The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Willy Street Chamber Players open their second promising season with another dazzling concert of music by Mascagni, Tchaikovsky and Caroline Shaw. | July 12, 2016

By Jacob Stockinger

You had to be there to believe it.

That’s just how good the Willy Street Chamber Players are. (Actually, this season the music is being streamed live, so you don’t have to be there, and Rich Samuels of WORT-FM 89.9 recorded this concert for later airing.)

The Willys, as critic John W. Barker of Isthmus likes to call them, set themselves a high bar to clear, given the spectacular debut they made last summer in a series of July concerts that propelled them to the top of the list of classical music news in the area for the entire season.

The Ear is happy to report that in last Friday night’s opening concert of their second season, the Willy Street Chamber Players (below) met and surpassed that bar.

Willy Street Chamber Players 2016 outdoors

There was really only one small disappointment: Despite promises to bring the concert in with enough time to allow people to get over the fourth annual Handel Aria Competition at the UW-Madison, they ran late.

But at least they tried. And an effort at cooperation seems in perfect keeping with the nature of this outstanding ensemble. So do the local post-concert treats of food and sweets they offer.

Willy Street snacks 2016

The concert started with a piece that reminds one how a beautiful melody sticks in the ear and is never out of date, no matter what some modernists say.

In this case, it was the Intermezzo from the Romantic opera “Cavalleria Rusticana” (1880) by Italian composer Pietro Mascagni, as arranged for string sextet by Beth Larson (below, front left), the group’s own violist and violinist. As a welcoming opener and mood-setter, it proved a sheer delight.

Willy Steet Mascagni 2016

Let’s jump to the end, which was a stupendous reading of the Big Work: the “Souvenir de Florence” (Memory of Florence) by Peter Tchaikovsky that featured guest violinist Suzanne Beia (below, front left).

Beia, you may recall, is a concertmaster with the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra as well as member of the Pro Arte Quartet at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music. And this summer, she sizzled in her virtuosic reading of “The Four Seasons” by Antonio Vivaldi for the closing concerts of the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society. And boy, can she fiddle!

Willy Street Tchaikovsky 2016 with Suzanne Beia left

In the Tchaikovsky, there was plenty of lyricism. But the force and energy of the brisk, upbeat tempi kept the work from becoming the kind syrupy and repetitive sentimentalism that inferior Tchaikovsky playing can produce.

It was an exciting and dynamic, even thrilling, performance. The audience leapt to its feet with good reason.

But for The Ear, the standout piece was the centerpiece: the “Entr’acte” for string quartet (below) by the young American composer Caroline Shaw.

Willy Street Caroline Shaw 2016

This is The Ear’s kind of new music. Inspired by a minuet from an Op. 77 string quartet by Franz Joseph Haydn, Shaw’s work quietly pulsed and throbbed with a hypnotic rhythm. (You can hear a different performance of the work in a the YouTube video at the bottom.)

There were some dissonances and some strange sounds made by rubbing strings as well as plucking and snapping strings. But overall this was new music that had melody, rhythm and harmony, and it proved accessible on the first hearing. Plus it was short and possessed both emotion and elegance. Eat your hearts out, Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen!

The Ear hopes that the Willy Street Chamber Players continue their exploration of works by the Pulitzer Prize-winning Shaw (below) in future summer seasons and prove to be her ambassador to Madison audiences.

Caroline Shaw CR DASHON-BURTON

In any case, based on last season and now this concert the Ear has no reluctance in recommending the four concerts by the Willys that remain, three on Friday nights at 6 p.m. and one at noon.

NOTE: A word of warning is in order. Give yourself extra time to get there. Construction downtown plus major construction and street repairs on the streets around the Immanuel Lutheran Church, 1021 Spaight St., pose obstacles.

Here is a link to the rest of the season:

http://www.willystreetchamberplayers.org

All The Ear can add is that last summer’s success was no fluke.

So let’s hear a Big Bravo for the fact that the Willys are Winners!

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