “Company” certainly reflects such techniques, but its four short movements allow a dispersion of their effects without making them unwelcome.
I found myself impressed, too, at least by Glass’s awareness of the characters of the four instruments—their different ranges and potentials for interaction. (You can hear Philip Glass’ String Quartet No. 2 performed by Brooklyn Rider in a YouTube video at the bottom.)
Finally, Dmitri Shostakovich’s 15-minute, four-movement String Quartet No. 1, dating from 1938, revealed a composer enjoying energy and affirmation, with only traces of the deeper, darker, more introverted writing that would come about in his subsequent 13 quartets. Particularly striking was the nostalgic second movement, largely dominated by the viola, the role of which Larson brought off to eloquent perfection.
These two concerts served as mid-season reminders of the projected second summer season by the ensemble (below), to come in July. Full announcement of its program details and other news will come in a week or so. But the teasing hints about the repertoire ahead sounded fascinating. I, for one, found my mouth watering at many of them.
So you are all on notice, then, that this exciting ensemble, bursting with youthful talent, will once again bring special novelty and artistry to another summer’s musical life.