The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: A veteran reviewer bids farewell with a rave review of this summer’s last concert by the Willy Street Chamber Players and UW-Madison pianist Christopher Taylor | July 29, 2019

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By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a very special posting, the final review that will be written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker.

Barker (below), who is dealing with medical issues, is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who wrote for The Capital Times, Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who, until two weeks ago, hosted an early music show once a month on a Sunday morning on WORT-FM 89.9. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gave pre-concert lectures in Madison.

Please use the comment section to join The Ear in thanking Barker for his many years of public service and wishing him well.

By John W. Barker

I had to miss the first concert this summer by the Willy Street Chamber Players (below) on July 12; and the next one, on July 19, was cancelled because of power failures. But the final one, last Friday night, was well worth waiting for — one of the really memorable events of the year, I think.

The program, performed at the usual near East Side venue of the Immanuel Lutheran Church, 1021 Spaight Street, began with some short items.

First, there was a set of Three Nocturnes (1924) for piano trio — violin, cello and piano — by Ernest Bloch. They contain elements of the Hebraic sound that Bloch cultivated but also had their own individualities, the first two contemplative and the third marked “tempestuoso.” Interesting was Bloch’s alternating uses of muting the strings.

After this came an example of the short pieces for string quartet by the contemporary composer Jessie Montgomery, her “Voodoo Dolls” (2008). Much is packed into this five-minute piece. A few lyrical touches aside, it sounded like a hoedown gone crazy, full of quite novel sounds, including rhythmic thumping on the wood of the instruments.

All that was a curtain-raiser to the big event of the program: the Piano Quintet No. 2 in A major, Op. 81, by Antonin Dvorak. This 40-minute work is one of the composer’s best-known chamber music compositions, and one of the standouts in the whole chamber music literature.

The very opening notes of the first movement bring a flood of warm well-being.  (After hearing just that, I commented, “I haven’t felt such happiness in months.”)

The fecundity and richness of invention pervaded the entire work. For me, its high point is the second movement, in which Dvorak (below) used the Czech formula of the dumka, a kind of folk music lament that is paced slow-fast-slow-fast. (You can hear the Dumka movement, played by the Jerusalem Quartet and pianist Stefan Vladar, in the YouTube video below.)

Dvorak liked to play viola in chamber music, and so he always wrote some good things for himself. The sublime passages for viola in this movement were played with such transcendent beauty by Rachael Hauser (below) – who is leaving Madison for New York City — that I felt I was hearing the composer’s voice directly. Put simply, this was one of the greatest examples of chamber-music performance that I have ever heard.

All of the players, many of whom play in the Madison Symphony Orchestra,  of course matched remarkable skill with humane vitality and vibrancy.

And a measure of the Willys’ standards was the fact that they were able to draw as a partner no less than that magnificent UW-Madison music school pianist, Christopher Taylor (below), who also performed the same Dvorak Piano Quintet in the 1993 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, where he won a bronze medal. Much of his excellence here was demonstrated by the fact that he did not play the star, but joined with the Willys in perfect collegial integration.

This ends the Willy Street group’s fifth summer season. As a symbol of vibrancy and fresh spirit, they are among the most important of Madison’s classical music world today. They have drawn steadily growing audiences, and the house was truly packed for this concert.  We can only hope that they will continue to brighten that world in the years ahead.

I am now ending my time as a music critic. I can think of no more satisfying a final review to write than of the Willy Street Chamber Players.

Posted in Classical music
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  1. A splendid and heartening final review, John. As a choral singer you enriched so many concerts with an early discussion of the music, and then, honestly and intelligently, reviewed the concert. I always learned something from your comments. Admiration for your great love and knowledge of music is evident. Hoping the happiness you experienced from the last performance follows you.



    Comment by Sue Reget — July 30, 2019 @ 9:23 am

  2. Thank you, John Barker, for your unswerving dedication to your craft, and for the knowledgeable perspective that informs your reviews. Your work has had an extremely positive impact on the classical music scene in Madison, and you leave very big shoes to fill. You and Prospero: “But this rough magic I here abjure…”


    Comment by Marika Fischer Hoyt — July 29, 2019 @ 10:34 pm

  3. John, Many thanks for all these years of sharing your understanding of music and its history. That surely includes your legacy of 60 guides (“Prompters”) for 25 years of UWOpera, and your longtime advocacy of a favorite genius, Handel, whose work seems to be appreciated more than ever!


    Comment by Dan Shea — July 29, 2019 @ 9:28 pm

  4. John,
    Thank you for the many times you went to concerts both of noted large performing ensembles and of lesser known artists also deserving to be heard and reviewed. There undoubtedly were times you maybe didn’t feel up to attending, but went anyway and gave your thoughts to listeners of varied backgrounds. You encouraged the public to attend concerts that inspired you. Thank you for all the times you attended concerts that presenters invited you to. We wish you peace and express our gratitude for all times you shared your thoughts on the music and the performance. Please know we will miss your commentary.

    Renee Farley


    Comment by Renee Farley — July 29, 2019 @ 9:27 pm

  5. John,
    Martha and I thank you for the many years of service to the Madison music community, for your praise and generosity, as well as for being honest in your criticism.
    As they say, you are a scholar and a gentleman, and your commentary will be sorely missed by your many readers. Best wishes!


    Comment by Bill Lutes — July 29, 2019 @ 8:58 pm

  6. We’ve had our differences over some of your reviews and music in general but there is no difference in wishing you a healthy and productive retirement.

    I also loved, along with JH, the sentence in your last review that you “haven’t felt so much happiness in months.”

    May that same happiness be with you forever.


    Comment by fflambeau — July 29, 2019 @ 6:37 pm

  7. It’s rare for a local print critic of the arts to point out the weaknesses, as well as well as the successes in a performance. By doing both, you’ve educated readers open to more than a merely descriptive review, and the performers have been recipients of one person’s educated opinions. No one is required to agree, but all can grow. Thank you, John!


    Comment by Ginny Moore Kruse — July 29, 2019 @ 4:15 pm

  8. John Barker’s reviews have been a truly essential part of the Madison classical music scene. I have often learned a lot from them. He has been crucial in helping publicize some of the excellent but lesser known groups here, such as this one. He will be truly missed!


    Comment by Melinda Certain — July 29, 2019 @ 1:04 pm

  9. Dear John: You have brightened my musical world for many years, and I say many thanks! Steve H


    Comment by Steve Holmes — July 29, 2019 @ 12:37 pm

  10. Peace be with you, John W. Barker, and thank you for many years of warm-hearted and enlightening commentary. What a wonderful valedictory address!


    Comment by Johanna B Fabke — July 29, 2019 @ 10:38 am

  11. As Barker says, this concert reached heights of virtuosity and intense musicality rarely heard in Madison. I felt so lucky to be in attendance. Thanks to both the Willy St. Players ensemble and to John W. Barker: one in the ascendance and the other gracefully moving into retirement from the musical scene, both treasures.


    Comment by Stef — July 29, 2019 @ 9:53 am

  12. John, your career as a critic and teacher, your incredible fund of knowledge about music history and gift of discernment, your ability to shape lucid prose, to provide insights way beyond the depth of us amateur listeners, is an incredible enduring gift to the Madison audience. Sincere gratitude.


    Comment by Mary Gordon — July 29, 2019 @ 9:49 am

  13. I regret seeing your adieu with this column, Professor Barker, and wish you well. You are truly going out at the top of your game, and on a high note. Thank you for introducing me to some wonderful music and raising Madison’s connoisseurship with your criticism.


    Comment by Ronald McCrea — July 29, 2019 @ 9:47 am

  14. Bravo, John Barker! I hope we will still see you at concerts, and that you find listening truly enjoyable without having to think about writing a review.

    Grateful for your long history of sharing your insights, and hoping to see you at the Token Creek Festival.

    Harriet Statz

    On Mon, Jul 29, 2019 at 12:03 AM The Well-Tempered Ear wrote:

    > welltemperedear posted: “IF YOU LIKE A CERTAIN BLOG POST, PLEASE SPREAD > THE WORD. FORWARD A LINK TO IT OR, SHARE IT or TAG IT (not just “Like” it) > ON FACEBOOK. Performers can use the extra exposure to draw potential > audience members to an event. And you might even attract new rea” >


    Comment by hjtstatz — July 29, 2019 @ 9:40 am

  15. Thank you for a memorable review that makes this remarkable concert even better. 🌞


    Comment by Carol Pollis — July 29, 2019 @ 9:16 am

  16. Dear John Barker,
    Thank you for making beautiful music available to us for so many years. We value your insights and friendship.
    David Giffey


    Comment by David Giffey — July 29, 2019 @ 8:54 am

  17. Many thanks to go round — to Ear, to Professor Barker for years of both sensitive and acute reviews, to Christopher Taylor, and to the Willys, who, I agree, have brightened the music scene, big time. We’ve been musically educated and enthralled. I think we all went home in happiness Friday night. Here’s to more happiness.


    Comment by Ronnie — July 29, 2019 @ 8:25 am

  18. “i haven’t felt such happiness in months.”

    that sentence alone tells us what we owe john w. barker.


    Comment by john holzaepfel — July 29, 2019 @ 7:48 am

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